Libya's Inconvenient Truth

Libya's Moammar Gaddafi in Lisbon last month.
Libya's Moammar Gaddafi in Lisbon last month. (By Suzanne Plunkett -- Bloomberg News)
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By Mohamed Eljahmi
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Tomorrow, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam is to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Their sit-down at the State Department will come nearly seven months after President Bush declared himself a "dissident president" and promised active support for dissidents around the world. "I asked Secretary Rice," Bush said during a speech in Prague, "to send a directive to every U.S. ambassador in an un-free nation: Seek out and meet with activists for democracy. Seek out those who demand human rights."

Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, in its embrace of Tripoli, the Foreign Service has built a wall of silence around human rights concerns.

More than a year and a half ago the State Department removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, confirming Libya's status change from pariah to example. "Libya is an important model to point to as we press for changes in policy by other countries," a department statement declared. But if Libya is a model, human rights advocacy and reform will be casualties.

My brother, Fathi Eljahmi, is Libya's most prominent democracy activist. Speaking at a conference in Tripoli in October 2002 that is usually a stage-managed affair, he surprised Libya's mercurial dictator, Moammar Gaddafi, by suggesting that legal guarantees of free speech and a constitution should accompany Gaddafi's rhetorical embrace of reform. State security agents took him directly to prison.

After nearly 17 months, Fathi won a respite, thanks to the intercession of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). And on March 12, 2004, President Bush cited Fathi's release as a barometer of change in Libya. "We stand with courageous reformers. Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi Eljahmi," Bush said. "It's an encouraging step toward reform in Libya. You probably have heard. Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things." Bush may have heard, but the Libyans had not. Two weeks later, Gaddafi rearrested Fathi. My brother has been in solitary confinement ever since.

Under Rice's stewardship, the State Department no longer even pretends to care. For 18 months, the Foreign Service officers manning the Libya desk in Foggy Bottom have not returned my phone calls or e-mails. Recently, I saw a State Department official who told me, "We didn't communicate with you because we had very little to offer you." She was unaware that the Libyan security service had not permitted any members of our family to see Fathi since August 2006. The organization Physicians for Human Rights reports that his condition is dire.

The diplomat suggested that rather than seek the State Department's help, I should strike a deal with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan leader's son and designated point man for engagement with the United States. How far U.S. moral clarity has fallen. Does the State Department believe that families of Cuban dissidents should beg for Fidel Castro's grace? Would the Reagan administration have suggested that Jews apologize to Moscow for seeking religious freedom? Perhaps East Berliners should have taken their complaints about the Berlin Wall to the East German zoning commission?

In December 2005, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi sent word through an associate that Fathi might be released if our family would guarantee his silence. None of us would agree to force our brother, husband or father to compromise his principles or to apologize for his outspokenness. "The state can afford to wait this thing out forever," the Libyan official warned. "Engagement is going ahead, and it will deepen. Those who disagree are noise in the background." From the State Department's perspective, it seems, he was right.

It is ironic and heartbreaking that the Bush administration says it cares for freedom, yet the State Department quietly suggests that courageous reformers should stage apologies to dictators. With Washington offering wholesale concessions to Tripoli, Gaddafi has little incentive to improve human rights. Absent pressure, Gaddafi understands that he has a free pass to rule Libya as a private fiefdom.

The Libyan regime no longer bothers to even rhetorically embrace reform. On Nov. 3, Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Aujali, made no apologies about Fathi's imprisonment. He told Taqrir Washington, an online Arabic news forum: "Anyone who breaks the law would be arrested. . . . Unlike the West, our Islamic and Arabic traditions prohibit us from insulting our leaders." While Gaddafi describes himself to Western diplomats as a secular dike against an Islamist flood, in Libya he embraces Islamism and targets secular and liberal reformers.

Today, the State Department puts out a welcome mat for regime operatives but slams the door on dissidents and their families. Victims have become antagonists. This administration does not appear to understand that Gaddafi's success in silencing my brother wounds its credibility not only in Libya but throughout the region.

The writer, a Libyan American activist, lives in Massachusetts.


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