Today's date:
Spring 2005

Why the Arab World Needs Democracy

SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI, the son and reputed heir apparent to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, is president of the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations. He came to the World Economic Forum in Davos as part of Libya's effort to reintegrate with the international community. He sat down there with NPQ and a small group of other editors to talk over coffee. Excerpts follow.

ON DEMOCRACY | In principle, I agree with President George Bush's aspiration to end tyranny and bring democracy to the Middle East, but not the way the United States has put this into practice.

We live in an interdependent world in which, for example, pollution crosses borders, where the fates of economies in North Africa affect immigration to Europe and so on. With those kinds of links, we need to improve people's lives through the extension of human rights and democracy all around in order to defend one's own country. I call this "cosmopolitan democracy," a democracy informed by cosmopolitan values in the sense that it takes all affected interests into account. But that kind of initiative should arise from civil society; it can't be imposed.

Take the elections in Iraq. Polling by US firms shows that only 7 percent of Iraqis regard the Americans as "liberators" instead of "occupiers." The Sunnis mostly boycotted the elections. Why? Because they knew the outcome of the election would give the Shiites control of Iraq. Before the election, perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the Sunnis supported the resistance to the American occupation. After the election that is likely to grow to 60 or 70 percent.

LEGITIMATE IRAQI RESISTANCE | I believe resistance to occupation is legitimate. People have the right to resist. After all, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said the US invasion was "illegal." At the same time, I believe that the kind of acts attributed to (Abu Musab) Zarqawi - if he is a real person - are immoral. Killing or kidnapping and then beheading innocent people who are journalists or who have just gone looking for work in Iraq is immoral.

TRIBES, NOT PARTIES | We have no experience with parties in Libya. Our tradition, which still informs our political life today, is based on tribes. As a result, we have what really amounts to a tribal federalism. In the past we have been a "managed democracy," but in the future I think democracy will become more direct and less managed, but nonetheless in accord with our traditions.

Democracy is the only way to improve our society because it is efficient. And it is efficient because it is competitive-the best person is chosen freely for the job. For this reason, democracy is critical to development. In much of the Arab world you are in government not because you are the best, but because you are loyal to whoever is in power. If you are not loyal, you are out.

I often ask my fellow Arabs why we have lost so many wars with Israel. The answer is because, unlike Israel, we lack democracy. The chief of the military staff is too often not chosen for competence or brilliance by elected leaders who will be held accountable, but because he is loyal. Often the worst instead of the best person is put in that job for one reason: He can be trusted not to make a coup d'etat against the government.

Libya's political system should not be based on loyalty or lineage. That would make a mockery of everything I've said about democracy. We are not the Kingdom of Libya.

ON THE HOLOCAUST | The Holocaust is a fact, and we should acknowledge it with sympathy for the victims. This is not something fabricated by the Americans, the Israelis or The New York Times. It was first reported by the Soviet Red Army when they came upon the camps. I personally know survivors of the Holocaust who have related the horror of their experience to me.