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qatar1Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, was forced to apologise today after party workers created a poster depicting Alex Salmond in Arab dress.

Mr Rennie said he was very embarrassed by the actions of Lib Dem workers who had been trying to draw attention to the first minister’s decision to compare Scotland with Qatar while on a tour of the Gulf states.

The poster, which went out on the Scottish Lib Dems Twitter feed, stated: “Salmond hails ‘similarities’ between Qatar and Scotland. A glimpse into Salmond’s independent Scotland perhaps?”

Underneath the headline was a mocked-up picture of Mr Salmond wearing Arab dress and walking a camel through the desert.

Alongside were three bullet points: “Absolute monarchy controls all aspects of life; Gay rights suppressed and no legal recognition of same sex marriage; Death penalty used for crimes against the state.”

It was finished with the question: “Mr Salmond’s independent Scotland?”

Mr Rennie was quick to disown the poster, make sure it was removed from the web and to apologise publicly for the mock-up.

Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland, Mr Rennie said: “I apologise for the offence that has clearly been caused by the cartoon on the first minister’s remarks in Qatar. Although I did not approve its publication, I take responsibility for it. It has been interpreted in ways that were not intended. It has now been withdrawn. I apologise.”

However, Mr Rennie’s apology for the picture did not stop others from pursuing the more general point – about Scotland’s similarities with Qatar.

Former Labour Downing Street adviser John McTernan tweeted: “Alex Salmond: Scotland is remarkably like Qatar. How? Unelected government? Sharia law? Anti-gay laws? Foreign workers = 85% of population?”

Despite strong objections from others on Twitter, Mr McTernan continued with other tweets through the day defending his position, at one point adding: “I think while the FM be-struts the world he takes the prize for pompous absurdity.”

Mr McTernan even drew a comparison with previous countries which had been linked favourable to Scotland by senior Nationalists in the past, particularly the so-called “Arc of Prosperity” nations Iceland and Ireland.

“Qataris should be very afraid,” he tweeted.

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<em>Picture: mshamma</em>

Picture: mshamma

By Alyn Smith

The Arab Spring has continued unabated over the long hot summer months, and with the end of the Holy month of Ramadan it is only likely that we will see an upsurge in continued activism.

Long-entrenched dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya have been toppled, and who knows where the unrest will spread to next? I grew up in the Middle East, am a member of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula, a regular visitor to the region and know it well.

And I am certain that the forces of change across the Arab world have been misinformed. This is not a brave new dawn for democracy in the Arab world. The hope, bravery and ambition of those millions of protestors may well turn to disappointment and resentment if we let them down. Indeed, what replaces the (very unlamented) ousted dictators may well be worse if we do not massively increase our encouragement with such democratic forces as there are.

While a thirst for democracy may well have motivated some, knowing the Middle East I think the actual impetus to bring millions out on the streets was more basic. I have long argued that food price inflation, amplified by climate change, is global policymakers’ single most pressing issue, even above energy prices. These riots were about food prices, a lack of decent jobs and the cumulative pressures of the exponential birth rates all Middle East countries have sustained over the last two decades.

This simmering resentment against regimes, fuelled by mass media and social communications that governments worldwide struggle to cope with, saw regime after regime topple, providing glimmers of hope amid much trauma and heartbreak. The recurring slogan Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam (The people want to bring down the regime) indicates the protestors knew what they wanted rid of, there is less agreement on what comes next. I am gravely concerned it might not be better and could well be worse. We Europeans must step up to ensure that hope is sustained.

So what now? The European Union response to the Arab Spring has been muted, but that is not a criticism. The EU does not do guns and tanks and bombs, thank goodness. Individual European countries have intervened militarily, notably France and to a lesser extent the UK in Libya. While I am far from a pacifist, and backed intervention on the basis of the UN resolutions, I cannot help but think that behind the grandiose language emanating from Paris and London there were the motivations of a French presidential election and a still new prime minister all too keen to be seen on a global stage as cities in England rioted themselves.

There were also breathtaking double standards given these very governments were just a few short months ago all over the previous regime as full-time lobbyists for our arms and energy companies. The UK government invited both Libya and Bahrain to the Farnborough Airshow in 2010 and to Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) in 2009, and more than half of the exhibitors at the Libyan Defence and Security Exhibition in November 2010 were British.

