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Modern History of Libya: As Gaddafi opened country to neo-liberal reforms, he cracked down on opposition at home

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Now joining us is Ali Ahmida. He’s a professor and chair at the Department of Political Science at the University of England in Biddeford, Maine. He specializes in political theory, anticolonial resistance in modern Libya. And he’s the author of two books on Libya, The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance, and Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya. Thanks very much for joining us, Ali.

AHMIDA: My Pleasure, Paul.

JAY: While Gaddafi was integrating Libya into the kind of Western economy, and there was lots of privatization taking place, and he was doing more or less what the IMF wanted, one of the critiques of the rebellion is that they actually don’t differ on that, that you actually may have even more opening up of Libya to westernization. Is that–who are the people that are driving this?

AHMIDA: Well, Paul, there are two issues that are important to realize before we could answer this question. First is the Libyan regime, for the last ten years, before the major uprising, have pursued somehow a policy of reform. The most able elements in the regime executed a very efficient, very, very pragmatic policy that led to reconciling with the Western governments, result in Lockerbie disaster’s crisis and also opening a resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States and with other Western government. But that, you know, reformist agenda, you know, in the external affairs was not reciprocated internally, and they really–it was a cosmetic reform, which frustrated many people who were calling for genuine reform in Libya. And when the door was closed, when the reform process was aborted, a lot of people began to say this regime is not [inaudible] And add to that the most disastrous, bloody repression of the protests in Benghazi and in Bayda. Many people defected. A lot of the leaders of the Council in Benghazi, many of them are the most respected reformist officials in the Gaddafi regime. And to answer your question now, who are the people who are leading this uprising, we have two groups. The social base or the mass groups are youth who are educated under the regime. You’re talking about people who have the university degrees, unemployed. And Libya, 70 percent of the Libyan population is under 30 years old. And Libya has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. So we’re talking about an educated, literate, urban population led by a coalition of judges, lawyers, civil rights activists, women activists, academic journalists, who are leading this group, and also defected military officers and diplomats from the Gaddafi regime.

JAY: Now, when you say “reform”, that could mean different things, ’cause everybody talks about reform, but there’s–different interests want different kinds of reforms. So there’s–like, one set of reforms has to do with democratization and moving towards real elections. But there’s also what gets called reform is more integration into the Western economy, which some people call neoliberal economics, which includes privatization and more openness to Western capital. Which set of reforms are we talking about here?

AHMIDA: Well, I think the majority of the Libyan people are–they do agree on certain set of goals now. And Libya is, you know, one of the richest countries in Africa. Libya has only 6.5 million people. But at the same time, in its last two decades, corruption has been widespread. Unemployment rate was as high as maybe 25 percent, especially among the youth. And most Libyans who work for the government, they get $300, $400 a month. In the top echelon of the elite you find people who are really making a lot of money. Here is the irony, Paul. The reform that started, mainly a reform in having a constitution, having–. Libya doesn’t have any constitution, Paul, until now. Having a clear addressing of the [inaudible] and of the public institution, like education and health care. Most Libyans now, they can’t get even treatment that really was free and very, very decent up until the last 20 years, and they have to go spend their own money to be treated in Tunisia or in Egypt. There’s major, major, many, many young people who are unemployed and they can find jobs. So you’re talking about economic and social grievances, no constitution, a little bit of opening at the beginning of the millennium, but really not in pace with the major, major alienation and demands of the vast majority of middle- and lower-class Libyans. And for that reason what you have is the Council is really pushing for many of these demands especially. These demands were pushed by these reformers, folks who were working with the Gaddafi regime, including people like the ex-justice minister, Judge Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was heading the Council, or one of the major diplomats for the Council, a very, very good friend of mine by the name of Dr. Mahmoud Jebril. These people who are trying to push institutionalization, fighting corruption, freeing the press, allowing people to have stable, dependable jobs, educating the youth–.

JAY: But I’m asking something specific, which is some of the people that have left Gaddafi’s regime that had very senior positions there and joined the rebellion, one of the critiques of what’s been happening in the last few years, as you just mentioned, people are now paying for health care where before it was socially provided, that there’s been–you know, to whatever kind of social network, social-democratic type of reforms Gaddafi brought in, he was undoing as part of this kind of what was called liberalization of the Libyan economy. But these people have joined the rebellion. Are they for more of that kind of liberalization? Or are they for a different kind of economy?

AHMIDA: No, no, no, no. I think we have to be–the–they were–the vast majority of Libyans–forget about the opposition abroad, which has its own agenda. People inside Libya, they were very patient. They were not poor like the neighboring Tunisian and Egyptians, but they were really frustrated because their sense of, you know, we are smaller country, we should have a stable, dependable government, and our daily lives doesn’t have to be deteriorated so much. So these, they are concrete social and economic demands. And the Gaddafi’s regime–that’s the irony–educated many of these youth. I mean, Libyan women who are now pilots, judges, you know, writers, ministers, they are having–you know, they are literate, and they make 60 percent of Libyan university student body. These are educated under this regime. But the regime reached a dead end. It really failed to address the uprising in neighbor countries. And the old, old grievances that have not been addressed were crushed when the regime said, no, the protesters are drug addicts, they are al-Qaeda, brainwashed youth, and they are lunatics, and they are even rats. This is a declaration of war against the very people that you’re supposed to address and listen to.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Ali.

AHMIDA: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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