TRIPOLI, LIBYA – Noticeably absent from this week’s Arab summit was Libya, a snub by the Arab country led by the perpetually unconventional Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
“The empty chair is an answer to this summit that there is no respect for it,” said Colonel Qaddafi in an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday. “Libya has turned its back to Arabs … Libya is an African nation. As for Arabs, may God keep them happy and far away.”
Qaddafi’s cold shoulder toward his neighbors – and his rebuff of the summit agenda as serving only the interest of the “American empire” – points to that country’s continued awkward return to the international community.
While Libya has transformed its public face since 2003 – it denounced terrorism and gave up a program for weapons of mass destruction in exchange for normal diplomatic ties with the US – little appears to have changed in this north African country.
Along Tripoli’s main shopping area, watches bearing Qaddafi’s image gleam from shop windows. The streets are dotted with loitering young men, all of whom are supposed to have jobs that make them “partners, not wage workers,” a much- propagandized principle of Qaddafi’s 30-year-old political system.
Today, as much as 30 percent of the population remains jobless, according to 2004 estimates by the US government.
Despite reforms to its foreign policy, domestic governance comprises a series of hierarchical people’s committees which, according to Qaddafi’s Green Book that outlines the political system, devolves all the country’s decisionmaking power to the public. He declared in 1980 that he no longer had any official job with the government, and it was up to the Libyans to govern themselves.
Special courts that tried political prisoners were disbanded in 2005, 132 political prisoners were freed last year, some foreign journalists have been allowed into the country, and Human Rights Watch was granted access to the country in 2005. But more substantial reforms are not on the horizon, analysts say.
Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, has spoken about reforms via his Qaddafi International Development Foundation, which includes allowing privately owned media, releasing political prisoners, and granting reparations to those harmed by the government. But “at year’s end, there were no new developments to the foundation’s initiatives,” the US State Department pronounced.
“The US engagement with Libya was not meant to [change] Libya – it was meant to get rid of the nukes,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Indeed, in May 2006, the US restored full diplomatic ties with Tripoli. “Libya is an important model as nations around the world press for changes in behavior by the Iranian and North Korean regimes – changes that could be vital to international peace and security,” said US Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice in a statement.