And nobody in the Middle East is under any illusion that if Libya did not have spectacular energy reserves, our pious leaders would be considerably less agitated. Just along the coast the wretched benighted people living in occupied Western Sahara have been crying out for western intervention for years, to no avail.

However, this article is about what is possible, not raking over past and indeed ongoing failures. While the EU is not much good in a military crisis, that is a strength not a weakness. The EU is emphatically not a military bloc, and long may that continue. The EU is a community built on the three pillars of trade, democracy and human rights. It has, gradually, seen a zone of prosperity and democracy spread from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, the Arctic Circle to the Southern Mediterranean.

The EU did not bring down the Berlin Wall, but it helped, and helped nurture stability and democracy where anarchy could have replaced Moscow rule. Similarly, the EU did not topple dictators across the Middle East, but neither did it sell them arms or train their secret policemen. Clean hands are rare in geopolitics, but the EU has cleaner hands than most.

The Arab Spring could be no less historic than the fall of the Berlin Wall, and no less an opportunity for the EU. We need to turn our attention to how to bring the new countries into our ambit, to support democracy, trade and development to ensure that people in those countries stay there and build their nations, not flee on boats to ours or turn to the forces of radicalism who will be all too quick to blame the west for their failures. We need to bring something substantial to the table, something more than a bit of humanitarian aid here and there, worthy though that is.

The SNP wants to see Scotland at the heart of the EU, a full member state playing our part in the Council of Ministers in our own right. I do not believe EU membership is realistic for the Arab countries, but other associations already exist which I believe are tailor-made for the role.

The European Economic Area EEA and the European Free Trade Association EFTA, currently populated by Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, are trading blocs which are close to, but not part of, the EU itself. They have much the same standards, not least over trade and democracy – but do not cover, fully, the freedom of movement of persons. I believe we need to bring EEA membership for all Arab countries, especially North Africa, formally on to our agenda as a key objective for us all. It is of course a long way off, but in the absence of a goal one drifts.

A genuine offer of eventual accession to the EEA would focus minds in both Brussels and the Arab capitals. The conditional process towards eventual accession would give us a common rulebook where presently the EU has a messy series of bilateral agreements, and has frequently turned a blind eye to human rights abuses. EEA membership, conditional upon the states meeting the rules of the club, would be a difficult but genuine goal. It would be a hefty encouragement to progress and would also necessitate the investment by the EU in training and support for courts and civil society in the same way as we supported the former Soviet bloc states.

There is little tradition of democracy across the Middle East, but that does not mean it cannot be fostered. After the fall of the Berlin Wall sceptics feared democracy in Eastern Europe was impossible, too. Encouraging and training-up democracy and civic society will be a substantial challenge, but we are up to it.

Or we could be up to it. The glittering prize would be to see our zone of prosperity, democracy and peace extent to the Sahara and the Arabian Gulf, replacing our current southern fringe of poverty, despotism, radicalism and refugees. I have this week written to the EU high representative for such common foreign policy as exists, making this suggestion. I hope it is a constructive one, and demonstrates that Scotland wants to be part of the EU for a reason. We have ideas and vision as well as expertise and commitment.

An Arab enlargement of the EEA would also change the nature of the EEA, and indeed of the EU itself. If it would make sense to change the EEA’s name who cares, so long as it does the same job extending the rule of law, human rights and trade to countries unfamiliar with them to their benefit and ours? The present EU as a whole, not least in the eurozone countries, is evolving fast, and we risk a dangerous period of navel-gazing and self-obsession while the eurozone puts its house in order. We need to think beyond our borders, and we need to think bigger.

The west, collectively, does not have clean hands over how we have dealt with the rulers of the Arab peoples. Member-state capitals continue to be more interested in the arms trade than in democracy. But the EU has not, and the EU has a historic chance to act on our collective behalf. There’s a club worth being part of.

Alyn Smith is an SNP member of the European parliament, a member of the parliament’s agriculture committee and its delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula.

