Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1994, page 50

Maghreb Mirror

Libyans Debate Post-Qaddafi Era

By Greg Noakes

On Nov. 28-29, Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a conference on "Post-Qaddafi Libya: The Prospect and The Promise." The conference was unique in that all of the panelists were Libyan exiles who provided both personal and analytical insights into a country last visited by U.S. officials some 14 years ago.

As plans for the meeting became public, according to conference organizer Henry Schuler of CSIS, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi launched a public campaign of intimidation against the Libyan opposition in exile, which he called "stray dogs that have escaped and begun to bark abroad." The result was cancellation by a number of conference participants. Despite their absence, members of a variety of Libyan opposition groups as well as independent critics of the Qaddafi regime participated.

One such critic, Executive Secretary Abdul Majid Buik of the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), told the audience that Qaddafi's "priorities are very simple: personal security and the elimination of any political opposition." His means are political violence, conflict resolution using the nation's tribes or other social groups, control of the press and manipulation of the educational system.

In addition to maintaining total political control, Qaddafi has suppressed the creation of any popular organizations independent of the government. This tactic, combined with the regime's dizzying record of ideological and social experimentation, has marginalized prospective centers of opposition within Libya. For policy implementation Qaddafi relies on an inner core of trusted associates, particularly those in the country's intelligence services, though ultimate decision-making power lies with the "Brother Leader" himself.

Qaddafi also uses foreign dealings to strengthen his hold on power, according to conference participants. Aside from the use of foreign policy rhetoric to garner domestic support, Qaddafi has declared Libya a bulwark against "Islamic fundamentalism" in an effort to gain Western support for his continued survival.

Even the ongoing impasse over Pan Am Flight 103 "gives [Qaddafi] an opportunity to reintroduce himself to the Arabs, or at least some of the Arabs," according to so Mohamed Berrween of the University of North Texas. "He can make himself appear effective, and they will sympathize with him to some degree."

The Libyan government also has used its economic resources skillfully to ensure a degree of immunity from international pressures. Petroleum analyst Suleiman Bengharsa argued that when negotiating petroleum contracts with foreign oil companies, "Libya provides better terms than countries like Egypt which have less attractive petroleum resources."

European oil companies, eager to gain access to high-quality Libyan crude in such beneficial terms, have entered into Libyan production agreements. In turn European governments are reluctant to impose political or economic sanctions on Libya which would hurt their national oil companies' interests.

At the same time, Libyan threats to expel foreign workers (which were carried out against Egyptians in 1973 and Egyptians and Tunisians in 1985) and thus deprive their home countries of much needed hard currency remittances give Tripoli a degree of leverage over Libya's oil-poor neighbors.

Conference panelists, nevertheless, identified a number of serious challenges for the Qaddafi regime. Perhaps most important is growing economic dissatisfaction among Libyans, particularly the youth, whose wages have been frozen since 1982, whose salaries occasionally go unpaid for several months, and whose standard of living has been in decline since the worldwide drop in oil prices in the early 1980s.

Although the Libyan government has been running budget deficits for nearly a decade, state revenues are declining and the country has slipped into a balance-of payments deficit, the regime has continued expensive prestige projects. These include the Misurata Steel Works and the Great man-made River, whose price tag is estimated at $13-15 billion.

In addition, the Qaddafi regime has been awash in corruption. By comparing Libyan government revenues and public sector spending and investment, Ali Tarhuni of the University of Washington estimates that $46.5 billion has gone "missing" since Qaddafi seized power in 1969.

"With Qaddafi, as with any dictator, the object is to hide as much money for himself as quickly as possible," Tarhuni said. "I think he has done a remarkable job."

The Libyan economy, particularly the oil sector, is also suffering from a decline in its infrastructure. Former Minister of Petroleum Abdussalam Zagaar pointed out that U.S. sanctions prohibiting the export of American oil field equipment or expertise are hurting Libya's oil industry, since more than 80 percent of Libya's petroleum infrastructure is of U.S. manufacture.

Growing Military Unrest

Another area of concern for Qaddafi is growing unrest among the Libyan military. An abortive military revolt in October near Misurata, reportedly suppressed only through a series of airstrikes against the rebellious units, resulted in the execution of dozens of officers and the arrest of hundreds of soldiers and civilians, according to former Major Abdessalam El Madani.

Western actions against Libya were assessed by a number of panelists. Most felt that any change of regime must be implemented by Libyans.

"Change in Libya is a Libyan problem," said Ibrahim Sahad, a former Libyan diplomat and Muammar Qaddafi's former commander in the Royal Libyan Army. "We never asked anyone to come and do this for us."

Many participants thought current U.N. sanctions were ineffective and misdirected. "Either the West should take serious action and hit Qaddafi where he will feel it," Berrween said, "or lift the sanctions and not let our people suffer."

Salah Elbakkoush, a systems analyst originally from Benghazi, argued that because Qaddafi has decimated civil society, there is no way to translate popular discontent into pressure on the regime.

The panelists were roundly opposed to military attacks carried out by the U.S. or by Europeans. "Any dictator who survives such a confrontation emerges stronger," said former Prime Minister Abdoulhamid Al-Backoush. "Therefore any military attack must eliminate Qaddafi to be at all successful."

Abdul Majid Buik argued that even if Qaddafi could be eliminated”“an open question given the failure of past attempts directed at Saddam Hussain and Mohamed Farah Aidid”“other elements in the regime would survive a military strike.

