Contrary to popular belief, Libya, which western media described as “Gaddafi’s military dictatorship” was in actual fact one of the world’s most democratic States.

By: Garikai Chengu: In 1977 the people of Libya proclaimed the Jamahiriya or “government of the popular masses by themselves and for themselves.” The Jamahiriya was a higher form of direct democracy with ‘the People as President.’ Traditional institutions of government were disbanded and abolished, and power belonged to the people directly through various committees and congresses.

The nation State of Libya was divided into several small communities that were essentially “mini-autonomous States” within a State. These autonomous States had control over their districts and could make a range of decisions including how to allocate oil revenue and budgetary funds. Within these mini autonomous States, the three main bodies of Libya ‘s democracy were Local Committees, People’s Congresses and Executive Revolutionary Councils.

Source: “Journey to the Libyan Jamahiriya” (20-26 May 2000)

In 2009, Mr. Gaddafi invited the New York Times to Libya to spend two weeks observing the nation’s direct democracy. Even the New York Times, that was always highly critical of Colonel Gaddafi, conceded that in Libya, the intention was that “everyone is involved in every decision…Tens of thousands of people take part in local committee meetings to discuss issues and vote on everything from foreign treaties to building schools.” The purpose of these committee meetings was to build a broad based national consensus.

One step up from the Local Committees were the People’s Congresses. Representatives from all 800 local committees around the country would meet several times a year at People’s Congresses, in Mr. Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, to pass laws based on what the people said in their local meetings. These congresses had legislative power to write new laws, formulate economic and public policy as well as ratify treaties and agreements.

All Libyans were allowed to take part in local committees meetings and at times Colonel Gaddafi was criticised. In fact, there were numerous occasions when his proposals were rejected by popular vote and the opposite was approved and put forward for legislation.

For instance, on many occasions Mr. Gaddafi proposed the abolition of capital punishment and he pushed for home schooling over traditional schools. However, the People’s Congresses wanted to maintain the death penalty and classic schools, and ultimately the will of the People’s Congresses prevailed. Similarly, in 2009, Colonel Gaddafi put forward a proposal to essentially abolish the central government altogether and give all the oil proceeds directly to each family. The People’s Congresses rejected this idea too.

One step up from the People’s Congresses were the Executive Revolutionary Councils. These Revolutionary Councils were elected by the People’s Congresses and were in charge of implementing policies put forward by the people. Revolutionary Councils were accountable only to ordinary citizens and may have been changed or recalled by them at any time. Consequently, decisions taken by the People’s Congresses and implemented by the Executive Revolutionary Councils reflected the sovereign will of the whole people, and not merely that of any particular class, faction, tribe or individual.

The Libyan direct democracy system utilized the word ‘elevation’ rather than‘election’, and avoided the political campaigning that is a feature of traditional political parties and benefits only the bourgeoisie’s well-heeled and well-to-do.

Unlike in the West, Libyans did not vote once every four years for a President and local parliamentarian who would then make all decisions for them. Ordinary Libyans made decisions regarding foreign, domestic and economic policy themselves.

Several western commentators have rightfully pointed out that the unique Jamahiriya system had certain drawbacks, inter alia, regarding attendance, initiative to speak up, and sufficient supervision. Nevertheless, it is clear that Libya conceptualized sovereignty and democracy in a different and progressive way.

Democracy is not just about elections or political parties. True democracy is also about human rights. During the NATO bombardment of Libya , western media conveniently forgot to mention that the United Nations had just prepared a lengthy dossier praising Mr. Gaddafi’s human rights achievements. The UN report commended Libya for bettering its “legal protections” for citizens, making human rights a “priority,” improving women’s rights, educational opportunities and access to housing. During Mr. Gaddafi’s era housing was considered a human right. Consequently, there was virtually no homelessness or Libyans living under bridges. How many Libyan homes and bridges did NATO destroy?