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Bashar al-Assad <em>Picture: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr</em>

Bashar al-Assad Picture: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr

Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, looks set for a continued confrontation with anti-government protesters after he reneged on a pledge to lift a state of emergency that was put in place in 1963. Instead, he appealed this week to Syrians for national unity in the face of violence which he says is instigated by “foreign” parties carrying out an Israeli agenda.

That appeal seems likely to fall on deaf ears. Assad, 45 – who has ruled Syria since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000 – accepted his cabinet’s resignation on Tuesday after two weeks of unrest in which at least 60 people were killed. However, the inner workings of a cabinet where power is concentrated in Assad’s hands are meaningless to most Syrians, and pro-democracy activists have called for the “free people of Syria” to stage sit-ins across the country on Friday.

For now, Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, may not be that worried. Tens of thousands took to the streets in his support this week, though the demonstrations looked staged. World leaders meeting in London diverged slightly from the text (and legality) of UN Resolution 1973 to pledge to continue to bomb Muammar al-Gaddafi’s forces in the Libyan civil war, but let Assad off the hook, at least for the time being.

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Assad will have drawn encouragement from statements by the US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, acknowledging that the Syrian leader had “claimed the mantle of reform” (he was referring to financial reforms, though the US was still waiting for him to deliver on the political front), and from Nick Clegg, who on a visit to Mexico said “it is not now the role of the international community to try and intervene directly in every country”.

Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean that whatever happens in Syria can’t have a profound effect on the entire region.

At the root of the protests, which were fanned by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and which began in the southern city of Deraa, is the Sunni Muslim majority’s aim to put an end to 50 years of minority Shia Alawite rule. Though granted some concessions by Assad in recent years, the Sunni opposition is intent on settling old scores with the regime, which had thousands killed in the 1980s when Assad’s father Hafez was in power. However, the armed forces, too, are under Alawite control.

The Syrian security machine is well-oiled and could preserve the status quo for months or even years, but Bashar Assad has always been a more conciliatory leader than his father – hence the West’s patience so far. The concern in Western capitals is that should the Alawite regime fall, it could plunge the Middle East into sectarian fighting on a scale not seen since the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s.

Though it is not clear what kind of regime would replace Assad’s if he fell, his departure would sever Damascus’s close link with Tehran and weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza in their confrontation with Israel. This does not mean, however, that peace would instantly reign in the region.

Iran would be averse to losing an ally which has been useful as a buffer to US and Israeli influence, and might find other means of backing its allies. Turkey, which in recent years has forged close ties with Damascus as it tries to extend its influence in the Arab world, might also take a dim view of any change in Damascus.

Then there is Israel. Assad offered to resume peace talks with Israel, but with the condition that it withdraw from the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War. However, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected the offer, and he is even less likely to hand the Heights back now, when the perception is that Assad’s regime has been weakened by an internal uprising and could eventually collapse.

In fact, Netanyahu may even be tempted to embark on another adventure, when the world is focused on the Libyan civil war, and attack Lebanon and Gaza yet again to dispose of Hezbollah and Hamas. What would the West, not to mention Iran, do then?

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A US B-2 Stealth bomber returns from a raid on Libya <em>Picture: US Air Force/Kenny Holston</em>

A US B-2 Stealth bomber returns from a raid on Libya Picture: US Air Force/Kenny Holston

After three days of bombing, the UN/NATO/Arab League “coalition” fighting Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi is showing signs of fatigue, frustration, confusion and possible collapse.

It’s not hard to see why. There is broad disagreement over whether Gaddafi is a target, whether his troops can be attacked in a no-fly zone, and whether under UN Resolution 1973 ground troops can be introduced to hasten the regime’s demise and prop up a rebel leadership of which we know very little.

If President Barack Obama wants to reduce the US role in the attacks on Libya, he is on solid ground: it was, after all, Britain and France that pushed for military action. The buck stops in London and Paris, rather than in Washington, this time around.

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Arab League support for the Libyan mission has been lukewarm at best, devious at worst: there are reports that it came at a price, namely a guarantee that the West turn a blind eye to the excesses of other despotic Middle East regimes even as it bombed the Libyan dictator. David Cameron suggested as much when he said Libya was a special case, and Britain had to consider its strategic interests elsewhere.

