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Democracy In Libya ‘is not a new development’

 - Sunday, 15 July 2012, 00:00 , by Noel Grima

The last time Dr Saadun Suayeh was in Malta, he was the Libyan ambassador when the Libyan uprising took place and his position was quite shaky.

He was Gaddafi’s man in Malta and his embassy was soon surrounded by protesting Libyans who wanted to remove the green flag.

Then he slowly morphed: the new flag was raised, the demonstrators dispersed and he later told a newspaper that he had been playing the double agent, giving the Malta government information passed on by his pro-Gaddafi superiors.

Now he was back, in his new position as Adviser to the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, on his way back to his country from the US.

And on Thursday, Dr Suayeh was speaking at AŻAD in Valletta about Libya’s march to democracy.

There is a YouTube clip showing an interview by an American professor with Dr Suayeh carried out in 2009 when Gaddafi was in power and Dr Suayeh spoke positively, and inevitably, about Gaddafi’s version of democracy and pan-African ambitions.

That is now over. On Thursday, he spoke on the history of Libya before Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution, stating that democracy in Libya is ‘not a new development’.

In post-WW2 years, Libya was a British and French protectorate. However, the political parties that started to be formed around then always had independence in their sights. Independence came in 1951 but, foreshadowing what is happening in today’s Libya, the main issues were not settled: a federal state or one state, a monarchy or a republic?

The British manipulated and the main party was depleted of its supporters and its leader exiled. King Idris thus became not just a figurehead monarch but a real king who did away with political parties, after which only personal candidates were allowed to stand for elections.

Into this weakened state came Gaddafi’s revolution in 1969. At first, power was in the hands of a Revolutionary Council but in later years real power was in the hands of Gaddafi, his family and his cronies, even though the Green Book said all power was in the hands of the people. Libyans were deprived of any influence from surrounding countries.

So although one can argue that democracy in Libya did not begin in 2011, in a different sense the biggest challenge now is to build a democracy almost from scratch, where law courts are independent, and the State has enough force to protect human rights. This means the dismantlement of the many militias that have cropped up after the fighting. Fifty thousand died in the fighting, other thousands are still missing or displaced, handicapped or wounded.

As positive as he had sounded in 2009, if not more, Dr Suayeh painted an optimistic picture of present day, post-Gaddafi Libya.

Last week’s election, with a 60 per cent participation rate, has created the first elected parliament in Libya. The next step is a new Constitution. At first, the NTC spoke of choosing a constitutional body of 60 people, 20 from each region, to draw up a new Constitution. Recently, NTC started speaking of this body being directly elected by the people.

The new Constitution has a lot of issues it must unravel: will Libya be a federal or a non-federal state? Will the President be on the US model or will the Prime Minister be the most important political leader?

More important will be what rights of free speech will be enshrined, freedom of belief, rights of women, and so on.

For many, the position of Islam in the Constitution will be a crucial issue. Libya is largely Islamic and all Libyans accept this. But the real issue concerns the role of Sharia in the new Constitution. Some argue that Sharia should be the source of all legislation while the more strict Islamists, the Salafis, want it to have a more absolute role. However, generally speaking, Libyans are more moderate than the Egyptians and Tunisians, Libyans are more secularists than their neighbours. The Libyan brand of Islam is Sunni, which is more moderate than the other tendencies within Islam especially the Shiites.

Again, the drafters of the new Constitution will not be working in a vacuum, as they have the 1953 Constitution to work on.

Libya’s oil and gas resources are crucial but equally crucial are its human resources, ranging from engineers to businessmen and experts.

Finally, Dr Suayeh spoke about Libya’s relations with Europe. Libya is the cradle of civilization with its Phoenician, Roman and Greek past. Libya has no less than 2,000 km of sandy beaches to offer. It welcomes Foreign Direct Investment and hopes that a stable democracy will enhance its attractiveness. Libya needs all the support it can get. Malta has played a significant role in the Libyan uprising. Europe is Libya’s strongest partner and Libya would dearly like to be included in the Barcelona process and hopes it will soon be admitted as a full member.

The task ahead is a formidable one and now is the time for national reconciliation.

During question time, Dr Suayeh’s optimism was soon put to task. Former ambassador George Saliba said he is not that optimistic as the security situation in Libya is far from settled. People are afraid to go out at night and democracy without security does not generate investment. There is a need for a person or a system that ensures stability and peace but people are afraid of entrusting their future in the hands of one person or system. Perhaps elections should have been held only when the security issue had been solved. And corruption today is worse than ever.

In reply, Dr Suayeh repeated the strongest challenge today is to ensure the rule of law and holding the election was a step towards ensuring the rule of law. Also, social cohesion is slowly being rebuilt. Now that a parliament has been chosen and a new government is in place, with a new Constitution within 120 days, the State’s structural building blocks are slowly being put together. It will only be if, after all these efforts, the security situation remains as bad that one has to start worrying.

Towards the end of the meeting, a participant announced the setting up of the Libya Foundation for Rehabilitation, a non-political, not for profit charity which aims to help Libya heal its wounds and assist in the rehabilitation and support of Libyan war victims including the injured, abused, refugees, traumatized children, political prisoners, demobilized fighters and unemployed. (For more information visit www.libyarehab.org)

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