One area where the United Nations Human Rights Council praised Mr. Gaddafi profusely is women’s rights. Unlike many other nations in the Arab world, women in Libya had the right to education, hold jobs, divorce, hold property and have an income. When Colonel Gaddafi seized power in 1969, few women went to university. Today more than half of Libya ‘s university students are women. One of the first laws Mr. Gaddafi passed in 1970 was an equal pay for equal work law, only a few years after a similar law was passed in the U.S. In fact, Libyan working mothers enjoyed a range of benefits including cash bonuses for children, free day care, free health care centres and retirement at 55.

Democracy is not merely about holding elections simply to choose which particular representatives of the elite class should rule over the masses. True democracy is about democratising the economy and giving economic power to the majority.

Fact is, the west has shown that unfettered free markets and genuinely free elections simply cannot co-exist. Organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy. How can capitalism and democracy co-exist if one concentrates wealth and power in the hands of few, and the other seeks to spread power and wealth among many? Mr. Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya however, sought to spread economic power amongst the downtrodden many rather than just the privileged few.

Prior to Colonel Gaddafi, King Idris let Standard Oil essentially write Libya ‘s petroleum laws. Mr. Gaddafi put an end to all of that. Money from oil proceeds was deposited directly into every Libyan citizen’s bank account. One wonders if Exxon Mobil and British Petroleum will continue this practice under the new democratic Libya ?

Democracy is not merely about elections or political parties. True democracy is also about equal opportunity through education and the right to life through access to health care. Therefore, isn’t it ironic that America supposedly bombarded Libya to spread democracy, but increasingly education in America is becoming a privilege not a right and ultimately a debt sentence. If a bright and talented child in the richest nation on earth cannot afford to go to the best schools, society has failed that child. In fact, for young people the world over, education is a passport to freedom. Any nation that makes one pay for such a passport is only free for the rich but not the poor.

Under Mr. Gaddafi, education was a human right and it was free for all Libyans. If a Libyan was unable to find employment after graduation the State would pay that person the average salary of their profession. For millions of Americans health care is also increasingly becoming a privilege not a right. A recent study by Harvard Medical School estimates that lack of health insurance causes 44,789 excess deaths annually in America . Under Mr. Gaddafi, health care was a human right and it was free for all Libyans. Thus, with regards to health care, education and economic justice, is America in any position to export democracy to Libya or should America have taken a leaf out of Libya ‘s book?

Muammar Gaddafi inherited one of the poorest nations in Africa . However, by the time he was assassinated, Libya was unquestionably Africa ‘s most prosperous nation. Libya had the highest GDP per capita and life expectancy in Africa and less people lived below the poverty line than in the Netherlands . Libyans did not only enjoy free health care and free education, they also enjoyed free electricity and interest free loans. The price of petrol was around $0.14 per liter and 40 loaves of bread cost just $0.15. Consequently, the UN designated Libya the 53rd highest in the world in human development.

The fundamental difference between western democratic systems and the Jamahiriya’s direct democracy is that in Libya citizens were given the chance to contribute directly to the decision-making process, not merely through elected representatives. Hence, all Libyans were allowed to voice their views directly – not in one parliament of only a few hundred elite politicians – but in hundreds of committees attended by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens. Far from being a military dictatorship, Libya under Mr. Gaddafi was Africa ‘s most prosperous democracy.

About the author: Garikai Chengu is a fellow of the Du Bois Institute for African Research at Harvard University.

Gaddafi and the Libyan government had even been slated to receive a reward from the UN for their economic and social progress and for their commitment to human rights. (See the following link)

Libya: 42 years of oppression?
by Graham Brown: Having lived and worked in Libya from 2 weeks after the Revolution (or coup, as opponents call it) of September 1st 1969 for several years up until 1980, I feel I am able to provide some testimony as to the nature and achievements of the new regime that swept away a corrupt monarchy which condemned the majority of Libyans to poverty.

Whatever may be said about Gadaffi, I cannot understand how so many are referring to 42 years of oppression when, as I recall, the new leadership was greeted with something like euphoria in 1969 especially by the young some of whom I was teaching. I clearly remember my classes being cut short by my pupils eagerly streaming out of the classroom to join massive pro-government demonstrations. The new authority calling itself The Revolutionary Command Council initiated a socialist programme- first nationalising the oil companies, fixing a minimum wage, extending the welfare and health systems and slashing the obscene rents being charged by property owners. A limit was imposed on the rents that landlords could charge, fixing maximum rents at about one third of the pre-revolutionary level.