Beyond the West’s present preoccupation with Libya, however, chaos is threatening to engulf the Middle East as a whole, posing further questions for the “international community” that are going to be very hard to answer:

Yemen, a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity, is on the verge of civil war, according to the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was deserted by senior army commanders who now back pro-democracy activists. Saleh’s position was made untenable after the gunning-down of around 50 protesters by his security forces last week.

Saleh is seeking reassurances from neighbouring Saudi Arabia (which built a concrete wall along the border as a precaution against terrorist activity spilling over) that he can join ousted Tunisian president Zine al-Abidinej Ben Ali in exile in Riyadh. Like Gaddafi, Saleh’s time seems to be up, but whither Yemen after his departure? Saleh has been, to all intents and purposes, “our man” in Sanaa. Will we find “another man”?

Saudi Arabia’s troops still occupy Bahrain in a misguided attempt to prop up the beleaguered Khalifa royal family who face their own uprising. If the occupation of Bahrain by the most powerful dictatorship in the region was carried out with Western acquiescence, then it will have weakened the West’s case for attacks on Libya.

Western double standards in the region, even without the question of Palestinian statehood (which may not weigh as heavily on the minds of the Arab man in the street as one might think – “It’s the economy, stupid”), are grist to the mill for terrorists in their propaganda war against the West.

Though he recently claimed to be “out of this” in the sense that “we are not Tunisians and we are not Egyptians”, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is facing his own uprising in Deraa and Jassem. Opposition leaders say Syrians are sick of government corruption and abuses by security forces.

Assad is not as bloody a dictator as his father, Hafez, who killed 30,000 in crushing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1983, but there are fears of an Islamic backlash if the Baathist regime falls, and this would have implications for Israel.

There is deep concern over the Arab democratic revolutions in Israel, which has long boasted that it is the only true democracy in the region. Now it seems to have lapsed into a “better the devil you know” stance. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, claims Israel is taking the “realistic” view, because he fears “new Irans”, rather than Western-style democracies, might emerge from the Arab uprisings.

Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and “dove” turned “hawk”, suggested in an interview with the BBC that Israel might at last move on the Palestinian question, but only in return for £30 billion in additional military aid. This would suggest Israel sees itself as closer to a new war with its Arab neighbours, rather than taking heart from the pro-democracy movements across the Arab world.

Egyptians have approved constitutional amendments by a wide majority. These include the limiting of presidential terms from six years to four years and to two terms only. However, there are signs of a split in the pro-democracy movement as some want to get it right, fearing the changes do not go far enough and that elections, which could be held as early as September, will come too soon for political parties to prepare adequately.

President Obama says the Arab world should take its inspiration from Latin America, which in the 1980s and 1990s emerged from years of military dictatorships with relatively healthy democracies. There are differences, however, that Obama failed to mention: many countries in Latin America had a long-standing history of democratic institutions that survived the ravages of dictatorship, while democracy is a new concept in the Middle East.

A rocky road lies ahead, though it will be one worth travelling. It is clear that millions of Arabs simply want a better life. Unfortunately, they are still at the mercy of the powers that be, even after the departure of their immediate exploiters.

Geopolitics is a devious game, and few play by the rules. Russia appears to be hedging its bets, while refusing to play the role of bystander. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, condemned the Western attacks on Libya as another “mediaeval call to crusade”, though he must know religion has nothing to do with it – the Libyan conflict is a civil war.

Putin has been slapped down by President Dmitry Medvedev for his comments, but everyone knows who calls the shots in Russia. Medvedev says such talk might bring about a “clash of civilisations”, but one wonders if that is what Moscow, which has its own problems with Islamic terrorism, would really like to see.

Worries about Russian intentions are the last thing Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy need now, but it may be something they will increasingly have to deal with in the future, when and if some semblance of order is restored to the Arab world.

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Harrier – unavailable <em>Picture: Dhatfield</em>

Harrier – unavailable Picture: Dhatfield

By James Browne

The government has sent an aircraft carrier and its fleet of Harriers to the Mediterranean to carry out Britain’s commitments to the UN “no-fly zone”.

A spokesman for the Royal Navy said: “Thank God we didn’t do anything as monumentally stupid as scrapping HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier IIs before getting embroiled in yet another military adventure.”

