March 4, 2007 / 12:59 PM / 11 years ago

Gaddafi debate shows limits to change in Libya

By William Maclean - Analysis

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi, ever the political showman, has chosen the talk show as a new way of sending a message to the West: Economic reform will help Libya, but political change is not needed.

Sitting around a table in front of the international media, he said in an unprecedented debate with two Western thinkers and a celebrated British journalist that the ballot box was not for his oil-exporting nation.

His Jamahiriyah “state of the masses” would stay, he said, defending a system of town hall meetings in which political parties are banned and which he says other nations should adopt.

Globalization, however, could be of economic benefit as Libya unshackles its statist economy, said Gaddafi, leader of the north African country since seizing power in a 1969 coup.

The tape of Friday’s debate will be distributed to international television channels and may be placed on a Libyan government Web site, said George Snell, an official of a U.S. public relations firm involved in organizing Friday’s event.

Despite Gaddafi’s support for Jamahiriyah, some Libyans have nevertheless wondered whether change will one day come to the political realm, pointing to calls for pro-democracy reforms made last year by his most prominent son, Saif al-Islam.

Gaddafi on Friday left no one in any doubt.

“Direct people’s democracy in coming years will be a model for other countries,” the leader told U.S. political scientist Benjamin Barber and sociologist Anthony Giddens in a discussion moderated by journalist David Frost.

Critics say the Jamahiriyah system has helped to impoverish the people and is a cover for authoritarian rule.

Observers said the event showed both the promise and the limits of change in the country, re-engaging with the world after years of international isolation under sanctions.

If the debate is broadcast in Libya, the images of give and take of the discussion could strike a blow for free expression in a country with a state-controlled media.

Gaddafi was challenged and sometimes contradicted by the Western experts on his opposition to the ballot box.

“I have a basic source of disagreement with Mr. Gaddafi,” sociologist Giddens told the gathering, using language never publicly heard in Libya.

But Saturday’s Libyan newspapers splashed reports of a meeting with political associates Gaddafi held later on Friday in which he denounced Western domination of the world and urged Libyans to train militarily to prepare to fight off invaders.

There was no word of the debate.

“It’s a common misconception that political and economic reform go hand in hand,” said North Africa expert George Joffe of Cambridge University. “The Gaddafi government has become more subtle and tolerates more variety than in the past. But the underlying levers of control are there.”

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