Jamal Abdelmotaleb was born in 1956 in the town of Bani Walid. His family moved to the capital when he was a youngster, and he worked first as a teacher and then within Libya’s foreign office. His experience is similar to that of many Libyans who opposed the Gaddafi regime. Non-activism among the opposition and silence in the face of tyranny was not enough to secure a decent life and opportunities.
“They wanted me to go on television and denounce my friends. They gave me a list of names and said that if I wanted to stay in my line of work, that’s what I needed to do.” That demand was made of Abdelmotaleb during one of a number of sessions at a branch of the external security forces. “They would summon me in and make it clear to me that I was not the kind of person they wanted working with them. They would revile me and question me for defending the spies and stray dogs. They tried to provoke me by saying I hated the Leader and his revolution. The biggest crime in Libya was to be accused of being against Gaddafi. It made me feel unsafe.”
Abdelmotaleb believes that his conversations with his colleagues made him a person of interest among the revolutionary council that supported and celebrated Gaddafi without question. “I used to try and engage my colleagues in dialogue and explain to them that being an oppositionist didn’t make one a traitor. I had always been considered vocal and reckless, ever since I was a student. But I tried to be creative in the way I said things; I knew it was dangerous to speak one’s mind.”
Abdelmotaleb refused their request to denounce his colleagues on television, explaining that he could not take responsibility for other people’s actions. “I still didn’t expect that the situation would escalate to the extent of one being oppressed or losing their job.”
With time however, Abdelmotaleb became disgusted with the foreign ministry and the environment in which he worked. He didn’t gain the opportunities he felt he had earned during his seven years at the ministry, and was feeling increasingly watched. “Milad al Fogri, who was also form Bani Walid and responsible for Gaddafi’s propaganda, had put me in his sights and began speaking ill of me at council meetings saying I was backwards and hate the Fateh revolution.”
On leaving the foreign office, Abdelmotaleb decided not to seek employment in any government sector. “In every government office you were confronted by security forces, revolutionary council members, reporting your movements. Working in these environments became dangerous, so I decided to no longer be an employee and to work as an independent. It was difficult not to have a steady income, but I was also fortunate to have some rental income from properties.”
The life Abdelmotaleb had hoped to live was not as rich as it should have been. Most notably absent was culture and intellectual discourse. “My father was a teacher and an intellectual. We used to have many intellectuals in our home during my childhood. That was my first school, at home, among the sheikhs and teachers and personalities and my father, listening to talks around religion, literature, politics. I also read a lot and travelled, so I had formed opinions and ideas while growing up.”
Had it not been for a desire to be near his aging father, Abdelmotaleb says he would have emigrated. He was however able to live the life of an activist that he so desired during the revolution of 2011. “I took to the platform on 25 February at Tripoli’s largest mosque. The sheikh was prevented from attending and so I took the opportunity to speak about religion and politics and human rights.”