But not really…

Yes, over the weekend we appear have developed another war. With a leader who was a “friend” of the West until a few weeks ago. Despite our country being bankrupted by wars in Mesopotamia and south-central Asia. Despite our country being further bankrupted by bailouts to the City.

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Despite the fact that bombing civilians in Libya will shore up support for the bloodstained Gaddafi Duck. Despite the fact that the Arab world is a tad suspicious of Western military action after previous … unfortunatenesses.

Despite the propaganda coup each civilian death is for the extremists. Despite the fact that we didn’t feel the need to intervene in Bahrain when the Saudis invaded. Or in Zimbabwe. Or in North Korea.

Oh boy, get your bucket and spade ready. This particular desert farce will have a longer shelf life than even Carry On Cleo.

Have we learned nothing from Iraq and Afghanistan? We screwed up Iraq good and proper on the basis of a tissue of lies. We’ll be embroiled with the Taliban until the economic recovery or the Second Coming (whichever arrives first). Our armed forces are a touch stretched and we’ve just hacked away at their budget.

Only a bitter, cynical, pinko, commie, fag subversive would suggest any link between yet another foreign adventure and distracting the public from the economic embuggerance to which the country is being subjected after bailing out the Tories’ backers in the financial sector.

Finally, if it’s a “no-fly zone”, why are we blowing up tanks? I’m no expert on avionics, but surely they’re not noted for their ability to soar majestically among the clouds?

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia <em>Picture: Cherie A Thurlby</em>

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Picture: Cherie A Thurlby

Far from bringing calm to the Middle East, the Saudi occupation of Bahrain – for that is what it is – is likely to prolong instability in the region. The deployment of 1,000 troops is a clear sign of panic by the Saudi and Bahraini royal families: future historians may well look back on this episode, dressed up as a peace mission but fooling no one, as a turning point, the moment when the scales fell from many people’s eyes.

For all their ill-gained opulence, we have seen the despotic kings stride through the desert with nothing on at all. If a Sunni minority – the ruling al Khalifa family – sought to further provoke an angry Shia majority both in Bahrain and at home, then this was a good way to do it.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, had only once before deployed troops under the terms of a regional pact aimed at protecting members from outside aggressors, and this was to protect Kuwait from Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

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Now, however, the GCC “deployment” is aimed at stifling an internal “enemy”, the Bahraini Shia opposition, which has been clamouring for political reforms including, at least among some of the more extreme elements, the abolition of the monarchy. No wonder there are shudders in Riyadh.

Unsurprisingly, the Bahraini opposition has denounced the GCC occupation as “a declaration of war”, for what can Bahraini civilians, armed only with clubs and knives and stones, do to confront Saudi forces?

The United States, seen as a friend of the Khalifas and whose navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed there, has expressed its concern and urged dialogue rather than confrontation between the Bahraini regime and the opposition – as well it might, for any temporary security Washington will have gained from the Saudi occupation will only dissipate with time.

But Western fears are not unfounded: this is where we get our oil from, and there are fears Bahrain could become a pawn in a strategic struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

We know through Wikileaks that Saudi’s King Abdullah has urged the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” – to attack Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. The Tehran regime has its own problems, and has been flexing its muscles and stoking the fires of insurrection in other parts of the world, particularly since the invasion of Iraq made it easier to do so.

Now the royal family fears that any concessions made by the neighbouring Bahraini royal family to the Shia minority there might serve to encourage a Shia uprising in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia.

So Saudi Arabia appears to have drawn a line in the sand. But, as if Western diplomats were not already in a quandary over what to do with the burgeoning Arab revolutions, they have now being saddled with another headache. For consistency’s sake, how can a no-fly zone be imposed over Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya, as sought by the US and Britain, without strident condemnation of a Saudi military occupation, thinly disguised as a response to a request for help to restore order?

It is true that great historical events require pragmatism and sometimes unpalatable compromise. That is what British leaders have said about the West’s recent and very odd rapprochement with Libya’s Gaddafi. Yet, once again abandoned as the despot he always was, in recent days Gaddafi has been making big strides in recovering lost territory. If they lose, the Libyan rebels know his retribution will be terrible.

