Libya, Gaddafi and free speech

Hotel Tripoli Libya

Libya, Gaddafi and the principles of free speech

Some time ago I was invited to speak at the annual Arab Association of Urology meeting by a good friend and colleague. I was very flattered to be asked and the opportunity to visit Libya, where the conference was being held, was irresistible.  Travelling the world on the back of a medical education is to be recommended. This was before the ‘glorious leader’ had been deposed and when Libya was still very much a closed society.

It was eye opening. My hosts were delightful and hospitable to a fault. I had dinner with my friend’s family, which was an honour. I had tours of the hospitals and tourist sites (more anon) and the conference was excellent.But during my visit I met a surgeon who had been imprisoned for fourteen years because his number had been in the phone book of a suspected dissident. As an (outspoken) member of a liberal Western democracy, I instinctively thought of things like courts of appeal and due process before remembering – with a chill - that there was no such thing in Gaddafi’s Libya. During my visit, I met a surgeon who had been imprisoned for fourteen years because his number had been in the phone book of a suspected dissident

I like Libyans, having always found them to be pleasant and cultured, and I did wonder how this country became a dictatorship.  Is it a case of Edmund Burke’s ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’; does it reflect the essential depravity of man; or are we simply doomed to repeat the mistakes of history and our nature over and over again?

It certainly made me wonder how I would act in such circumstances, especially after I attended a meeting where one of Gaddafi’s ministers was the guest speaker. It was surreal to have everyone around me clap enthusiastically every time Gaddafi’s name was mentioned, much like you see in televised meetings from North Korea and other totalitarian regimes.
As a guest, I politely clapped as well. I think I did this to avoid embarrassment and focus by the authorities on my hosts but reflected even then on how easily we fall into the role of acquiescent supporters.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, Edmund Burke

Then, one of our junior doctors, Mohammed Asha, intelligent and highly competent, was scooped off the M4 by helicopter in front of his family after one of his friends had attempted to detonate a bomb in Glasgow airport. I initially assumed, I guess like most, that he must have been implicated, although I did vaguely wonder how he had managed to be a terrorist, while working many hours as a junior doctor, studying for his fellowship and publishing research. And with a wife and young child, he didn't seem to fit the profile.

After a year in prison, he was cleared by the courts. I was later outraged at his treatment. Despite being cleared in a court of law he lost his job and became essentially unemployable. Colleagues said (and wrote) that they felt he was still guilty despite having been acquitted.  To me, there was the bitter irony of those comfortably protected by the rule of law willing to ignore it, compared with the fate of the surgeon I had met in Libya.

I argued publicly and as loudly as I could that if you live in a democracy with the rule of law you have to accept that judgement and not just the bits that you like. I was proud to try and support him on the basis of my assessment of him in his work and the decision of the courts.

I also wondered how many of those stout individuals who were willing to mount a whispering campaign against him would have enjoyed being imprisoned for a year while the judicial process ground its way to fruition.

If you live in a democracy with the rule of law you have to accept that judgement and not just the bits that you like.


Back in Libya, I was approached by a pleasant and very fluent young man at Sabratha. The people who had taken me there had gone to pray in the mosque (being good Muslims) when this chap materialised out of nowhere and started trying to get me to make inflammatory comments about the regime. I had been warned that this might happen and was scrupulously neutral and polite: this was a regime that had already demonstrated to me what happened to individuals even just thought to know dissidents. But it was kind of scary and emphasised to me how the state maintains control.

Sadly, I am not sure that Libya is much better currently. History seems to repeat itself over and over again and the period of chaos following the collapse of a totalitarian regime seems embedded in that process.


Roman carving at Leptus Magna
Inscription at Leptus Magna, Libya

Leptis Magna and Sabratha: Ancient ruins in Libya

Ruins of the market Leptus Magna Libya

I have ranted about the politics of Libya but this is about the Roman (and Phoenician) ruins in what is now Libya. In the relatively short time I had there, my friends took me to both Leptis Magna and Sabratha.

I suspect that the nascent tourist industry has collapsed again but the vast majority of Libyans are delightful people. It's so sad to see the country falling into chaos after the years of the ‘glorious leader’. Some countries seem fated.

By and large, having done a bit of travelling, the dangers of foreign travel are usually overrated if you are sensible. But some individuals seem to regard anything labelled as an adventure or expedition as an opportunity to shuck all common sense and caution; almost as if it is necessary to be reckless in order to have the full experience. Ask anyone who has been an expedition medic.

Because of the dry desert and the relative lack of tourists, these sites are unbelievably well preserved. Uncrowded and unspoilt, I simply could not believe it as I wandered around seeing and touching (and even climbing onto) priceless artefacts that would be behind barriers and guarded in Western museums. It was a different experience compared to, say, travelling down the Nile. There, it’s necessary to be there at the crack of dawn to see the sites without the hordes of tourists.

Unfortunately, the weather was unusually dull, with some spatters of rain and I had very limited time.

In a nutshell, the sites were initially Phoenician (1000BC) and remains of that era can still be seen. It then became Carthaginian until Hannibal and the Carthaginians really pissed off the Romans, when it became part of the Roman Republic. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that and more related to two large city states vying for power over many years, but I have simplified in the interests of brevity – it’s worth a read.

I had read that the Romans later sowed the land with salt to complete their dominance but apparently this may be a later invention. Personally, I’m not so sure. Having been to Masada and read Josephus, I have formed the impression that the ancient Romans were utterly ruthless and vindictive if crossed.

Leptus Magna was a great seaport and Septimus Severus – a Berber – improved it when he became Emperor in 193. The site is essentially a complete city and wonderful to roam around.

I also visited Sabratha, one of the three cities of Tripolis  (Leptis and Tripoli being the other two). Its history also goes back many centuries but the site suffered a huge earthquake and less survives to the tourists’ eye than Leptis Magna. But much remains to be seen and the magnificent three-story theatre - some eight centuries old - is breath-taking.

I only had a short period in both places and was shooting film. These images were digitised some time ago and do show their age but I hope they give a flavour. Enjoy – perhaps some day we will be able to go back.