By William Maclean
SEBHA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi debated democracy with two Western scholars in the desert on Friday in a move apparently designed to further the resumption of international ties following years of isolation.
Speaking on the 30th anniversary of his declaration of a Jamahiriyah or state of the masses, Gaddafi said Libya was embracing globalization and the outside world after years of sanctions but insisted his experiment in rule by town hall meetings was fairer than the West’s ballot box democracy.
The veteran Libyan leader, speaking in front of a small invited group of western journalists, reiterated his view that representative democracy was the dictatorship of the 51 percent.
“51 percent — this is not democracy. This means that 49 percent is against the winner,” he told U.S. political scientist Benjamin Barber and British sociologist Anthony Giddens in a discussion moderated by British television journalist David Frost.
Dressed in sweeping brown African robes and occasionally holding a copy of his 1970s Green Book of political philosophy, Gaddafi said Libya accepted modernity in the shape of globalization even though, he said, it was driven by powerful Western financial interests.
“Libya cannot stand against the tide,” he said. “But the power of money is the one that rules. … This is an international dictatorship that is being practiced against people, especially poor people.”
But his north African country of about 6 million people would persist with Jamahiriyah because it genuinely gave more say to ordinary people than Western elections, which, he added, was a system enfeebled by voter apathy.
Critics say the north African country’s Jamahiriyah system, the only government most Libyans have known, is a fig leaf for authoritarian rule and has kept the country poor.
Admirers say the system of town hall meetings in which political parties are banned guarantees ordinary people a direct say in ruling themselves and ensures political stability.
Gaddafi seized power in a coup in 1969 and in 1977 he proclaimed Jamahiriyah popular rule to try to create the perfect society in line with the teachings of his Green Book, which combines aspects of socialism, Islam and pan-Arabism.
Local community meetings known as Basic People’s Congresses (BPC), surveyed by revolutionary committees composed of youthful Green Book enthusiasts, send up their decisions to a national tier of officials via a pyramid of committees and congresses.
The debate was held in a small room in a meeting hall in Sebha, the southern desert town where Gaddafi proclaimed Jamahiriyah in March 2, 1977.
Gaddafi, 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 Lockerbie.
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.