When Ali Shaban arrived in class on Feb. 20, he did not know whether his family was alive or dead.

Shaban, an electrical engineering professor at Cal Poly, grew up in Libya before moving to the United States to earn his doctorate in electrical engineering. For more than 40 years, Libyan civilians were under the dictatorial rule of Muammar Gaddafi, who came to power in 1969. This year, Libya underwent a revolution resulting in Gaddafi’s death on Oct. 20.

Makings of a revolution

Demonstrations began in several cities starting Feb. 16. By Feb. 20, the fighting reached Tripoli. Shaban’s hometown, and the city where his family still lived, was in the midst of a revolution.

“They’d go out in the street — it was live bullets,” Shaban said about the government’s violent opposition to the protestors. “They’d shoot them, and they stayed about six months under that siege there.”

He said much of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed by the fighting.

“At the end, they had little food, no electricity, no water, no gas — no gas for cars and no gas for cooking,” he said. “So imagine that. Families are collecting wood and things to cook with and using candles for light. At the end, they said life was so hard that they would do everything just to get over it. They just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Life under Gaddafi

Life in Libya had not always been that way.

Shaban started college in Libya when Gaddafi came into power. He said initially, Gaddafi was a welcome switch from the previous monarchy.

“When he came, people really appreciated that,” Shaban said. “It was a change. When Gaddafi came, he was young. He motivated the people, and people joined him.”

He said that Gaddafi promised to relinquish his power — unlike their former leader, King Idris.

“It didn’t take long,’” Shaban said. “Five years, and he started making things go wrong. You can feel that he started getting a grab of power.”

Public opinion swayed in the late 1970s while Shaban was in the United States pursuing his doctorate. He planned to return to Libya after finishing school, but the last time he set foot in Libya was in January 1984.

Making a new life

Shaban was nearing completion of his doctorate when his scholarship money was cut. He found a job and sent his wife and son back to Libya while he finished. His studies took a few months longer than expected, and Shaban’s wife grew impatient.

“She said, ‘If you’re not coming, I cannot live here. I cannot live by myself. Either you come, or I am coming there,’” Shaban said. She moved to the United States shortly after.

Once in the States, she had no intention of going back.

“She said, ‘I don’t care. I’m willing to work. I’m willing to do whatever it takes. That country, it’s not livable. I cannot go back,’” Shaban said.

By 1985, Shaban completed his master’s work at the University of Southern California, and his Ph.D. coursework at Oregon State University.

“The reason I didn’t go back is just because it is unpredictable,” he said. “It’s a country that’s been ruled by one person. There are no laws. There was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to get out, so for that reason, I just didn’t go. I just said I’m not going to risk it. I have a family here.”

His wife and his first child were in the United States by that time.

Shaban agreed that living in Libya was too dangerous. His friend, who had received the same scholarship, was imprisoned within a year of his return to Libya. Shaban’s brother was also jailed for 10 years, because he knew a man with supposed links to a coup attempt. Shaban’s family members did not know where his brother was being held for the first two years of his sentence.

“They have no court,” he said. “Sometimes they pretend that there are courts. A bunch of people, they meet for about an hour. They decide about the guy. He’s guilty, and they hang him right there.”

Gaddafi imprisoned citizens both physically and financially, according to Shaban, whose father made a living renting houses. Gaddafi passed a law in the late 1970s which stated that anyone who was occupying a house could claim ownership. Gaddafi passed laws like this to reduce the risk that citizens would unify and threaten his power, he said.

“By these laws, he made people enemies,” Shaban said. “People started fighting, because ‘Come on, I built that house and you’re saying it’s yours now?’’’

The younger generation found strength in solidarity, according to Shaban, who said that 90 percent of the citizens fighting against Gaddafi were 20 to 30 years old.

“What they did, it was out of frustration,” Shaban said. It’s not people trying to have problems. What they are saying is, ‘We have no life anymore.’ And they commit themselves to either they live with him gone, or he stays and they go.”

He said that extreme opposition was their only chance for change.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Shaban said. “You can’t complain. You can’t act. You can’t demonstrate on the street. People started demonstrating in Tripoli, and they (the military) started shooting them — live bullets.”

The revolution and the future of Libya

The civilian army fought for eight months before killing Gaddafi in October. Authorities said Gaddafi died in cross fire between the rebel army and his military. However, a video surfaced of Gaddafi being beaten in the street by his captors.

“When I heard that he passed away, sometimes I hated to be happy for the death, but his death is just saving other lives,” Shaban said. “Freedom is not easy, and for them to get their freedom, they had to lose this many people. I called back home last weekend; they said they cannot even tell you how happy they are. They are just like running in the streets and jumping, saying ‘He is gone!’”

Shaban can now travel freely between Libya and the United States.

He said he will make his first trip back next summer, by which time he thinks there will be an interim government.

Elections are projected to take place in eight months, and Shaban said that most Libyans are focused on making sure that the new government is inclusive of all factions of society, including women. He is certain that democracy is in Libya’s future.

Others are not so optimistic.

John Snetsinger, a history professor at Cal Poly who specializes in modern world history and United States foreign relations, said he thinks the chances of democratization in Libya are slim.

“There just aren’t institutions that have developed that could create a stable society, much less a democratic society,” Snetsinger said. “There’s no free press. Education? Gaddafi kept education very limited. … There was never a parliament. There were never political parties. There were never countervailing forces to Gaddafi. … You don’t even have an independent military there.”

Shanruo Ning Zhang, an associate professor of international relations at Cal Poly, also said she does not think those obstacles are impossible to overcome, but she does think that creating solutions will take time.

“I think democracy is a possibility everywhere,” Ning Zhang said. “If you look at democratization processes around the world, some are more successful, and some are less successful. But the more successful ones, without exception, they’re successful because they have given it a long time.”

She said the physical governmental changes may happen within a matter of years, but attitude changes will likely take at least a generation.

Others think it is too early

for predictions. Emmit Evans, a Cal Poly political science lecturer, said the situation is still too new.

“I’m not sure that ‘revolution’ is the appropriate word yet,” he said. “If we end up with another centralized, Western-dominated, controlling oligarchy, then it wasn’t a revolution. It was a coup. … If a moderate, Islamic faction working with secular nationalists were able to actually establish their own government, that would be a revolution — to be determined.”

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