Tripoli untill then had been the most expensive city in the Middle East. Many large properties were taken over and let to the people at low rents. The vast sprawling shanty town just outside Tripoli was torn down and replaced by new workers' housing projects. The Kingdom of Libya became The Libyan Arab Republic and shortly after was re-named The Libyan Arab Socialist Jamahariyah (or State of the Masses). Later, a law was enacted making it illegal to own more than one house. I can recall an argument in one class with a student who attacked Gadaffi for this, with myself defending the law saying it would solve the housing problem in my country. With only about 20% literacy in 1969, by 1980 this had increased to over 90%. Education was given priority with a large proportion of the oil wealth being spent on new schools and colleges.

The new government quickly demonstrated its anti-imperialist credentials by kicking the Americans out of the huge Wheelus Air Base for which they never forgave Gadaffi as it was their key base in the Mediterranean. Similarly Britain was expelled from its military base at El Adem, and the days on which these events happened became national holidays. In the first year the large Italian community which owed its origin to the fascist occupation was expelled from the country, and the commercial life of Tripoli which Italians had dominated came under the control of Libyans. Libya joined the socialist countries in giving support and aid to anti-imperialist movements, especially to the Palestinian cause and the struggle of the ANC against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

It should be noted that Colonel Gadaffi was the first national leader whom Nelson Mandela visited after his release. When criticised for doing this, he countered by saying that Libya above all other countries had given the most support to the anti-apartheid movement and he wanted to thank the Libyan leader for this. Gadaffi outlined his concept of government in 'The Green Book', which essentially was an attempt to establish a form of government not based on representative institutions but on Peoples' Commitees which are supposed to deliver a form of grass roots directly participatory democracy. How effective this has been is difficult to assess, but it appears to have been a genuine attempt to empower ordinary Libyans.

To say, as many in the media and Libyan dissidents are claiming, that Libyans have been enduring 42 years of oppression since 1st September 1969 is not borne out by my own experience of living and working in Libya. During the four years I spent there between 1969 and 1980 at different periods I never sensed any atmosphere of repression. In fact the few Libyans I did encounter who criticised the government did not appear afraid to voice their opinions and among the large number I mixed with, including the many Libyan friends my wife and I had, most expressed their support. There are claims that the east, particularly Benghazi, has not received equal treatment with the west of Libya and that a feeling of being discriminated against in more recent years has led to the growth of an opposition which saw the events in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt as an opportunity to rise up against the regime. This may be the case, though it seems likely that Gadaffi still commands widespread support in the rest of Libya, especially Tripoli where the majority of the population live.

The army, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, has stayed largely loyal to the government and continues to fight bravely in spite of the airstrikes by NATO countries. Some will say that my experience of life in Libya was 31 years ago and that a lot could have changed since then and I have to accept that my knowledge of the history of the new Libya since 1980 is very limited. But I think that we need to be very suspicious of some of the negative propaganda furnished by the Western media.

The conviction of Al Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing is almost certainly unsafe as it is far more likely to have been the work of Iran and the evidence presented was totally inadequate, which is the view of some of the victims' families. Many of the stories we read about are unsubstantiated, though it does seem that an Islamist insurgency in the 1990's was put down pretty ferociously and that a number of prisoners taken during that conflict were shot during a riot at Abu Salim prison. The figure of 1,000 put out by dissidents is no doubt a huge exaggeration. The riot as far as can be ascertained started after some prison guards were held hostage.

The assault on Libya has nothing to do with 'humanitarianism'. It has gone far beyond Security Council Resolution 1973 in taking sides with the anti-government forces in what is clearly a civil war. Now Cameron and Sarkozy are clamouring to actually arm the rebels, or should we call them insurgents, and US officials have admitted that CIA ground forces have been operating inside Libya for several weeks.

This is an imperialist intervention, with the aim of regaining Western control of a Third World country.