Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor May 12, 2011

Is the standoff in Libya a disguised blessing for Arab democracy?

And if so, will the United States be nimble enough to take advantage?

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

There’s nothing blessed in the suffering of civilians forced to flee the fighting or subjected, in the besieged city of Misurata, to shelling by forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gaddafi. If Gaddafi isn’t forced from power soon, stalemate could evolve into disaster.

But during the past three months, with rebels controlling the east of the country while Gaddafi hangs on in Tripoli, Libyan democrats have had an opportunity their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere lacked: to prepare to govern, free of influence from the old regime.

And the Libyans, to the surprise of some, have made the most of the chance, assembling a temporary management team that stands for everything Gaddafi’s dictatorship tried to stifle: democracy, the rule of law, a free press and independent civic society.

“Even the graffiti says, ‘We want a country of institutions,’ ” Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, recounted after visiting rebel-controlled Benghazi, where he says newspapers, volunteer groups and free political activity are flourishing. “And they don’t want a charismatic leader.”

If so, they seem to have found their man in Mahmoud Jibril, interim prime minister of the Transitional National Council.

Jibril is a soft-spoken businessman who did postgraduate work at the University of Pittsburgh and who comes across as almost excessively honest and reasonable.

His mouthful of a title is a deliberate signal that he and the council do not want to assert power; they are simply managing things, he says, until Libya is united again and all Libyans can vote for a democratic constitution, in a referendum supervised by the United Nations.

He is frustrated that the Obama administration won’t do more to help the rebels, but he explains with some understanding the legal basis for the slowness. He is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for democracy — “Maybe we have some shot,” he said during a visit to The Post on Wednesday — but understands why outsiders might be skeptical.

Egypt at least has a history of political parties and coffeehouse debate; Gaddafi’s totalitarian rule left little room for that. Yet, Jibril says, because there were no parties, the opposition has not become polarized.

“We have no organizational history — but we have a structure to be talking to the world,” he said. “So this is a case to be studied.”

Jibril’s optimism has roots in something deeper than what has been accomplished during this interim period. He draws his hope from the difference he sees between his generation and the young people who have stirred revolution across the Arab world.

Jibril’s generation demonstrated against imperialism or for Arab unity or Palestinian statehood, he says, and it talked about “demands, needs, wants.”

The new generation, he says, “talks about democracy, talks about a dignified life.” And, he says, “These people have no fear whatsoever. They are completely the opposite of our generation, where fear is a central part of our cognitive system.”

Jibril is scheduled to see national security adviser Thomas Donilon on Friday, with a possible drop-by from Vice President Biden. His message, he says, will be simple: “We are really in desperate need of our money.” In providing a greater measure of recognition to the regime and granting access to Libya’s frozen assets, he said, the French, Italians, Qataris and others have been flexible.

“So far we did not meet the same luck with the U.S. government or the British,” he said.

That caution typifies the overall response of the Obama administration to the unfolding Arab Spring. It did not push Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak until the Egyptian people made clear that Mubarak was finished. It has offered only mild objections as Bahrain’s king has brutally stifled a peaceful movement for democracy. President Obama has yet to say a word (though the White House has issued statements) as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered hundreds and rounded up thousands.

In Libya, Obama supported military action to protect civilians, but he limited the U.S. role; he called for Gaddafi’s departure but insisted that the military operation not be aimed at that result.

In each of these cases, the White House had its reasons; no one can doubt the complexity of the calculations. But there is risk in excessive caution, too: of being seen in the region as on the wrong side, and of missing opportunities to promote secular democracy where, just months ago, few dreamed it could flourish.

Now the administration is supporting legislation put forward by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to begin to release some assets to Jibril and his team, but Jibril fears it will be too little and — given the congressional process — too late.

Libya has only 6 million people, compared with Egypt’s 74 million and Syria’s 19 million. But a success in any Arab country will resonate among democrats throughout the region; so would a failure. The triumph of the values championed by Mahmoud Jibril would represent a big success.

fredhiatt@washpost.com