Benghazi: the battle for democracy resumes

The protests against the transitional government in Libya show the West can’t just hand down democracy from afar.

Patrick Hayes

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Just a few weeks ago, many Western leaders appeared to believe their intervention in Libya was a job well done. They lent a hand in the disposal of the ogre Muammar Gaddafi. His bloodthirsty spawn, Saif, was under lock and key and facing International Criminal Court-assisted justice. And, importantly, the West had ensured that some nice, safe, Western-briefed leaders – the National Transitional Council (NTC) – would take power.

This cosy glow of self-satisfaction has been rudely interrupted by a new round of protests against the NTC in Benghazi this week, the city where the protests in Libya first began in February this year. Much faith has been placed in the NTC to steer the country on a democratic course. Months before Gaddafi was ousted, a UK Foreign Office spokesman had declared: ‘We now regard the NTC as the legitimate expression of the Libyan people. We have invited them to set up shop and represent the Libyan people with full diplomatic status.’ Responding to the council’s decision to delay elections in September, UK foreign minister William Hague explained the NTC needed time to create ‘the free, inclusive, democratic Libya that they are committed to’. A representative from Human Rights Watch praised the NTC’s leader, former Gaddafi justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, saying ‘It’s as if he just wouldn’t lie… I have never seen an Arab minister of justice who will publicly criticize the most powerful security agencies in the country’.

It seems many of the people of Benghazi lack this faith, however. Thousands of people have been taking to the streets in protest, with banners accusing the NTC of ‘stealing the revolution’, saying ‘the NTC must quit’ and ‘Jalil must go’. As a protester from the newly-formed Shabab Thwar (Rebel Youth) student group told the Guardian: ‘We did not liberate Libya to give it to old Gaddafi officials.’

One of the primary concerns is the lack of transparency regarding the operations of the NTC. No one even seems to know exactly who is on the council. Despite 33 members being listed on its official website, apparently 48 council members voted for a new prime minister last month. Equally, protesters have expressed concerns about the NTC’s decision to pardon former Gaddafi loyalists. While Jalil has made a statement urging the Libyan people to be patient, his response has done nothing to placate protesters, some of whom are now camping out in tents in a prominent area of Benghazi. As Bassem Fakhri, a political-science professor from the University of Benghazi, put it: ‘Jalil’s statement did not affect or touch anyone. Who is he to tell us this? He is not the president… We want transparency, representation for women, decentralisation, representation for youth and the full list of NTC members.’

Such a reaction against the NTC should come as no surprise. Throughout the Libyan conflict, many of the council members were not even in the country fighting alongside the Libyan people. These wannabe leaders were instead visiting Western countries to offer assurances that ‘extremism’ would play no role in the future of Libya. The rest of their time was spent in meetings and briefing sessions in the safe havens of Tunisia, the UAE and Qatar, planning for the time when they would inherit power and it was less risky to re-enter Libya. Indeed, having considered the conflict to be at something of a stalemate, the NTC leaders-in-waiting were caught off-guard by the speed with which the rebels took Tripoli and found themselves ‘racing to catch up’. The result was an embarrassing delay between Gaddafi’s forced departure and the NTC’s arrival.

Fundamentally, the NTC was more interested in gaining Western approval to lead in Libya than in understanding the needs and demands of the Libyan people and obtaining democratic legitimacy from them. Equally, Western intervention prevented the emergence of any genuine rebel leadership, not just through combat against Gaddafi, but also through the struggle to inspire the Libyan people to unite behind a shared vision of what a post-Gaddafi Libya could look like. The West simply obliterated Gaddafi’s forces, leaving a vacuum that the ragbag of rebels from disparate backgrounds could relatively safely fill.

Through its attempt to liberate Libya from afar, Western forces prevented the Libyan people from engaging in the messy process of making history for themselves and bringing about a genuine democracy that represents the will of the people. That the people of Benghazi look to be rejecting the Western-appointed guardians of democracy in the form of the NTC should be welcomed.

The NTC is not without its defenders, however. There are also reports of people taking to the streets in support of Jalil, praising his bold defiance of Gadaffi earlier in the year and urging protesters to give the council more time. Debates about who should be trusted to lead Libya are now taking place. Perhaps now the genuine battle for democracy in Libya, forged by the Libyan people themselves, can now resume – without the dead weight of Western interference.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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