Same old Kadafi

April 15, 2005|By Suzanne Gershowitz

WASHINGTON - In the corridors of the State Department, diplomats joust for the honor of being Washington's first ambassador to Libya in more than 30 years. It has been nearly a year since President Bush ended sanctions on Libya and announced his intention to open a diplomatic office in Tripoli.

That speech followed a year of heady diplomacy, culminating March 12, 2003, with Mr. Bush's comment that "Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things."

As evidence of Libyan strongman Muammar el Kadafi's good will, he cited the case of Libya's most famous dissident. "We stand with courageous reformers. Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi Eljahmi. He's a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy. It's an encouraging step toward reform in Libya."

Two years on, though, the Kadafi sincerity has proved ephemeral. The Libyan spring has turned chilly.

Colonel Kadafi, the longest-reigning ruler in the Arab world who is still alive, has used rapprochement with the West to redouble oppression at home. He did not wait long. Just days after Mr. Bush praised Mr. Eljahmi, the civil engineer and former provincial governor spoke on Al-Hurra Arabic television and called for freedom and democracy. "At this moment, I challenge [Colonel Kadafi] from inside Libya and I am willing to sacrifice my life," he said. Colonel Kadafi's response was telling. Libyan security forces cut the Eljahmi family's phone lines and hauled the then-61-year-old diabetic off to prison.

Last month, after more than a year of delay, Libyan authorities allowed a small delegation from Physicians for Human Rights to visit Mr. Eljahmi in prison. Their report is damning. They found that the prison doctors "are not doing enough to reduce his diabetes-related complications" and that "he needs major improvements in the quality of his care."

The group, which shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, blasted the Libyan government, reporting that Mr. Eljahmi's "patient confidentiality is extremely limited and is well below intentional standards."

Mr. Eljahmi is not Colonel Kadafi's only political prisoner. Libyan prisons are full of men like Mr. Eljahmi whose crime has been to call for contested elections, question corruption or demand freedom of speech and assembly.

To her credit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been saying the right things. On March 30, she declared, "In all that lies ahead, our nation will continue to clarify for other nations the moral choice between oppression and freedom, and we will make it clear that ultimately, success in our relations depends on the treatment of their own people." But for the many dissidents rotting in Libyan prison - or, for that matter, Syrian, Iranian and North Korean prisons - words are not enough.

In its recently released 2004 Report on Human Rights and Democracy, the State Department concluded that there had been "little change" in Libya's human rights record. Neither free elections nor free press exist. Colonel Kadafi prohibits independent human rights organizations from operating, controls the courts and sanctions the use of torture and violence to persecute minorities, women and dissidents. Year after year, Freedom House has rated Libya to be among the world's least free nations.

The wave of democratization in the Middle East is real, but fragile. Its most potent enemy in the Arab world is the cynicism of those who say the United States is not sincere. Ms. Rice might speak, but what Arab dissidents see is that despite kind words, Western officials seem more interested in business. In his many trips to Libya in 2003 and 2004, Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns never once visited Mr. Eljahmi. In the past year, American executives have descended upon the country in their bid to get a slice of the oil pie.

While the State Department condemns Libyan human rights, the Libyans see not only empty American rhetoric but also Libyan officials growing almost boastful of their oppression. Hasan el-Kabir al-Kadafi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard and Colonel Kadafi's cousin, said recently, "These are not the days of globalism and speed, but the days of breaking ears and poking eyes." He continued to chide Libyan security officials for not silencing Mr. Eljahmi earlier.

Just as Mr. Bush recognized two years ago, Mr. Eljahmi is the barometer of change. Carrots only work if they're used to reward good behavior, not bad. Washington should not waste concessions. Much more is at issue than one man's health, though. Rather, the very enterprise of Mr. Bush's revolutionary approach is on the line.

Suzanne Gershowitz researches Arab democracy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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