I recently returned to my homeland in Libya for the first time in 41 years. I and other members of the royal family endured a long exile in Cairo and elsewhere, keeping our heads down during years when Moammar Ghadafi had hit squads deployed to assassinate opposition elements around the globe. Now is the time to return and reunite to overthrow the dictatorial regime in Tripoli. My fear, however, is that the democratic moment may pass if the free world dawdles in indecision.
The forces for progress in Libya need help now. Col. Ghadafi’s forces have beaten back rebel elements and retaken ground that had been won at great cost. In Benghazi alone, more than 380 young unarmed protesters sacrificed their lives before elements of the armed forces could be compelled to change sides, thus tipping the balance in favor of the liberation of eastern Libya from the forces of the dictator. In Baida, over 100 perished in the hands of Ghadafi-employed African mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Mali, prompting local police forces and members of the army to break ranks from the regime to protect their unarmed countrymen.
There would be long-term consequences for international inaction. Young people inspired with hope for change for the future have risen up to join the opposition. I’ve met young people in their teens and twenties who left behind comfortable lives in London and Manchester, England, to go to north Africa and fight for the liberation of our country. These young heroes are motivated by and have grown up accustomed to Western notions of freedom, equality and opportunity and want to be part of the movement that brings those universal values to Libya. I’m afraid to say, however, that they do not understand why the world isn’t rushing to help their cause, a failure which only benefits Col. Ghadafi.
Losing the hearts and minds of these innocents could undermine their respect for erstwhile allies who didn’t come to their aid in their greatest time of need. The writing is on the wall; eventually – whether it be this year, next year or in five years – the Ghadafi regime will fall and the next generation will take over. It is in America’s interests to get in on the ground floor and be at the table as Libya’s future is being constructed. If not, the alternative is that other powers with less benevolent intentions will fill the vacuum.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council voted in favor of a no-fly zone and other support for anti-Ghadafi forces. If Western democracies don’t come to the aid of Libyan freedom fighters soon, the sad reality is that there won’t be any opposition left to help. The opposition is brave and bold, but the material reality is that it won’t be able to last much longer fighting alone, especially without air cover, body armor, night-vision equipment, sniper rifles, medical supplies and other necessities of modern warfare.
Admittedly, one of the major obstacles in the way of the Libyan opposition is that very few in the outside world know who we are. In short, we want to institute a democratic form of government that is friendly to the West, especially the United States and Europe. The goal is to reestablish the constitution that was in effect when Col. Ghadafi took power illegally through a coup d’etat in 1969 and instituted a police state. The one significant change would be that my family’s monarchy would not be restored to power, a concession to the modern age that we understand is necessary. The time has come for Libya to join the modern world and the society of free nations. We aspire to have a democratically elected executive and legislature, with an independent judiciary. That progress will not occur with Col. Ghadafi and his family willing to do anything to cling to power.
My recent return to my homeland was a spontaneous, last-minute decision which I made while at the Egyptian border town of Sallum. I was there to hand off a foreign diplomat – who needed to touch base with the Interim National Committee – to the Libyan underground. While in the “underground,” we were transfered from safe house to safe house by young idealistic freedom fighters who dream of being able to live in a democratic Libya where they can pursue their ambitions with dignity and without fear of having their human rights violated.
Despite the hardships caused by the conflict, we were treated with generous hospitality, which is traditional to Middle Eastern culture. At every stop, the meals were deliciously prepared and abundant, conversation was mutually stimulating and inspiring as we kept track of what was happening in the outside world on satellite TV. There was always a young man whose duty was to sit in a corner of the room tending to a gas burner and a tea pot, making sure the steady flow of green tea would go uninterrupted through our brief sojourns. My traveling companion intimated to me, “This must be the Libyan version of the Tea Party.” If tea is synonymous with reform, then I hope it is.
HRH Mohamed Hilal El Senussi, the grand nephew of King Idris, the last king of Libya, who was overthrown by Col. Ghadafi.