Abdalla Ruken grew up watching the hour-long rants of Libya's erratic leader, Moammar Gadhafi, on Libyan state television, and it's the memory of those appearances that made the events of the past two weeks all the more remarkable for the Libyan-Canadian.
"I despaired that things would ever change," Ruken said in a series of interviews for the Feb. 27 edition of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup.
"A week ago, I wouldn't have even been able to give you my name, so this is extraordinary."
Ruken, 47, grew up in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the centre of the opposition movement behind the current uprising against Gadhafi, and first came to Canada to do a PhD in physics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. After returning to Benghazi to teach at Garyounis University, he immigrated to Canada in 1983 and now lives in Toronto, where he works in the finance industry.
Ruken, whose mother and extended family still live in Libya, is one of a small group of expatriate Libyans advising what is being called the national council, a group of Gadhafi opponents who have dubbed themselves the political face of the revolution.
A spokesman for the council, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, announced its creation in Benghazi on Sunday, saying it represents the towns and cities that have come under the control of the opposition since the start of the uprising on Feb. 17 and that all regions will have a say in who makes up the body.
"I haven't had much sleep the last few days, but I'm pitching in, although I am still fearful about repercussions for my family," said Ruken.
Ruken was last in Libya two weeks ago and remains in close contact with his former university colleagues in Benghazi, who he says are helping co-ordinate the efforts to bring an end to Gadhafi's 42-year dictatorship and approached Ruken for his help.
"I was asked, as one who lives in the West, about what was the best way to represent ourselves to the world," said Ruken. "I am involved in the ongoing discussions to help in the vacuum of leadership that the situation has created.
"I think that the message is that of trust. I am for trusting the world community. I am for trusting the UN. I am for establishing communication with the outside world. I can naturally understand the fear of the people in Tripoli [which remains under Gadhafi's control]. There have been reports that some of the people who have spoken to the press are missing.
"Having lived in the West, I understand what people here are concerned about."
Ruken said he is confident that the situation in Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya is stabilizing.
"Security is established," he said. "There have been co-ordinated efforts across the cities to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Medical supplies are flowing in from Egypt and from other places. Even banks are open, and people are running the cities."
Opposition committees are emerging in various cities that are no longer under the control of Gadhafi's regime.
"We think [these developments] will be very helpful in at least stemming the instability and creating an atmosphere in which we can, hopefully, pull the country together and transition forward," Ruken said.
Younger generation believes in change
On Ruken's recent visit to Libya, people he met were riveted by the protests that were going on in Egypt at the time.
"People of all ages from all backgrounds were all very, very emotional about it — worried about whether the revolution in Egypt would succeed or not," Ruken said.
"When I asked them if they would do anything … [in Libya], they said, 'Yes! We have our protests scheduled for Feb. 17. We're going to protest."
Ruken says that two weeks ago, the thought of toppling Gadhafi seemed impossibly naïve.
"I'm just a bit older than most of the protestors," he said.
Forty per cent of Libya's population is between the age of 20 and 35, and it is this age group that is driving the democracy movement, Ruken said.
"They want a transparent constitution and to be self-determining, and now, they see a chance at obtaining that," he said. "This is so very different from my generation, who lived in a state of despair that things would ever change. I grew up believing that all Arab rulers and governments were corrupt and would always be so."
'No one is interested in having foreign soldiers on Libyan soil.' — Abdalla Ruken
Which brings us back to Gadhafi's propaganda rants on state television. The tenacious dictator is still stubbornly delivering them, but these days, the speeches reveal a diminishing confidence and an increasing incoherence, says Ruken.
"Gadhafi's latest speech was different," he said. "His hands were shaking. He was drinking water every few minutes. And he was totally incoherent. On the one hand, he was saying, 'These are nothing but kids on drugs,' and on the other, he was threatening a march of millions of Africans against the protestors."
Ruken says he fears for the safety of people inside Gadhafi-controlled Tripoli but that Libyans are adamantly against any Western military intervention.
"No one is interested in having foreign soldiers on Libyan soil," Ruken said. "There's a firm belief that this matter will be settled internally.
"I am torn about the suffering of the people in Tripoli, but I am telling you what people are saying inside Libya, whose voices can't be heard."