How a change of regimes might occur was the subject of sharp disagreement on the conference's second day. "I don't see any hope that in the near future Libyan exiles can effect change from outside, though we can help change to come about," said Omar Fathaly, formerly Director of Strategic Studies at Tripoli's Arab Development Institute. "The real change will come from within Libya, and the only organized group in the country capable of effecting change is the military."

Other participants disagreed with Fathaly's assessment, saying other segments of Libyan society are ripe for revolution. "Our people revolted many times," Berrween argued. "We have the power to make the change, but Qaddafi has been protected due to outside factors."

Ezzedin Ghadamsi, a veteran trade union activist and diplomat, noted, "Unfortunately we did not try to understand and build on the revolts of the people inside the country. We need to understand that the hatred of the people against Qaddafi will do nothing without organization." This raised the question of the effectiveness of the Libyan opposition in exile.

"No one is thinking about changing the government through correspondence," said former Prime Minister Al-Backoush. He argued that the Libyan opposition has been muzzled in the Arab world, lives in fear in Europe and has been marginalized in the U.S. by its distance from Libya.

Ghadamsi disagreed, saying, "We hightailed it when Qaddafi chased us and when he scared us we left not only Libya but the capitals of Europe as well. We have fallen into the trap that Qaddafi has set, that is, we don't look ready to make changes in our country."

Political analyst and writer Ashur Shamis noted that Qaddafi's opponents in exile have no mandate. Libyans inside the country are skeptical of those who "are not living under and experiencing the oppression within the country firsthand." Exiles, Shamis said, should explain clearly to the Libyan people that they are not going to impose a system or set of values on the country after Qaddafi.

Disarray among opposition groups also was discussed. Islamist scholar Aly R. Abuzaakouk asked, "How can we expect our people inside to take a stronger stand against Qaddafi if we, the Libyan opposition, cannot coordinate our position? So far there has been fragmentation."

Ghadamsi countered by noting, "We pin all of the problems on the opposition, on not having a consensus. We don't need infighting, but we should have competition. When we compete we produce the best from ourselves."

Shaha Aliriza, senior program officer for the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy, agreed, saying, "There should be differences within the opposition. That's healthy, and gives the people choices."

Salah Elbakkoush tried to find common ground. "We should strive for a consensus about rules to govern the competition of ideas among the different groups," he said. Ibrahim Sahad noted, "We are enjoying more cooperation than we were last year, and I think that will continue. I think that it is not difficult for Libyans to learn to work together."

Perhaps the most heated discussion centered on a future political system and new Libyan constitution. "The ideal alternative is a state of institutions and law, including a constitution and separation of powers," said Ali Tarhuni. "Can a constitutional republic which includes indigenous elements survive in a tribal society like ours? I think the chances are good." Shamis added, "Whatever system comes must meet the aspirations of the people and contain checks and balances which prevent the emergence of something like Qaddafi."

A Slowly Emerging Consensus

When some of the participants claimed a consensus in favor of a democratic system in post-Qaddafi Libya, Tarhuni exclaimed, "This is news to me. We have a slowly emerging consensus on some slogans about democracy. That is different from a consensus on a well thought out system of government."

Educator Kadija Ali of Benghazi also was critical. "The people who are talking about democracy are not democratic themselves...Where are the women in your democracy? We are excluded!"

Abuzaakouk warned against attempts to marginalize the Islamist movement in a future Libyan political system, as is occurring in neighboring Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. "Islamism is blowing throughout the Muslim world," he said. "Libya cannot be isolated from it. The Muslim society we hope for is a civil society governed by values. Whoever is elected will be accountable to the Libyan people and the values which they live by."

Mohamed Berrween declared that "Our fear as Islamists is that of the Algerian experience," when Islamists were judged to be anti-democratic. "There are Muslims who are genuine democrats, who believe in democratic values and are willing to die for them.''

Discussing a future economic course for Libya, Tarik Al-Magariaf, a Harvard-educated economist and son of NFSL leader Mohamed Al-Magariaf, noted, "The goals of economic development in post-Qaddafi Libya are the same as they were in 1969." He said these include employment, maintenance of a favorable balance of payments, equitable income distribution and preparation for the day when Libya's oil supplies are exhausted. Most participants argued for privatization and a strong private sector economy.

However, economist Misbah Oreibi argued, "Whatever you do, whether you privatize or not, the state will be a very important actor in the Libyan economy" due to its reliance on petroleum and the bloated public sector in Qaddafi's Libya. Oreibi warned that many of the big public sector enterprises will simply have to be shut down and the losses absorbed because they will never be profitable.

Regional Integration

The issue of regional economic integration also produced a variety of responses. Ali Tarhuni argued that with privatization, entrepreneurs will reach out and get involved in regional cooperation by searching for markets.

Management consultant Mahmoud Dakhil disagreed. "We cannot talk about regional integration without first looking at ourselves," he argued. "We have to help the Libyan people, put them on their feet, repair the damage, and then five or six years later begin to look for markets and regional integration."

Al-Magariaf warned conference participants against an exaggerated dependence on the state for future economic initiatives, noting that the current regime is already in a budget deficit crisis.

The CSIS conference provided an opportunity, for American policymakers, analysts arid journalists to see the variety of ideas and the depth of commitment exhibited by the Libyan opposition in exile. More importantly, however, it created a neutral forum for Libyan thinkers and activists to debate frankly the issues facing their country today and tomorrow. Although the discussion was occasionally heated, panel participants and the Libyans in the audience never lost sight of their common goal. In the words of Omar Fathaly, "If we manage to overthrow Qaddafi we have succeeded. Otherwise we are just standing still." 

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