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Forum For Libyan Democrats - UK

Monday, 6 February, 2006

Khaeri Aboushagor : Interview
( Rusek Martin, of Czech Television )

Recently, I have been contacted, as the administrator of the Forum for Libyan Democrats, by Mr Rusek Martin, of Czech Television, asking for a television interview as part of a documentary program he is preparing about Libya. He gave me a few questions to answer on paper before he conducted the interview on camera. Here are my written answers to his questions which are preceded by an introduction:


Because the west had known Gaddafi for quite a long time now, it is evident that they know the best way of dealing with him. But the issue of who will succeed him in power had bothered them in the past and still bothering them today. Drawing on from their long experience with Libya over the years, they seem to have followed the strategy of "the devil you know is better than the devil you do not know". The "devil you do not know" I am referring to here is the Libyan opposition, mainly in exile.

The West dealt with Gaddafi's opponents for more than 30 years. Apparently, they were not able to prove themselves as representing a viable alternative to Gaddafi for the West to consider them seriously. They neither had the backing of the Libyan people nor did they possess the means by which to attract their vital support. The persistent policy of violence and aggression inflicted on the opponents by the regime over the years is partly to blame for this outcome. The other part rests on the opposition's shoulders.

Although we know today that it was not Gaddafi who played the major part of the coup d'etat in the night of 1st Sept 1969, nevertheless, he planned his total consolidation of power from the first day he deposed king Idris from the throne and took over as head of state. He dismantled the constitution, the parliament and all the democratic institutions that existed since Libya's independence in 1951, and ruled by decree. He had total control of the military, the economy and the media. Very swiftly, Gaddafi embarked on a debating program with all of the country's intellectuals and the media about their future vision for Libya. Once he had known who is who, he put them all in prison to be interrogated and tortured. That was the trigger for his cultural revolution, which took place in 1973. In the following years, many of the jailed would be either executed or left to rot in prison for the rest of their lives. Very few of them were released since.

Finding the road clear of any real opposition, Gaddafi started putting into action his anarchist ideas. He relentlessly pursued a policy of persuading the public, willingly or forcibly, to back him up in whatever he did. He relied heavily on a strong, well organised and very ruthless security apparatus. He used the Islamic leanings of the public, Arab Nationalism and his rallying cries for the destruction of Israel as the main shibboleths for what he termed "Al Fateh Revolution". Armed with an effective propaganda machine, he was able to demonise any one who criticised his policies as a traitor who is anti Libya, anti Islam, anti Arab and pro imperialism.

A relatively small number of people refused to give in to Gaddafi's brutality and his unconstitutional and unlawful rule. In 1976, many students caused an uprising inside the two Libyan universities which lasted for a few days, although its effect did not go much beyond the universities fences. And there was a major military attempt in 1975 to overthrow the regime, but was swiftly put down with extreme mercilessness.

But the majority, including the elites in the society, chose to turn a blind eye to the regime's gross human rights violations. They were fully aware of their indifference to the regime's illegitimacy. They accepted the abandonment of their country's constitution and condoned the persistent violations of human rights. Many of them saw in Gaddafi's religious and Pan Arab and Islamic shibboleths a good reason not to oppose him. They found in some Islamic teachings and traditions many precedents to justify their choices.

After spending many years in high positions serving the regime, many decided to turn against it and formed opposition groups in exile. Some of them put much faith in the promises and support they were given by some countries, to topple Gaddafi and replace him in power. Gaddafi found it quite easy to beat them at his own game. He had the full support of many countries, both covertly and overtly. He also had the absolute internal power, the economic means, the clout and the mercilessness to foil all of their programs.

The Islamic Jihadist opposition which emerged in the nineties did cause some trouble to the regime, but was never a real threat to depose it. They relied on assassinations and guerrilla attacks in few areas of Libya's vast territory. They had no chance of gathering public support behind them, which meant fighting their war against both the people and the regime at the same time.

Traditionally, and in most parts of the country, Libyans lived in a closed society influenced by a Bedouin mentality which tended to follow ancient tribal traditions of loyalties. They were influenced by Islamic interpretations to give in to their rulers, no matter what. They stood very strongly as a nation against the Christian Italian invaders, but not against Gaddafi. They have never deemed it their responsibility, as individuals or a society, to be part of running their own affairs. It has always been from the top down: the responsibility of whoever happens to be ruling them.

