As the international community grope to formulate an appropriate response that might prevent an imminent genocide in Libya, I was reminded of a discussion that I had with an informed gentleman way back in 2005. Intriguingly, his prediction of a wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world is indeed matched by events occurring on the ground in Middle East six years down the line.
Muammar Gaddafi according to his judgment is the one leader who would resist all pressure and employ every trick of the trade to retain his hold over Libya. This conversation of mine that also featured the gentleman dissecting the unique attributes of Libyan tribal groups to examine their significant role in Libyan politics prompted me to approach a prominent Libyan Opposition figure for a detailed perspective. His organization the Libyan Constitutional Union being closely associated with the Libyan Monarchy attracted my attention given the fact that the entire spectrum of the opposition are fighting under the royal banner that was used as the national flag from 1951 to 1969.
The Libyan Constitutional Union is a political organization opposed to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. It works out of United Kingdom and has been active since 1981. From inception the LCU has campaigned for the return to the 1951 constitution drafted under UN guidance and supervision and has called for the formation of a united opposition front to confront the authoritarian Gaddafi regime. It is part of the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition struggling to restore constitutional and democratic legitimacy to Libya. The organization has adopted Libya’s flag of independence as their banner and is led by founder Chairman Sheikh Mohamed Ben Ghalbon. Having suffered unbearable physical and mental torture after being imprisoned twice on fabricated charges in Libya, the 62 year old Ghalbon born in Benghazi was forced to leave his country. He now lives in exile in Manchester, UK with his family. King Idris had bestowed upon Ben Ghalbon the title of Sheikh prior to his demise. Here are some excerpts from the exclusive interview with Mohamed Ben Ghalbon, Chairman of Libyan Constitutional Union.
(Q) Col. Gaddafi has called for an international probe in Libya and has offered all cooperation. What is your opinion on his latest move?
MBG: Gaddafi also invited a selection of foreign media into the country; however, these select few have rarely been allowed to leave Tripoli central and the gaze of Gaddafi’s security forces. It is my opinion that any international probe would only be allowed into the country under the watchful gaze of the regime and would not been given free reign to see the true devastation through out the country. From the interviews he held with the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen and ABC Christian Amanpour, his message seems to be; forget what you see and hear with your own eyes and ears, and believe my account of events. The true extent of his atrocities will only be revealed if a fact finding mission is allowed into the country to go and talk to whoever they want free of his chaperones and without fear of his security apparatus. The chances of that happening are non existent.
(Q) Are you satisfied with the international community’s position on Libya? What sort of assistance are you expecting from European Union, United Nations and others?
MBG: Though the international community was initially slow off the mark, leading to unnecessary deaths and terror, the response we have seen in the past few days has been more reassuring. We would definitely like to see the international community impose a no fly zone throughout Libyan airspace ensuring that the regime cannot use their helicopter gun ships and fighter jets against the people. And also to prevent the transportation and deployment of foreign mercenaries into Libya and around parts of the country far apart. However, the thought of foreign military intervention does not sit well with us.
(Q) Rightly or wrongly a perception prevails that without Gaddafi at the helm there will be chaos in Libya – what is your opinion on it?
MBG: This idea has been spread by Gaddafi and his regime to instill fear into the people, like the old English saying- better the devil you know. He worked systematically since very early days, first to eliminate his opponents, then his rivals and finally any potential alternative. His target was; its either me (and my dynasty) or the abyss. It suited the west to accept this status quo as long as he remained strong enough to maintain continuous flow of oil. Now facts are changed on the ground, and the Libyan people are suddenly, and for the first time for long decades, a major player in this equation.
True the future of Libya is a road with many challenges, but the Libyan people have previously shown that they can come good under severe challenges. They ousted the Fascist regime of Mussolini and created a fully functioning viable independent state recognized by the UN in 1951. Given help and support by their friends this is a challenge they are capable of overcoming.
(Q) The absence of organized opposition group or young and dynamic leadership based in Libya who can assume power beyond Gaddafi is an issue that rattles the western powers. How does the opposition forces plan to fill the post Gaddafi void since there will be a political and social vacuum at the end of the struggle? Unlike Egypt, the military establishment in Libya is said to be highly faction ridden. Do you think they can provide stability and remain the fulcrum for a transitional regime?
