The Middle East Channel

Qaddafi and the false dawn of a 'new Libya'

Last Sunday, with violence mounting as the Libyan government unleashed elements of its security apparatus to put down the uprising against the 40-plus-year reign of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi -- the colonel's son and heir apparent -- took to Libyan television to deliver a rambling speech threatening civil war and the potential takeover of Libya by militant Islamists. As I heard the reports of the younger Qaddafi's speech, I was puzzled -- were these the same militant Islamists the government had released from the notorious Abu Salim prison under a program of rehabilitation sponsored by none other than Saif al-Islam himself?

Along with a number of international experts and researchers, I traveled to Libya in March 2010 for a three-day public relations tour on the dime of the Qaddafi Foundation, the quasi-governmental organization headed by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The ostensible purpose of the trip was a conference on the terrorist deradicalization and rehabilitation program the foundation runs for imprisoned members of an al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. But what I and the other academics and think tankers assembled in Tripoli were really there for was the hard sell of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and the "new Libya" he supposedly represented.

Driving into Tripoli from the 1970s-era airport, the one thing that stood out over the Libyan capital's amorphous mass of sprawl was the ever-present gaze of Colonel Qaddafi. Posters and billboards bearing Qaddafi's image stare down on Tripoli's populace from just about every corner, an Orwellian reminder that the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution is still watching after 40 years and counting in power. Seeing billboard after billboard of Qaddafi on the drive from the airport -- not to mention the portraits and murals at the airport itself -- was more than enough to remind foreigners they are entering a closed society. It's not surprising, then, to hear recent reports of Libyans tearing down or otherwise defacing these omnipresent reminders of Qaddafi's rule.

The centerpiece of the trip was a daylong meeting with militants and officials responsible for Libya's religious militant rehabilitation program, which Qaddafi's son has taken on as a personal project. While the presentations gave me the impression that the militants that went through the program hadn't given up their radical views in any meaningful sense (they evaded questions about whether it was permissible to fight foreign troops in Afghanistan or Iraq), they had struck some sort of deal with the Libyan government not to engage in violence against the Qaddafi regime.

This daylong set of meetings and speeches (including a bizarre and rambling monologue on the superiority of Qaddafi's interpretation of Islam by the head of Libya's internal security agency) set the stage for our next event. Our group was then shuttled off through Tripoli to a glistening new palatial hotel for a press conference where Saif al-Islam announced the release of hundreds more "rehabilitated" prisoners. (As Human Rights Watch noted the day of the press conference, many of those held in Libyan prisons are held arbitrarily -- even after Libyan courts have ordered their release.) Three leaders of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were also on hand, and their statements seemed similar to what we had been told heard earlier -- that they hadn't given up on radicalism but weren't going to fight the Qaddafi regime. Open threats to return to violence if they were somehow offended -- such as the publishing of more cartoons of Prophet Mohammed -- reinforced my earlier impressions. If there were any doubts about the real purpose of our trip, they were quickly shed.

To me, it appeared less that the militants had given up on their radical views than that they and the Qaddafi regime had come to some sort of an accommodation. The Qaddafi regime would more vigorously promote and protect a more conservative brand of Islam while the militants would refrain from attacking the regime and accept it as legitimate. This kind of bargain -- whether more-or-less explicitly stated, as the case seemed to be in Libya, or an implicit deal between apparent to-the-death enemies, as in Egypt -- is quite common in the Middle East. In the face of religious militants, the powers-that-be make concessions toward ever-more conservative forms of religion, which they hope will insulate them from the critiques of militants. What is now uncertain is whether these militants will continue to refrain from violence in a post-Qaddafi Libya.

No matter what these released militants might do in the weeks and months ahead, what's become clear over the weekend is that the Qaddafi regime will not go without a bloody fight against its own people. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than during our group's trip to Abu Salim prison to witness the release of roughly 200 prisoners in a scene fit for the cameras of the international media. We learned from our interpreter that about 85 of those released had been captured either in transit to or fighting in Iraq -- another indication that there was less to this supposed deradicalization program than met the eye.

But Abu Salim is more known for a more disturbing episode -- the 1996 massacre of as many as 1,200 prisoners during a prison riot. The sordid truth of the Qaddafi regime, despite its effort to cultivate an image of a liberalizing Libya, is that it remains heavily authoritarian and abusive of human rights. The bloody scenes being played out on the streets of Libya's major cities are proof of the fundamental inability of the regime to change its ways. All the efforts made over the last eight years to convince the world that Libya has changed have all been for naught thanks to the hundreds of dead Libyans and the defiant posture of the Qaddafi family.