In the fifties and sixties of the last century, there were attempts to establish a modern civil society. This was manifested in many different forms of freedoms of belief, expression and assembly. But because political parties were officially banned, political thinking, practice and development were very restricted. Tribalism remained the only viable form of political success. Had these efforts been allowed to continue and develop, they would have certainly achieved excellent results in modernising the state and democratising the society.

During Gaddafi's rule, there existed many real democrats in Libya, but they have never been strong to draw enough support to establish themselves as a real political force. They lacked a coherent program of action and could not overcome their personal differences. Their work tended to be on an individual rather than a group or institutional basis. This is changing, however. At present there are positive signs that the real democrats are increasing in numbers.

For many of the young generations, the disillusionment of the Gaddafi years led to their growing rejection of the barriers that stand against them being free; be it Gaddafi, traditions, customs or even religion. They believe that the only hope for Libya's future is to have a secular democratic government based on a constitution agreed upon by the majority of the people.

We recently noticed that many of the obstacles which in the past prevented people from debating and expressing their opinions freely are slowly coming down. Every day democrats are coming forward not bothered by the stigma and the social repression which were inflicted in the past on anyone openly advocating their refusal to mix religion, tribal loyalties and local customs with politics. They see such a mix as disastrous and an essential factor in enabling someone like Gaddafi to rule undisputed for 36 years.

After this introduction, here are my answers to your specific questions:

Q) What is your opinion on the "changing" Libya (during the past 5 years)? Is it really new Libya?

A) There are indications that some changes have been taking place in Libya recently. But the question is how substantial are they and in which direction are they leading Libya to?

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the economic situation, the growing population, globalisation and the wide spread of the internet and satellite television in Libya all played a role in pushing the regime to make some changes, albeit cosmetic. The growing involvement of Gaddafi's children in the running the country, both politically and economically, and the rumours that Gaddafi is suffering from throat cancer, which has been floating around for a few years now, are also important factors.

To me and to many other close observers, we see these changes as very superficial. They are designed to be a whitewash, to hide behind the ugly tyrannical rule, and to relieve the regime from some of the inconveniences arising from the actions of those closely associated with it. They are also intended to improve its image internationally, extend the life of the current regime and prepare the ground for a future ruler from the Gaddafi family. The question of who will succeed Gaddafi is high on the agenda, both internally and externally.

At the moment, there are doesn't seem to be significant pressures on the regime to force it to effect real change. I do not see it possible that a free, constitutional and democratic system of government and full respect for human rights could emerge in Libya while Gaddafi, his sons or any one of his close associates are in charge of the country. Gaddafi has not done what he did to willingly allow the country to turn back to democracy and constitutional legitimacy.

As far as the changes concerning the opponents living in exile are concerned, we witnessed recently a change of direction of many of them. Some returned to Libya already and vowed not to oppose the government again and others are in constant contact with it, waiting for the right deal to be struck before they can return. Many however are still active, using different means to get their message across to the people and the regime. Although the internet is heavily censored in Libya, many are using it as the basis of their work and there are signs of positive responses to some of these activities. However, because the credibility gab that existed over the years between those inside and outside the country had not diminished, the effect of these efforts appears to be limited.

If a real change is to happen and a new Libya to emerge, without overthrowing the regime, a full program of action has to be adopted, supported and implemented by the Libyan government. This would start by an intensive education program for the public covering the following important issues:
- their basic responsibilities
- their constitutional rights
- their natural rights to freely assemble, speak and express themselves
- the importance of the law, its impartiality, and its full respect by all
- the full accountability of any one who holds or aspires to hold a public office

This should be accompanied by the gradual creation of a free and independent media industry and institutions and a process by which a new constitution for the country can be written.

Until we see that taking place, any changes the regime may embark on will only serve to buy out more time pending the next phase of its destructive program.

Q) What forced Libya to change its relations with the West?