In the nationalist Gaddafi’s eyes, he is protecting a Libya shaped in his image. Saudi Arabia, close friend of the West for decades but no less cruel to its opponents, appears to be doing the same. Will the West turn a blind eye to Saudi aggression against the people of Bahrain, while condemning Gaddafi? “Aggression” may not be a word the West would wish to use – indeed, “deployment” seems to be de rigueur – but perception is what matters across the region, far from the great palaces of the royal tyrants, whose time will no doubt come.

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Libyan flag-map: <em>Maher27777</em>

Libyan flag-map: Maher27777

The world appears to be moving towards full recognition of the Libyan transitional government, whose declared aim is to steer Libya to free elections “after its complete liberation and the destruction of Gaddafi’s oppressive regime”.

But who are the leaders of the Transitional National Council, and how representative are they of the Libyan people?

The west has so far hesitated to give its full support to the rebel leaders because of their previous association with the Gaddafi regime. This has not stopped the west in the past – as the US philosopher Noam Chomsky says, the standard game-plan of the west has been that “when you cannot support your favourite dictator any more, you come out with ringing declarations of your love of democracy … while you try to preserve the regime” in some shape or form.

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History provides some exceptions where an out-of-favour dictator is overthrown by a former henchman after which free elections are called, but they are few and far between: Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, for example (overthrown by his defence minister, Juan Ponce Enrile); Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu (replaced by Ion Iliescu, his former heir apparent); Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic (persuaded to stand down by his armed forces after an unfavourable election result); Argentine generals Juan Carlos Onganía and Roberto Levingston (overthrown in quick succession by former ally General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, after which elections were called to bring about the return from exile of Juan Domingo Perón).

Still, with no clearly defined roadmap for a democratic future emerging in an Arab world in turmoil, a little caution in handling the Libyan question is understandable.

In a country with such an atrocious human rights record as Libya’s, the post of justice minister – which the transitional government leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, held from 2007 until he broke with Gaddafi at the start of the revolution last month – would seem superfluous if not laughable.

The extra-judicial execution of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996 has never been investigated, despite a pledge by the Gaddafi regime that it would do so, and hundreds of prisoners are still being held despite their acquittal by courts. According to Amnesty International, “migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers [many from across Africa] attempting to seek sanctuary in Italy, and the EU, also face arrest, indefinite detention, and abuse in Libya”.

Abdul Jalil’s record, however, appears to be one of frequent disagreement and frustration with Libya’s “brother leader” over human rights abuses.

The leader of the rebel government publicly called for the release of prisoners in the past, but claimed he was powerless because the prisoners were under the jurisdiction of Gaddafi’s Internal Security Agency (ISA). “[Abdul Jalil] has said that he is unable to order an investigation into abuses by ISA officers because they have immunity,” a Human Rights Watch report said last year. “Only the Interior Ministry can waive immunity, but it has consistently refused to do so.”

While western governments have been quick to condemn Libya for human rights abuses, there are some prickly issues which western leaders must address with regard to the detention of some of the prisoners Abdul Jalil has sought to release. According to Amnesty International, under Gaddafi “the Libyan authorities have used the ‘war on terror’ to justify the arbitrary detention of hundreds of individuals viewed as critics or a security threat. The US has returned a number of Libyan nationals from Guantánamo or from secret detention … Libyan nationals suspected of terrorism-related activities returned to the country remain at risk of being detained incommunicado, tortured and tried in grossly unfair proceedings”.

In 2005, Britain also signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Libya under which it may deport terrorist suspects, and human rights organisations are sceptical of the “no torture” clauses in such agreements.

What Abdul Jalil thinks of US “renditions” is not clear. But he has openly clashed with Gaddafi over the illegal detention of prisoners, once telling the privately owned Libyan newspaper Oea that “when the judiciary acquits, security agencies must respect those rulings. We have more than 500 defendants acquitted, who have not been released on security justifications”.

In January last year, during the Libyan General People’s Congress in Sirte, Abdul Jalil announced that he was unable to fulfil his functions as justice minister, to which Gaddafi replied that the individuals to whom he was referring were terrorists and if released would endanger the lives of Libyans.

