Libya: Like Norway, but warmer

Foreign powers did help the Libyan rebels to overthrow Gaddafi, but Libya can still choose its own path.

    Western governments do not want to see social democracy in an oil-rich Arab country, and they will try to prevent it [GALLO/GETTY]

    In February 1776, in the early months of America's revolutionary war against Britain, Tom Paine wrote that "we have it in our power to begin the world again". In his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine ridiculed monarchy and aristocracy and called for a government of free people under the law. The great success of Common Sense helped ensure that the world did indeed begin again. All but extinct in Europe, republicanism and liberty found new life in the United States. Aided by the French and Spanish kings, the Americans themselves made do without the trash of crowns. The government they founded was not perfect, but the rebels in what would become the US dealt hereditary monarchy a blow from which it never recovered.

    This too is a time of revolutions. In the Middle East tyrants are falling. In Europe and the US people long resigned to corruption and plutocracy are beginning to stir. There is a great game to be played and much rests on the outcome. In one future, tyranny revives. A handful of magnates and their spokesmen in government take over ever more of the world's wealth, offering violence and deception in return. In another, the people succeed in their struggle for freedom and find new ways to safeguard their success. Each of us can choose to ignore the moment in which we live and lose ourselves in the rhythm of days passing. The game will play out with or without us. But our choices - each and every one of them - will have some bearing on the outcome.

    In Libya, a popular revolution has overthrown a tyrant. It is a delicate time. Many of the leading figures in the Transitional National Council are former members of the Gaddafi regime. There are reports of widespread atrocities in Tripoli against Africans and others accused of fighting for Gaddafi. The people took up arms for freedom, but every outrage against the defenceless and the innocent makes it easier for tyranny to return.

    The rebels would be wise to listen to Mahmoud Abdullah Al-Tahouni. He was one of the organizers of the first demonstrations against Gaddafi and has been in prison since March. As he explained to the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, he has no wish to see the dictator dead. “I want him to see how Libya will be without him, without his sons. We are building this country and I want him to see that.”

    If the humanitarian and democratic principles of the revolution are betrayed in the moment of victory, the loss will be felt far beyond Libya. Libya, with its great natural advantages, could become a light to the world. If the Libyans come to exert meaningful control over their government, the country could rival Norway in material wealth and human welfare. Like Norway, Libya has huge oil and gas reserves and a relatively small population. Unlike Norway, it has a Mediterranean coastline and spectacular ancient architecture. It also has the potential to generate huge amounts of solar power,  another advantage over Scandinavia. A tyrant and his family have looted the country for decades, poisoned its public life and intimidated its people. We can only guess at what a free people might achieve.

    As it stands, the remnants of the old regime and the Western powers are desperate to exclude the great majority from decisions about their country's development. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is already boasting that his country's largest oil and gas company Eni "will have a No. 1 role in the future" of Libya. World leaders are gathering in Paris to discuss reconstruction and France and Britain are eager to join Italy in determining Libya's future. There are reports of a deal with the Transitional National Council that gives France access to a third of Libya's oil. If Frattini is right, the substance of power will remain in the hands of the few. Western governments and oil companies do not want to see an outbreak of social democracy in an oil-rich Arab country, and they will do what they can to prevent it.

    Outright tyranny is no longer possible, perhaps, but there are ways of ensuring that elected politicians don't overstep the mark.

    Still, the triumph of Eni and BP and the rest is not inevitable. Libya has many friends in the world who wish it to be rich and free - for its own sake, and as a sign that change, deep change, is possible. The men and women who first took to the streets against Gaddafi know that they have great, world-changing, power in their hands. Foreign powers helped them overthrow their dictator. So what? Spain and France helped the US to free itself from Britain. The Americans were not ungrateful, but when they came to determine their government, they did not look to the courts of Paris or Madrid for inspiration.

    Similarly, Libyans need not take the suggestions of oil company executives and foreign diplomats too seriously. They would be wiser to look to another country in the cold north, Iceland, where the citizens themselves have been writing the constitution - a national forum chosen at random and an elected constitutional committee have been drafting a document that will eventually be adopted as the new constitution. Last week the chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was in Paris outlining his plans for a new Libyan constitution. Those who want Libya to be rich and free should insist on a constitutional convention in which all voices are heard. The collective drafting of a constitution will allow the Libyans to establish control over their country's natural resources. They might reasonably insist that former members of Gaddafi's ruling elite be disqualified from holding office in a democratic Libya. If the Transitional National Council refuses to permit an open convention it will have to explain why the people of Libya cannot enjoy at least as much power to shape their country's future as the people of Iceland. 

    Those of us outside Libya who wish the country well cannot do very much, but we can do something. We can pay attention. The democrats who brought down Ben Ali and Mubarak can offer solidarity and advice. Iraq's oil workers have learned valuable lessons about the tactics of the Western powers in their brave campaign to protect their country's assets from a foreign takeover. The demonstrators in Europe and the United States can weaken the forces of unaccountable power in their own countries by supporting democracy and natural justice in Libya.

    The war against Gaddafi is, I hope, drawing to a close. The struggle to begin the world again, in Libya and elsewhere, is still only beginning.

    Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. 

    Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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