- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

SABHA, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi said in an unusual debate yesterday it was time for his long-isolated nation to open up to the world and that one day Libya won’t need him as leader. Still, he insisted that the ruling ideology he has entrenched here for three decades is superior to Western democracy.

The debate itself was a sign of the gradual change in the oil-rich country: Two Western intellectuals held a rare back-and-forth with a leader long vilified in the West. Col. Gadhafi is still viewed as an eccentric autocrat even as Libya emerges from its pariah status.

The debate was held on the sidelines of celebrations yesterday marking the 30th anniversary of the declaration of the “Jamahiriya,” or “rule of the masses,” the political philosophy created by Col. Gadhafi in his famed “Green Book.” It calls for a direct democracy in which every citizen is involved in rule through People’s Conferences, but critics say it has translated into one-man domination.

“Forming political parties is treason,” read one of the billboards touting “Green Book” slogans lining roads in the Sahara Desert town of Sabha, 360 miles south of Tripoli, where the “Jamahiriya” was declared on March 2, 1977, and where yesterday’s ceremonies were held.

In the debate, held in front of a group of Western journalists, American political theorist Benjamin Barber, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, and British social scientist Anthony Giddens, the former director of the London School of Economics, politely — sometimes deferentially — pressed the man known here as “Brother Leader” on the need for reform.

Col. Gadhafi, dressed in brown robes and a traditional Libyan cap, argued against representative democracy, insisting that under Libya’s system, “everyone enters into authority, there’s not a single person who monopolizes authority. Thus the struggle for power ends.”

Col. Gadhafi dismissed the need for greater freedom of expression in Libya, where tight control is kept on the state-run press and many foreign newspapers are banned.

“The press [in Libya] is owned by the community, not by a company … that reflects the views of its owners,” he said. “That is not freedom of the press at all, it is freedom for those who have the money to publish these newspapers. Freedom of the press does not exist in a genuine sense in the world.”

But Col. Gadhafi acknowledged that Libya must open its economy to the world.

“No doubt, Libya is part of a world in which globalization prevails,” he said. “It cannot row against the current.”

“I hope that the Libyan people will rule themselves through Popular Conferences and there will be no need for Moammar Gadhafi now or the Moammar Gadhafi of the future,” he said. “The masses are gaining power now. I hope the Libyan people will be a model for the world.”

Col. Gadhafi, shunned internationally for much of his rule because the West accused him of terrorism, improved his standing in 2003 when Libya accepted civil responsibility for the bombing of a passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Months later Tripoli announced it would abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs. The announcement drew praise from London and Washington and in September 2004, President Bush formally ended a U.S. trade embargo.

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