The death toll in Libya has reportedly risen above 200. In Benghazi, where Qaddafi’s sons Khamis and Saadi are charged with crushing the uprising, police and army forces are picking off demonstrators with sniper and artillery fire. The State Department has gone so far as to express “grave concern,” while the EU is “very worried.” That’s how bad things are.
So this is probably as good a time as any to revisit the sagacity of Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Director Sarah Leah Whitson, who in 2009 was granted access to Libya and duly announced the unfolding of a “Tripoli Spring.” HRW had just spent a year in relative silence as Qaddafi’s thugs neglected to death long-imprisoned dissident Fathi al-Jahmi. In the aftermath they neither called for an independent investigation nor held the Libyan regime directly responsible for the death. But lest you think they were totally unmoved by al-Jahmi’s plight, Whitson did namecheck him in the first paragraph of her gushing report on Libya’s burgeoning civil society:
What Fathi al-Jahmi died for is starting to spread in the country. For the first time in memory, change is in the air in Libya. The brittle atmosphere of repression has started to fracture, giving way to expanded space for discussion and debate [and] proposals for legislative reform… I left more than one meeting stunned at the sudden openness of ordinary citizens, who criticized the government and challenged the status quo with newfound frankness. A group of journalists we met with in Tripoli complained about censorship… [b]ut that hadn’t stopped their newspapers… Quryna, one of two new semi private newspapers in Tripoli, features page after page of editorials criticizing bureaucratic misconduct and corruption… The spirit of reform, however slowly, has spread to the bureaucracy as well… the real impetus for the transformation rests squarely with a quasi-governmental organization, the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development.
Of course the entire article was written in a tone of “liberal changes are oh-so fragile” equivocation, the increasingly frayed rhetorical insulation with which Middle East experts coat their apologias for repressive Arab and Muslim regimes. But given the choice between emphasizing the Libyan government’s irredeemably autocratic character or its potential for reform, Whitson emphasized the latter. If Qaddafi falls in an insurrection after murdering hundreds of Libyan citizens, it won’t be because some kind of vaunted public sphere liberalized exploited legislative reforms. It’ll be because the suffocating choke of government control — which Whitson and her ilk insisted was loosening — finally became unbearable, and was met with violence to overthrow entrenched thugs.
Whitson actually made the same move a few months later when she applauded Hamas for promising to investigate its Cast Lead war crimes. Sure the eliminationist Iranian proxies were only lying so they could could enable Western apologists to highlight the Goldstone Report, but at least they were helpfully lying. So they got supportive praise and a gold star.
Unrelatedly, HRW released their libelous White Phosphorous report a few months after Whitson’s article. In any case, this is usually where it’d be appropriate to remind readers that Whitson cut her teeth as an intifada-era pro-Palestinian activist and as an apologist for terrorism, and to gesture toward Alana’s comprehensive roundup of how HRW spent 2010 ignoring terrorist crimes and rogue regimes while demonizing Israel. But insofar as the organization is now hiring actual senior Palestinian terrorists to help campaign against the Jewish State, previous HRW terrorist enabling seems almost quaint.