The Bloody History of London’s Infamous Libyan Embassy

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Demonstrator Muftah Abdelsamad shows off a wristband featuring the colors of their rebel flag and the date when the opposition movement in Libya started, outside the Libyan Embassy in London, August 24, 2011. (Photo: Akira Suemori / AP)

Senussi el-Bijou and Muftah Abdelsamad spent the last 34 years protesting outside the Libyan embassy in London. Today, they can come and go as they please, honored guests of the building’s new management: the National Transitional Council. “It is thanks to these men, our elders, that we are here,” says Emad Elgaziwe, one of half a dozen young men milling around the embassy’s front waiting room, their feet propped on marble coffee tables as they watch the latest developments on Sky News.

“They used to take our pictures through those windows,” Abdelsamad says, nodding to two large barred bay windows overlooking Hyde Park. Both el Bijou, 60, and Abdelsamad, 57, and their families at home and abroad have been threatened repeatedly over the years. They have seen their friends hanged, shot and killed, sometimes while standing right next to them. But that never deterred them from coming back. “I promised myself over the years standing out there that I would one day sit in the ambassador’s chair when Libya was free,” Adbdelsamad says. “And I did it. When we took over the embassy [on Aug. 9] I did it. It was all worth it.”

For most embassies in London the biggest problems are racked up parking tickets and the occasional protest. The Libyan embassy, on the other hand, is infamous for its dramatic and bloody history. To be fair, the embassy isn’t an embassy at all, but a “revolutionary people’s bureau,” as Muammar Gaddafi renamed all Libyan embassies in 1979.

For el-Bijou, a poet, the trouble started in 1977 when Gaddafi began rounding up students and intellectuals and publicly hanging them. “It was then we knew that he was a dictator, you were either with him or against him,” el Bijou says. After some of his friends were hanged in his hometown of Benghazi, el Bijou fled to London. Abdelsamad had arrived a year earlier as a student. The two became friends at an anti-Gaddafi protest in front of the embassy, which was then half a mile south in St. James Square, at the end of 1977.

By 1979, Gaddafi was sick of the protests and he sent a loyalist, who would later become his foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, to London to take charge of the embassy and stop the embarrassing demonstrations. Within months, the British government expelled Koussa for calling for two of the dissidents – friends of el Bijou and Abdelsamad — to be shot. (Koussa arrived back returned to Britain in March on an MI6 chartered jet after finally defecting.)

The protests mounted and came to a head in 1984. On April 17, Abdelsamad and about five dozen others were, as usual, demonstrating in front of the embassy. Shots from an automatic gun rang out from the first floor, killing a young British policewoman named Yvonne Fletcher and wounding 11 others. Furious, Scotland Yard laid siege to the embassy for 10 days – prompting Gaddafi loyalists to lay siege to the British community in Tripoli — before Margaret Thatcher allowed all 30 “revolutionary bureau” staff to leave the country, the killer included. “It was awful, awful,” recalls Abdelsamad. “I hope and pray every day that her killers and those who wounded my friends are brought to justice.”

London and Tripoli then broke off relations for many years until Tony Blair, with an eye to Libya’s oil fields, made the first movements of rapprochement with Gaddafi. In 1999, the Libyan embassy was reopened, though the British government moved it to Knightsbridge. With Hyde Park stretching before it, there is plenty of space for protesters outside of the building’s firing range. The furnishings remain the same as they were: hanging over the main reception desk is a large oil portrait of tanners making an elaborate saddle for Gaddafi, emblazoned with his green insignia.

Over the years, el Bijou, who is one of the leaders in Britain of the biggest opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, has been involved in a number of attempts to oust Gaddafi. After the Fletcher shooting in 1984 and again in 1993, the NFSL tried to assassinate Gaddafi in Tripoli, but failed.. El Bijou has traveled the Middle East, delivering anti-Gaddafi speeches. He helped set up rebel broadcasts along Libya’s borders in Sudan, Egypt, Algeria and Chad. But he’s never been home. Now, both he and Abdelsamad, who is an actor who has made his name playing bad guys roles in movies such as Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Mr. Bean and Batman Returns, relish the chance. “Already many of our friends, doctors, lawyers, they have gone home to help rebuild a free Libya. I hope not only us, but every one driven out by Gaddafi – the Jews, the Catholics, the orthodox Greeks – I hope they all return. Once we all lived in harmony… Plus,” Abdelsamad adds with a smile, “it’d be nice to get away from these English winters.”

In truth, the day is glorious for a London summer – about 80 degrees and sunny. The new Libyan flag, which yesterday was snarled in drenching rains, today swings peacefully in the breeze. Abdelsamad, el Bijou and their comrades stormed the embassy earlier this year and briefly raised this flag before British police gently restored the peace and handed back the building to Gaddafi’s staff. But that only lasted a couple of months. By late July, Britain expelled all remaining Libyan diplomats and gave the embassy to the National Transitional Council. The flag that now flies before it is the one flown by Libya from 1951 to 1969, when Gaddafi took power. It has three horizontal stripes. Red at the top, which once symbolized Libyans lost under Italy’s bloody colonial rule but now stands for those lost overthrowing Gaddafi; black in the middle with a star and crescent symbolizing Islam; and green on the bottom, for freedom and a new way ahead. “Libya was the first republic in the Middle East in the 1920’s,” el Bijou says, standing in front of two abandoned megaphones in a back reception room in the embassy, “and we will be a democracy again with human rights, freedom of speech. We are a civilized educated people. It’s only been Gaddafi that has ruined our name. But we will restore it. That’s why we’re here, why we have been here all this time.”