Last Updated: Fri Aug 26, 2011 17:32 pm (KSA) 14:32 pm (GMT)

Amir Taheri: Libya: Pandora’s box or coffer of jewels?

Amir Taheri

By the time this column appears, Libyan despot Muammar Qaddafi could be anywhere.

He could be in Mauritania where he is reported to have extensive investments, or in South Africa where President Jacob Zuma has benefited from his largesse. And, what about Venezuela where his “brother-friend” Hugo Chavez is in power? Also, he may be in the hands of the rebels who have entered his capital.

However, the truth is that, politically, wherever he is, Qaddafi is nowhere. The mischief he has made in the past six months was the final bouquet in the fiendish fireworks he triggered 42 years ago.

What is important now is to make sure that Libya does not end up with another Qaddafi or a “lite” version of the colonel-clown.

However, it would be naive to think that post-Qaddafi Libya would simply reverse gears and take the road to democracy. There is little in the Libyan society as it emerges from Qaddafism to support that vision.

Comparisons with Egypt and Tunisia would be misleading.

Egypt had a taste of proto-democracy before Abdul-Nasser seized power. Partly thanks to contact with Western Europe, Egyptian elites had at least flirted with democratic ideas for 150 years. Before General Ben Ali imposed his police state, Tunisia had lived under Habib Bourguiba’s autocracy that, though far from democratic, was not despotic either. More importantly, perhaps, the presence of a million Tunisian immigrants in Western Europe and North America, many of whom visit the country every year, provided a human link to a different world.

In Libya, the situation is different. Most Libyans have known nothing but despotism. Almost two-thirds were not even born when Qaddafi seized power. Apart from Sufi fraternities, the country had few civic institutions. It never had political parties of an appreciable size. Nor did it enjoy the experience of free and robust media, even for a short while.

Thus, the current tendency of the Libyan society is towards dictatorship, not democracy. It is no accident that a majority of the members of the National Transition Council, now the interim government, consists of defectors from Qaddafi’s regime.

This does not mean that the individuals in question are necessarily bad men. What it means is that Libya needs a system of government in which even bad men are denied the chance to do mischief. A bad system run by the best of men seldom does any good while the worst of men could do little harm in a good system.

As far as Libya is concerned the first rule must be: do no harm. One must not assume that Libya is a blank page on which to draw the image of an ideal society. Over the past weeks, we have seen dozens of “drafts” for a future ideal Libya. Some of us have even been invited by the French government to help produce “a project for society” in post-Qaddafi Libya. (Needless to say, we refused.)

The only problem with Qaddafi’s system was not that it was not democratic. After all, democracy is a relatively recent method of government. Human history is full of fairly successful, and relatively humane, societies that were not democratic.

The fundamental problem with Gaddafi’s system was that it was not Libyan in the sense that it had nothing to do with Libyan history, culture and sensibilities. It was a fabrication, a lie, imposed on the Libyan people. Beginning with its very name, everything about this Jamahiryah was a lie. The “Supreme Guide” lied to the people, and the people lied back to him. What Qaddafi achieved over 42 years was the destruction of the Libyan government, in fact of the very sense of government in Libya.

Any system of government should reflect the history, aspirations, and realities of the society it pretends to administer. The Qaddafist system did nothing of the sort.

To be credible a system must have an inner logic and respect its own rules and laws. The Qaddafist system failed on both scores. Over four decades, several senior Libyan personalities, including Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, have admitted to this writer that they were unable to define the inner logic of their system. They were also obliged to admit that rules that one thought were in place could change even while one talked about them.

In comparison, the defunct Soviet Union had an inner logic and respected the rules it set for itself. Even under Stalin a senior official could not suddenly “disappear” without discussions in the Politburo and, in most cases, at least a show trial. Nor could the “Man of Steel” change a major policy on a personal whim.

The present Communist system in China is another example. It is certainly not democratic and, in my opinion, a bad bargain for the Chinese people. Nevertheless, it has its inner logic and is respectful of most of the rules it sets.

With Qaddafi hopefully gone, the lid has been knocked off the Libyan box of mysteries. No one knows whether we have opened Pandora’s Box or a coffer of jewels long hidden by an evil warlock.

The best thing to do is to let Libyans talk, and listen, to each other and the rest of the world, and be heard. For four decades, only one voice was allowed in Libya: that of the colonel. Let us see, and hear, if there are other voices and, if yes, whether they are worth listening to. Before aspiring to follow a democratic course, Libya must correct its freedom deficit.

(The writer is a columnist for Asharq Al Awsat, where this article first appeared on Aug. 26, 2011.)

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