Lack of Surprise Greets Word of U.S.-Libya Ties
Democracy No Longer Seen as Top Priority

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

CAIRO, May 15 -- The normalization of U.S.-Libya relations is a natural marriage of an American administration desperate for friends and oil in the Middle East and a government that needs to open its economy to the outside world, Arab and exiled Libyan observers said Monday.

The announcement was called proof that promotion of democracy is no longer a top priority of the Bush administration, which is grappling to hold Iraq together and has turned attention toward building alliances against a hostile Iran over its nuclear program. Libya has been ruled by Moammar Gaddafi since he seized power in 1969.

"The timing can be explained by a need for the United States to have a positive breakthrough in the Middle East," said Mohamed Sayed Said, a political analyst at the Egyptian government-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "With Libya, Washington gets a regime that has converted itself from radicalism to accommodation."

"It's self-evident," Said went on, "that there is a retreat from democracy and that in the current atmosphere, the United States is aligning itself with nondemocratic regimes. Democracy is not going to be the point of departure for relations between the United States and governments in the region."

Analysts expressed a lack of surprise over the U.S.-Libya rapprochement, saying it had been inevitable since Gaddafi gave up Libya's nuclear weapons program three years ago. Restoring full diplomatic relations was merely icing on the cake, observers said.

The United States lifted its economic embargo against Libya in 2004, and since then, at least six U.S. oil companies have resumed drilling and exploration that had been suspended in 1986. Libya possesses the world's eighth-largest oil reserves, but the U.S. embargo had driven down production by keeping new equipment and technology out of the country.

On Monday, a top Libyan official said that relations would benefit not just Libya but also the United States. "It is a result of mutual interests, agreements and understandings. In politics there is no such thing as a reward, but there are interests," Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam told the Associated Press. "This will certainly open a new chapter in the relations of the two countries."

Libya is still regularly listed by human rights groups as having one of the world's most repressive governments. A recent survey by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that promotes democracy worldwide, placed Libya in the bottom five countries in terms of the free flow of information.

Libyan exiles reacted with ambivalence to the U.S. outreach to their homeland. "It might be good for the Libyan people. It might be easier to get rid of Gaddafi in a Libya that is more open," said Mohammed Zayan, a democracy activist exiled in London. In any case, Libyans did not put much stock in U.S. pressure for democracy, he said: "No one was gambling on it."

Suleiman Bouchuiguir, general secretary of the Geneva-based Libyan League for Human Rights, said with resignation: "It's not pertinent as regards human rights. Opening relations is strictly an issue of U.S. interests. The democracy drive is being undermined by the problems in Iraq."

How far Libya might go in aligning itself with the United States could become clear on Tuesday, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is scheduled to visit Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

Chavez has set himself up as South America's leading anti-American politician and has spearheaded a drive on the continent to reduce the influence of foreign companies. Gaddafi, in contrast, is trying to attract U.S. and European petroleum companies to explore Libya's reserves and increase production.

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