A) Bar the United States, trade with Libya had never ceased or diminished, even during the sanctions years. For example, in 1994, and despite the UN sanctions and the lack of diplomatic relations between Britain and Libya since the killing of Yvonne Fletcher in1984, trade between Libya (5 million people) and the UK was more than that between the UK and all North African states put together, except Egypt (70 million people). The same applies to some extent to Libya's trade with Italy, France and Germany.

However, Gaddafi was desperate to increase his earnings from the oil and hydrocarbons industry. He had to open the door to Western companies to roam Libya looking for oil, extracting it and repairing the existing and ailing infrastructure. The trigger for the new rapprochement came when George Bush needed to use Gaddafi's example of abandoning his "fake" nuclear program, as a proof of his successful policy in Iraq.

One of the devices which Gaddafi employed in his total control of the country was the isolation of Libya from the outside world and the restriction of normal contacts between Libyans and foreigners, especially Westerners. I see the return of diplomatic relations and stronger economic ties with the West as an excellent opportunity for Libyans, in the short and long term. It should help them open their eyes and discover their real misery. It will give them an opportunity to compare their country, their standard of living and their general well being with the other nations. It should encourage them to travel, explore and appreciate other cultures. It will aid them in observing how people are exercising their full rights as civilised and responsible human beings and what effect that has on personal and national aspirations.

Q) Is the Libyan regime still a tyranny?

A) That the regime is still a tyranny, there is no question about it. You only had to listen to Gaddafi, almost weekly, stating that his Jamahiriya model and the direct rule of the people are the only options available for the Libyans.

In the Last year few people were brave enough to stand up and express themselves publicly, and raised few questions similar to this one: "Can we contemplate the idea that there might be other alternatives, better alternatives, to what we already have? And if so, why can't we explore these alternatives freely and then decide whether they are good or bad for us". Some of these people were imprisoned or disappeared, others were executed. In Libya today, you are not allowed to criticise Gaddafi or any of his destructive policies, call for the accountability of the country's oil revenues or question the total monopoly of the media by Gaddafi.

In order to have absolute power and keep his total grip on it, Gaddafi followed an evolutionary path in which it did not matter to him whether he twisted and turned, changed his skin twice in a day, lied or deceived. He is a man of no principles whatsoever, except for the principle which concerns him most: How to cling on to power?

Q) Are there any possibilities to overthrow the regime? And what would come after that? Do you have any scenario?

A) Unless the international community, especially the West, decide to end it, peacefully or otherwise, there does not currently seem to be any hint in sight of overthrowing the regime. For the regime to end forcefully, it is either the Iraq model or what happened in the former eastern European countries. After the regime's full cooperation with the West, no body is interested in the Iraq experience. The other model is the only one which could have some positive results. But in today's international political climate, who is interested in supporting such a policy, to provide the necessary training and funds to carry it out, which could take years?

No body is sure what would happen after Gaddafi if he disappears from the scene soon. There are so many forces at play in the country, among them his sons, his loyal aides and security chiefs, the army, the tribes and the external influences which are not exactly clear whom they would support. It is likely that the transition will not be peaceful and a fierce power struggle is bound to take place. Some even predict civil war could erupt as the different factions would attempt to grab as much power as possible in the shortest possible time.

Q) Would Libyans accept a government consisting of exiled politicians?

A) In the current political climate, exiled politicians do not expect to be invited to be part of any Gaddafi government. They also know that they cannot form an alternative government in exile. Despite the recent convening of a conference in London by some of the opposition groups, in which they tried to show a united front, it is clear that they do not have what it takes to change the regime or form a government.

Many of the exiled politicians have Islamic programs and have the intention of creating an Islamic state in Libya. Most, if not all, of the policy makers in the West see this as unacceptable. In their opinion, if the current exiled opposition were to take power, Libya may not be a stable country, as Gaddafi managed to make it, and would not be guaranteed to keep the vital oil and gas supplies flowing.

I think it is time for the Libyan opposition to consider adopting Liberal Democracy wholeheartedly and apply it wisely amongst themselves. That will change many perceptions and will give them a good chance of being taken seriously as a credible alternative to Gaddafi.

Khaeri Aboushagor
Forum for Libyan Democrats

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