Sheep or wolf?
Since 2003, Libyan diplomats have been hard at work convincing the
West that Libya is no longer interested in amassing weapons of mass
destruction, blowing up Western airplanes or covertly financing armed
movements abroad. Presenting this new face has been largely effective:
Sanctions, in place since 1982, have been lifted; Libya has been
removed from the U.S. roster of terrorist nations; and the list of
international trade agreements continues to grow.
As part of this public relations drive, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi
and his officials have been keen to reassure Libyan critics that it is
now safe to return to Libya. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the
hundreds of thousands of exiled Libyans have not returned. However, one
did: Idrees Boufayed, a doctor living and working in Switzerland.
On Sept. 30, 2006, he returned to Libya for the first time in 16 years. And on Nov. 5, he disappeared.
Throughout its 37-year rule, the Qaddafi government has found as
many reasons to arrest its citizens as Libyans have found to abandon
their country. Thousands of critics of the Qaddafi regime, inside and
outside Libya, have either disappeared or been assassinated. My father,
the political dissident Jaballa Matar, disappeared from his home in
Cairo in March 1990. We still do not know whether he is alive or dead.
Astonishingly, on Dec. 29 — 55 days after his arrest — Boufayed was
released. The Libyan authorities offered no explanation for his
detention. And Boufayed, who had been a regular contributor to
dissident Web sites, has remained uncharacteristically silent ever
since. This change in behavior is not unusual: Almost all political
dissidents fortunate enough to be released have given up their
criticism of the regime. The machinery of Qaddafi’s government is as
effective as ever.
Now that the United States has incorporated the Libyan regime into
its so-called war on terrorism, it is difficult to see what political
pressure it can exert on the Libyan government to reform. Western
governments have had the power to effect change in Libya only as long
as the dictator’s government has hungered for the West’s acceptance.
The short-sighted paranoia with which the war on terrorism has been
managed has weakened any moral advantage the United States might once
The cards surrendered were hugely undervalued: The United States
could have compelled the Libyan dictatorship to do much more than just
hand over its outdated weapons of mass destruction and compensate the
families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over
Lockerbie, Scotland, with $2.7 billion — a sum that would be earned
back in trade deals during the first week after sanctions were lifted.
Although America has highlighted the issue of human rights in its
negotiations with Libya, none of the countries that now profit from a
close association with the Libyan leadership has demanded the release,
or even the trial, of the silenced political prisoners who crowd
Libya’s prisons. No country made it a condition in negotiations that
Libya investigate the countless cases of the "disappeared." None of
them compelled the Qaddafi government even to address the massacre at
Abu Salim prison, where, one night in June 1996, more than 1,000
political prisoners were shot and killed. In its 2003 negotiations with
Libya, the United States lost a golden opportunity to link the
improvement of Libya’s dismal human-rights situation to its acceptance
into the international community. Indeed, it can be argued that the
United States has instead helped worsen human rights in Libya. It has
not only defended torture, which has softened the critical gaze on
Libya’s own practice of torture, but also encouraged the practice by
sending Libyans suspected of terrorism to Tripoli for "interrogation."
Furthermore, Qaddafi has used the new panic — that the Islamist
bogeyman will imminently shroud the world under his dark beard — as an
excuse to silence critics. That tactic has fomented rather than curbed
religious extremism in Libya as elsewhere.
The impression that a bloodless battle has been won in Libya rests
on an inflated notion of the threat the country, even with its rusty
weapons of mass destruction, ever posed to the West. It misreads an act
of diplomatic negligence toward the rights of the Libyan people as a
victory for world peace.
Qaddafi deserves sole credit for Libya’s foreign policy U-turn. He
has never found it necessary to devote himself to a single political
ideology; his only consistent policy has been to guard his personal
political survival. The United States and Britain understand this, but
have only exploited it for their own myopic objectives, forgetting that
Libya’s political development can lie only with its people.