My trip to Libya almost a year ago was, in my view, primarily designed to cultivate the image of a reforming Libya in the eyes of influential academics and think-tankers. But the "new Libya" of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi was a mirage then and is now a dead proposition thanks to the events of this last weekend. A truly new Libya can only be one without the Qaddafis in charge.

Peter Juul is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.

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Stifled Kurdish opposition

Iraqi Kurds have belatedly followed the Egyptian revolution by protesting against the region's democratic deficit. The demonstration for "people's rights and freedom" held in Sulaimani city last week turned into a violent, stone-throwing episode against a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office, whose chief patron is Kurdish president Mas'ud Barzani. Local officials responded by gunning down the protestors, burning down opposition party offices, and implementing a curfew, while insisting on their commitment to democracy and stability.  Although more protests could occur, the possibilities that Iraqi Kurdistan will emulate the Egyptian model are limited. A lack of consciousness of citizenship rights, a controlled economy and absence of a real civil society will prevent the Kurdish opposition from escalating to a broad-based movement capable of mobilizing populations across sectors and classes.

To be sure, the Kurdistan region of Iraq is not unfamiliar to revolts against political authoritarianism. For the past 80 years, Iraqi Kurds have been fighting against Baghdad and rival Kurdish parties for political autonomy or independence. These conflicts, however, have been driven by nationalist sentiment and personal rivalries and not demands for individual liberties as Iraqi or Kurdish citizens. Even after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) formed in 1992, a state-society relationship based on citizen rights failed to develop. Socio-political structures continued to be defined by loyalty and patronage to traditional leaders in small isolated localities.

It was only after a decade of self-rule, marked by democratization efforts, civil war, and increasing authoritarianism that a new breed of independent thinkers started to openly criticize the KRG. Through their semi-free media, they pressed for greater political freedoms, an end to government corruption, and better social services. Frustrations peaked in 2006 in the border town of Halabja, which led to the first violent protests against the KRG and the use of government force to quell opposition.

Other attempts to instigate political change soon followed. In an effort to replicate the Egyptian al-Kifaya movement, in 2008 a small group of Kurds created the Hatakay movement (in Kurdish meaning "enough"), and made the first calls for the KRG's resignation. Although it garnered support from independents and youth in Sulaimani, Hatakay had neither the finances, leadership nor institutional support to mobilize the Kurdish masses. In fact, the movement petered out before reaching Arbil, the region's capital, where it could not withstand the centralizing tendencies of Barzani family power.

Potential repression is not the only reason why a broad-based Kurdish opposition has failed to take root. Unlike Egypt, the Kurdistan region has no private sector that can encourage independent enterprise or create alternative avenues for income generation outside the KRG. For average Kurds, the KRG and its party-apparatus control all aspects of economic and professional life. This dependency has increased since 2005, as the KRG has used its generous oil-based budget from Baghdad to expand its bureaucracy and distributive function, allocating more than 75 percent of its revenues to public sector salaries.

Nor does the region have a real civil society that could support alterative political ideas or activities. Kurdish associational life is created, financed and controlled by the KRG and its political parties, thereby creating another layer of dependency of public life. Even the opposition party, Goran (whose seed money was provided by its chief party rival), had to request "permission" from the KRG Ministry of Interior to conduct a pro-democracy demonstration. When the request was refused, Goran cancelled the protest.

Consequently, opposing the government in Iraqi Kurdistan assumes a different meaning than it does in Egypt. For the vast majority of Kurds, opposition means breaking a social contract not between citizen and state, but between Big-Daddy and child and leader and tribal member. Opposition does not only mean the risk of repression for a protestor, but loss of an entire family's income, as well as their economic and political disfranchisement from society. These particular circumstances are reinforced by the Kurds' overriding need to remain unified in Baghdad to protect their nationalist interests and to assure international oil companies that their region is secure for investment.  Maintaining stability is considered an obligation to Kurdish nationalism; those who threaten it are considered traitors.

Thus, whereby the Egyptian opposition gradually garnered open support over time as government violence increased, the Kurdish protestors and their supporters have been relatively silent. Even though most local populations unanimously agree that the use of force against the protestors was unwarranted, few outside Sulaimani city are willing or able to openly criticize the KRG. Even Goran wanted no responsibility for the protest or its victims, leaving the political aftermath as a score to be settled between the feuding Kurdish parties.

This is not to say that the Kurdistan Region is immune to revolutionary outcomes.  Although the KRG has been able to coopt, control and coerce its populations into passivity, largely through financial incentives and under the guise of ‘Kurdish nationalist interests', it will eventually have to engage in real political reforms or further jeopardize its image as a budding democracy.  The brewing youth movement in the Kurdistan Region may not overthrow the regime at present, but it can certainly raise awareness of citizens' rights and destabilize the region's oil-dependent economic development plans.

Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse University Press, 2010).

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