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What Are the Prospects for Democracy in Libya?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WNYC
Protester at Lybian embassy in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Benjamin Barber, political theorist and Distinguished Fellow at the policy center Demos, and a former member of the Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation, discusses his resignation from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation and his take on the prospects for democracy in Libya.

Colonel Moammar Gadhafi said to the public on Tuesday that he would fight to the end to maintain his position as Libya's ruler. After hundreds of deaths, protesters are starting to flee, but the future is still unclear for Libya's ruler and the country itself.

In a Huffington Post article on Tuesday, Libya expert Benjamin Barber wrote that Gadhafi, who's been in power since 1969, is less Mubarak and more Castro. Here's how he explained it.

He's in the model of somebody who was a revolutionary founder of a modern nationalist state in Libya...he came to power as a revolutionary liberator of Libya from a monarchy...and when he first came on the scene, he came on the scene as a revolutionary. So you know, you now have his regime which is without question a tyrannical, and as we've seen recently, capable of barbarism in its responses, but a regime that goes all the way back to a revolutionary founding. And this is a man who sees himself in terms of revolutionary socialism, revolutionary nationalism, a very different character than somebody like Mubarak who was a third generation...someone who took over after Sadat was assassinated...a very different breed.

According to Barber, Col. Gadhafi's son Saif was trying to lead a reform movement in Libya before the protests began, but was won over by family ties as he sided with his father's decision to stay put. Barber said the general global perception of Saif is that, "the apple doesn't drop far from the tree," but Barber said he knows another lesser known side of the ruler's son.

I know the other story and frankly the other story is much more credible...he went to London and earned a Ph.D. degree from the London School of Economics in political philosophy and came back to Libya and founded the Gadhafi Foundation, and it's not the Moammar Gadhafi Foundation...it's the Saif Gadhafi Foundation for Charity and Development and that foundation became Saif's instrument for an effort at reform and change...Saif became a champion of trying to get people out of prison who had been imprisoned by the regime.

But after Saif Gadhafi spoke this weekend and chose to side with his father, he "martyred" his own reform work, Barber said. Barber resigned on Tuesday from his post on the international board of Saif's foundation and said he doesn't see much hope for what lies ahead for Libya.

I do not believe that violent revolution or even uprising and protest in the streets is necessarily the best way to get to democracy. I hope all of those that criticize me for looking for a slow road, a reform road to democracy, I hope you will all note that as of today, there is not a single regime in the Middle East or North Africa that has in any way become more democratic. 

Though Barber applauds what has happened in Egypt, for example, even there, Mubarak's regime, by way of his staff, is still running Egypt. Barber said what seems certain in Libya is the unlikelihood of a democracy any time soon.

As a political theorist, and any political theorist of democracy will tell you, that the successful democracies in the world have been the result of long, hard, patient work, the building of civic institutions, the building of civil society, the building of citizenship, experienced competent citizens able to make elections real...it's a long slow process.

Barber said he sees two consequences — ongoing civil war with Gadhafi hanging in and attempting to put down the revolt, or the overthrow of Gadhafi with chaos, clan warfare and perhaps the reimposition of state rule.

As for some of the international response condemning the violence in Libya, Barber calls it "all rhetoric."

All the western powers and Clinton and Obama have is, at this point, very weak power of talk, of rhetoric. They will make noises and they will condemn and they will say that's too bad, and they're right, it is terrible and it ought to be stopped. But we live in a world where it's impossible to intervene in the internal affairs, even when a revolution is going on, without inviting the charge of imperialism and colonialism.

Even Saif Gadhafi agreed, Barber said.

One of the true things that Saif Gadhafi said Sunday night in his speech was that if we don't get our act together, if there's a civil war here, it could invite foreign intervention and we've already seen noises being made in that direction, but given the realities in the ground, I suspect what we will see is a lot of talk and no action.

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Comments [3]

Mike from Tribeca

What's wrong with chaos? At the beginning of our own republic, the majority of the people didn't support the adoption of the Constitution. Such is the way of the world.

Feb. 23 2011 11:24 AM
michael from brooklyn

when your guest was mentioning unsuccessful violent revolutions, he forgot to mention a big successful one. the one the colonials fought against the british rule.

Feb. 23 2011 11:20 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Most dictators have had a degree of popularity for one reason or another:Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, the Shah of Iran, Kaddafi, Mubarak, and so on. But ultimately, anyone who rules for so long will eventually generate resentment and hatred. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Founding Fathers of the American republic ultimately realized that rulers must be elected servants of the people, and must surrender their rulership after a period of time. Democracy means that rulers must come and GO!
We elect the bums, and then we throw the bums out in favor of a new set of bums.

Feb. 23 2011 11:16 AM

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