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Jack Knox: An Island witness to Libya's uneasy transition

Sep 13 2012

When we last left Ali Ezletni, he was still shaken from the phone call, the one in which his brother's desperate pleas were all but drowned out by gunfire.

Ezletni, at home in sunny, peaceful Saanich, could only listen helplessly as Moammar Gadhafi's troops closed in on a lightly armed little band of rebels back in his native Tripoli.

"Ali, things are bad, send help," his brother yelled. "We're literally surrounded. We're trying not to waste our ammunition."

Frantic, Ezletni began calling friends elsewhere in Libya, even Tunisia, searching for someone to rush to the rescue.

That was just over a year ago. In the end, his brother emerged safe. The rebels won.

After the victory was punctuated by Gadhafi's death last October, Canadians lost interest in Libya and turned their attention back to the hockey game - until this week, when the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, along with a number of Libyan security staff at the consulate in Benghazi, were killed during a protest against a film that mocks Islam.

Oh no, it's happening again, we said. Another despot toppled, only to have the power vacuum filled by violent extremists.

Except that's not the truth, Ezletni insists.

"This is a very isolated thing," he said Wednesday. "People in Libya are outraged by what happened in Benghazi. That act did not and does not represent Libyan people by any means. Everyone thinks this is a cowardly, criminal act."

That said, the Libyan government must move fast against the criminals, the remnants of Gadhafi's forces and the small element of radical zealots who have emerged as the country finds its feet, he says.

Ezletni came to Canada to study financial management in 1987, moved to Victoria in the mid-1990s. The 45-year-old financial planner is part of a tiny, tight group of maybe 40 Libyan expats here. Usually they get together to play soccer on Saturday afternoons, but 2011 was different - they spent much of the year glued to the television, watching their homeland torn apart by revolution half a million miles away on the far side of the world.

Victoria's Libyans couldn't do much during the uprising except rally on the steps of the legislature and keep in touch by phone. Ezletni lost a cousin and several friends in the conflict. Everybody here lost someone there.

But Ezletni was pleasantly surprised when he returned to Libya for a month this spring to find the country infused with optimism. A post-Gadhafi euphoria lingers. "People say, 'Now I can breathe.' "

Not that the transformation is easy. "People have to realize that this country came from war, from 42 years of tyranny. People who did not have freedom before now have freedom." Learning to adapt to that is a bit like being thrown the keys to an awesome new car that you don't quite know how to drive.

A culture of corruption that has taken root over the past generation must be eradicated, Ezletni says. So must the guns, which are everywhere and make the bad guys dangerous. "There are weapons all over the place." It's not as though Libyans are packing pistols or AK-47s on the street, but everyone has them squirrelled away at home.

But the big thing Ezletni wants to emphasize is this: The country's future is bright. The killings in Benghazi do not reflect the wider reality. (And yes, he says, Libyans appreciate the role of Canada, which backed the uprising with CF-18s and warships, including CFB Esquimalt's HMCS Vancouver. Usually resentment bubbles up when the West wades into a conflict, but this time the intervention was welcomed.)

"Business is starting to pick up," Ezletni says. "Real estate is booming." Property prices would make even a Victorian swallow his gum.

"It's the promise of prosperity." The country needs a lot of infrastructure spending, but has the oil wealth to pay for it.

"I'm very optimistic."

jknox@timescolonist.com