MBG: Yes, this is a fair observation. But the fact that there isn’t an obvious, known and recognised potential leadership doesn’t mean that there are no credible and qualified people to face the challenge ahead. International observers like yourself are entitled to have a suspect opinion of the Libyan people, because for over 40 years they only see, or deal with, officials of the state who are part of Gaddafi’s regime, who are their because of blind loyalty to him, not due to their qualification or skill. Yes they are unconvincing and far from reassuring to lead a country or run a state. But the time has come that the world sees the true Libyan people who are willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom, democracy, human rights and dignity. Given enough time and assistance they will fill the vacuum.
(Q) Do you believe that the Turkish model of a reformist democracy is best suited for Libya at this critical juncture when there has been apprehension of a radical takeover of the Libyan society by hardliners?
MBG: There is no threat of a radical takeover of the Libyan society by hardliners. This is Gaddafi’s scare mongering and propaganda machine. It is regrettable that it seems to have affected many observers. The phenomenon of religious extremism is alien to the Libyan society. We know of many instances where young disillusioned people where shunned by their own families until they came back to their senses. Gaddafi deliberately and skillfully amplified (seemingly to great effects) the clashes that took place in the eastern part of Libya in the mid 90s between his security forces and some radical groups. But the truth of the matter is that was mostly by young people who are angry and frustrated from the regime, who found an outlet for their anger. They clashed with the regime through the only available means of the time. This phenomenon has now receded almost totally from society. What’s left of it are only individuals or small groups that any balanced society can carry in its stride. They form no weight or threat to anybody.
(Q) Latest data suggests that Libya compared to its African neighbors has a healthy economy with budget surplus, decently growing GDP rate and abundance of natural resources including crude oil. What made the people of Libya revolt against Gaddafi regime especially when public dissent is a rare phenomenon in your great nation?
MBG: Public dissent is a rare phenomenon in Libya as it is a police state. Over the past 41 years the despotic regime have spread terror across the world, such as the Lockerbie bombing, Berlin 1986 bombing, the shooting of a British police officer in London. However, this has paled into comparison to the terror and fear the regime spread among its people, from sending death squads to hunt and murder those in exile who dared to speak out against the regime to the mass murder of 1200 prisoners in Abu Saleem prison in 1996. In Libya if you are not with Gaddafi you are his enemy and his enemies invariably meet a bloody end.
Unfortunately, though Libya, as you quite rightly pointed out is a wealthy country, the wealth is not shared out amongst the people. It is Gaddafi and his cronies who are very wealthy, as shown by the vast amounts of assets that have been frozen by western governments. In Libya wages paid to government workers have not risen since 1981, yet the cost of living has risen, which has led to a high rate of corruption as the average civil servant looks to supplement his wage. Also 30% of Libyans live below the poverty line, and unemployment is rife. What is taking place in Libya is a full scale revolution by unarmed people wanting their freedom and self respect.
(Q) Do you have a future roadmap for economic and social development in Libya?
MBG: Libya is full of talented and qualified economists who are more than capable to do that once the country is rid of the tyrant and his regime.
(Q) Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has predicted an Islamic renaissance sweeping the Islamic world that will require the leadership to improve the plight of Muslim brothers and sisters across the globe. Do you believe that the disenchantment in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere is a wakeup call for Islamic nations to evolve a consensus in ensuring proper devolution of social, political and economic power to the masses?
MBG: As I mentioned above, this revolution was motivated mainly by people wanting their dignity and self respect back. It isn’t initiated, driven or a cover up to any religious agenda.
(Q) Once there is a regime change, would you favor an Indian participation in building the Libyan electoral infrastructure given the vast experience of the Indian Election Commission in conducting free and fair elections involving millions of electorate?
MBG: The LCU never put itself forward as a potential replacement to Gaddafi. The LCU has always emphasized the right of the people to restore justice, and thereafter decide a form of body politic and system of government as they may choose of their own free will; in a referendum under international supervision within a reasonable period, following the restoration of constitutional legality to the nation. The Indian democracy is a great example in the modern world. All democratically developing nations have something to learn from.
An edited version of this article was published by Asia Times Online