“Gaddafi confirmed that they would not be released, even if the courts cleared them of all charges or if they had already served their sentences,” Amnesty International said at the time. In any case, Gaddafi told Abdul Jalil, the People’s Congress was not the appropriate forum in which to raise the issue.

According to the transition government’s website, another senior member of the council, Mahmood Jibril, the interim government’s foreign minister, holds political science degrees from Cairo University and the University of Pittsburgh, and has wide experience in management training throughout the Arab world.

Ali al Issawi, who will liaise with Jibril in international relations, was Gaddafi’s economy minister and head of the country’s privatisation programme. Both Jibril and Issawi were in Paris on Wednesday to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy as France became the first country to extend its formal recognition of the rebel government.

The transitional council is composed of 31 members representing the various regions and cities of Libya. While a number have been named on their website, several have not been revealed for safety reasons. The heads of Libya’s representatives in the UN, the Arab League and all embassies and diplomatic missions who have joined the revolution have been accepted as legitimate representatives of the new government. “We also request from those who have yet to transfer their affiliation with this Council to do so,” the council adds.

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William Hague

William Hague

So the Libyan revolution has stalled – or has it? As in every major conflict, Western correspondents are finding it hard to separate fact from fiction – even more so in Libya, however, as they are not “embedded” with either side, and this spells danger for them, big time.

Often finding themselves stranded in no man’s land, these seasoned war correspondents are having to pick up what crumbs of information they are given from either side.

Twenty-four-hour news means that they must report that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime appears to have made major successes in its struggle to recover lost territory, while at the same time they must tell the world that Gaddafi has appealed for talks to negotiate his safe passage into exile. Having done that, they then add the caveat that these reports have been denied, so may not be true.

You can sense the frustration in their voices.

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What has become clear, however, is that so far the Libyan rebels are not seeking outside help. Far from it: former Libyan justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who heads a transitional rebel council in Benghazi, has made it clear that “we will never accept any foreign intervention and any foreigners who try to do so will face the same fate as Gaddafi’s mercenaries”.

So what did the Foreign Office expect to achieve by sending in the SAS on that bungled mission? If it was a publicity stunt for the coalition government, then resignations are in order, for the mission could have ended in bloodshed. If, on the other hand, a genuine attempt was made to contact rebel leaders, then it was misguided: when the rebels want British help they will no doubt ask for it.

In any case, after the Iraq fiasco, it is doubtful that potential leaders of a reshaped Arab world will want to be seen consorting with US or British officers, even if they want to. It is worth remembering that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak begged the US and Britain not to invade Iraq because of the extra pressures it would put on him internally, by an Egyptian populace that would see the invasion as an attack on the Arab and Muslim world, especially in view of the unresolved Palestinian question.

I doubt anyone will be saluting Gaddafi’s indefatigability for having survived 41 years in power by means of an intelligence network that is inwardly focused and ruthlessly efficient in rooting out his enemies. Even so, loose talk of a no-fly zone, enforced humanitarian aid or a military presence of any kind other than to evacuate foreign residents could upset Libyan sensibilities. There may have been some calls for Western intervention, but if so they have not been very vociferous.

It is entirely possible that this particular Arab revolution might have decidedly nationalist rather than democratic undertones; on the other hand, the country could fragment.

Libya was once two countries, and is made up of many tribes pulling different ways. In that sense, at least, Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, may not have been that far off the mark when he said (in his now infamous televised address) that Libya is not Egypt, that Libya is not Tunisia.

Who told William Hague that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela? What faction within the revolution thought it pertinent to make a fool of the foreign secretary? Or was Hague misled by the same British diplomats who failed to see the Libyan revolution coming and prepare in time for the evacuation of British ex-pats? Were they too busy sipping gin tonics around the pool?

Britain’s scramble to ingratiate itself with the rebel leadership is unseemly – after all, Gaddafi was our reconciled friend until just the other day, and at this stage we don’t have a clear idea who the opposition is or claims to represent. In this, British intelligence and diplomats seem to have failed in their duties.

The sharp rebuke by the rebels to any suggestion of outside military help should serve as a reminder that the internal affairs of any country are best left internal. At least until the smoke clears, and the world can see what Libyans really want.

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