The Internet amplified but did not create the bravery that freed Libya.
In July last year I traveled to Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, around 150 kilometers southwest of Tripoli, with a group of Libyan expat doctors. We helped local medical staff set up mobile field hospitals wherever an armed front arose, providing trauma care, life support, and first aid.
Resources were limited across the mountains, with supplies available only via the Dheiba-Wazin border crossing into Tunisia. Yet we had another supply line that was less tangible. Local youths set up Internet-connected media centers in almost every town to document and catalogue photographs and videos and track events in their region. The centers also acted as proxy bases for international journalists and correspondents visiting the region and helped them spread our story around the world (see “People Power 2.0”).
The media centers had basic equipment: simple PCs and digital cameras. But Libyan youths were creative, editing footage of the conflict into montages uploaded to popular YouTube and Facebook channels.
As Libyans watched Tunisia and Egypt erupt in protest, we knew that our own revolution would be less connected. Free press was nonexistent in Libya, Internet penetration was very low, and what few media outlets existed were plagued by censorship. Qaddafi’s regime underlined that by imposing a complete Internet blackout.
The blackout didn’t stop the media centers, though. Satellite equipment was used to upload footage and keep us and journalists abreast of the situation in other areas of the country. It also allowed Libyans to tell expats of major needs.
Even in these trying conditions, every medium-sized town in the Nafusa Mountains had a media center of some kind. The largest was in Zintan, where all international correspondents spent at least some time and received free food and (very slow) Internet access. One town, Nalut, even operated a radio station after taking over a building used by Saif Qaddafi, Muammar’s son, fitted with up-to-date radio studios.
The term “Facebook revolution” has become common as the international community tries to wrestle activity in Libya and elsewhere into a comprehensible historical event. Libyans did not risk their lives for free speech and dignity because of the Internet, Facebook, or Twitter, but these technologies provided a vital channel through which to communicate inside and outside the field of conflict. That made these revolutions unlike any that came before, even in Libya, which lagged other nations in the region technologically. For the international community, the ephemeral, real-time stream enabled by that technology provided the most compelling narrative. It might not be accurate for Libyans to label their uprising a “Facebook revolution,” but the term may be appropriate for Western spectators.
Moez Zeiton is a doctor and a founding member of the Sadeq Institute, a new think tank in Tripoli.