A battle for equality in Libya

Just as the country was set for a reconciliation conference to design a democracy, the strongest warlord attacks the capital, perhaps on a mistaken belief that Libyans want dictatorship. The UN has proved him wrong.

A child in Benghazi carries the flag of Libya during a Feb. 17 celebration of the eighth anniversary of the revolution against Muammar Qaddafi.

Of the five Arab nations currently in acute civil strife – Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – it is easy to forget the initial yearning that led to the harsh reactions from authoritarian figures. In each country people simply had taken a peaceful stance for democratic rule. In Libya, that purity of purpose is often overlooked, especially now that the North African nation has descended into all-out war.

Last Thursday, Libya’s strongest warlord, Khalifa Haftar, launched an attack on the capital, Tripoli, seat of a United Nations-backed regime led by Fayez al-Sarraj. The attack by the self-styled Libyan National Army was a sudden turn for Mr. Haftar, who had been participating in a U.N.-led peace process. Next week, his faction was set to join more than 120 delegates at a national reconciliation conference aimed at writing a constitution and holding elections. Instead, millions of civilians in Tripoli are now under fire or fleeing.

Perhaps Mr. Haftar, who once worked for former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, believes Libyans are not ready for democracy and want a strongman. That would explain why Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates support him. Just before the attack, he visited Saudi Arabia’s king, who has revived his own crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Why would a reconciliation conference be such a threat? The reason could be that U.N. diplomats, led by special envoy Ghassan Salamé, had consulted thousands of Libyans in 57 towns across the country last year, listening to their desires for peace and their views on restoring democracy. Among the monarchs and dictators of the Middle East, such grassroots consultation is seen as a sign of weakness and threatens notions of elite rule.

Despite Libya’s divisions along ethnic and tribal lines, the people seek a political equality that can be assured only in a democracy. “What makes Mr. Haftar a better candidate [to rule] than other Libyans?” asked interior minister Fathi Bashagha in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Foreign powers often intervene in Libya for narrow interests, whether to prevent democracy, gain access to oil, stop terrorists, or block migration to Europe. What they often neglect are the aspirations of Libyans for rights and freedoms. Those desires can eventually win out.

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