More than two years after the U.S. government began its rapprochement, how goes life in Libya? At first appearance, some may think Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi has reformed. Last week, the State Department released its annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.” As pejorative as was the description of Libya, the report still puts too much of a fine patina on the Libyan regime. It inaccurately said that the Libyan security forces are under civilian control. They are not. They are under the control of Libyan military ruler, Col. Muammar Qadhafi as is every facet of Libyan political and economic life.
Qadhafi has sought to improve his image. On March 2, 2006, for example, he released 130 prisoners. This was an empty gesture. In the riots that followed the February 17 cartoon protests, Qadhafi rounded up scores of new prisoners. Political dissidents–my brother, Fathi, among them–have spent years in prison for the crime of demanding freedom of speech and multiparty elections.
Qadhafi is weak. There is no freedom of association in Libya. He staged the cartoon protests in front of the Italian consulate in Benghazi to rally populist support and extort concessions from a Europe too willing to self-flagellate and assume guilt. But something went wrong: The rally went awry. State-security officials and plain-clothed members of the Revolutionary Committees shot and killed 11 people. In the following three days, rioters burned government buildings, police cars, and branches of the Revolutionary Committees. Chaos grew as violence spread to the coastal cities of Tobruq and Derna. The Libyan government called in Special Forces and units of commandoes to take control and Benghazi was put under an unannounced state of martial law.
Qadhafi can disrupt phone service and text messaging, and he can impose a media blackout. But he cannot pretend Libya is secure. Nor that the Libyan people’s patience is infinite. He can no longer even prevent a protest–one which he himself sanctioned–from running amok and turning against his own government.
In a March 2, 2006, speech, Qadhafi said the riots occurred because the Libyans are angry with the Italians. He demanded Italy pay compensation for its past occupation of Libya. In the same speech, Qadhafi hailed his al-Jamahiriya “state of the masses” and condemned representative democracy, constitutions and free press. He argued that elections would only bring chaos. Many Arab dictators use the same strategy of fear. But the truth is inescapable. There is yearning for an end to the totalitarian state. Georgia has its Rose Revolution and Ukraine its Orange Revolution. In Benghazi, they now speak of the Vagabond’s Revolution.
Nevertheless, Qadhafi continues his public-relations ploys. His reason is simple. He seeks exemption from U.S. efforts to democratize the Middle East. But prisoner releases should not be celebrated, especially as the Libyan leader simply refills the prisons. He treats Libyans as chits with which to win concessions, not as citizens. Washington should not waiver. Political reform in Libya is not possible without outside pressure. But while the Libyan people have shown that they are worthy partners for reform, U.S. pressure on Qadhafi has been weak.
The Libyan people are hungry for freedom. The riots in Benghazi have provided the U.S. with a golden opportunity to show solidarity with an impoverished and unjustly treated people. America can win the hearts and minds of the destitute in Libya by pressuring the Libyan government to repeal its repressive laws and to legalize dissent. Instead of coddling Qadhafi, the U.S. should recognize the Libyan people as a far more serious partner in reform. Sometimes, it is necessary to determine that an experiment in engagement, no matter how sincere from Washington, is going nowhere. True diplomacy requires sincerity among both parties.
–Mohamed Eljahmi is a Libyan-American activist. His brother Fathi was re-arrested in March 2004, two weeks after President Bush declared his brief release a symbol of a changing Libya. Fathi remains in prison.