The Message From Benghazi

The birth of a democracy is beautiful, but it isn’t always pretty. Muammar el-Qaddafi starved Benghazi of money, so it was a drab city even before the current uprising. Now the clutter of revolution makes it look even more disheveled. But just as the drabness fed defiance, so the clutter of old flags, homemade banners and crumpled leaflets speak of great hope.

I had come to Benghazi to open the first European Union office in free Libya. I arrived in the newly named Freedom Square, to see the European Union flag flying near the courthouse and to meet some of the people who have been bringing democracy to life.

As in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I found not just enthusiasm for reform but great warmth toward their European neighbors across the Mediterranean. Passers-by greeted me more as a friend than a first-time visitor. “Welcome, Cathy, Welcome Europe,” one said; “we know you care about us, thank you for visiting us, come again.”

At the offices of the National Transitional Council, Fatma greeted me in traditional Libyan clothes with beaten silver jewelry on her ankles, wrists and fingers. At six years old she is tall for her age and quite shy to find herself the center of attraction. She had come to give me flowers. She told me she liked to paint, and had two younger brothers, but that sadly her father had died so now her uncle looked after the family.

While Fatma sat with me I started to talk to the leaders of the National Council about their hopes for their country. They told me: “We want to do this for ourselves. We just need your help on some things.” Security is one of their big concerns. Porous borders and too many weapons in the country create real problems. Their priorities include proper border management and an effective system for licensing weapons.

Security matters most to older people. Younger Libyans I met focused more on the how to participate in democracy: “It’s not just about elections,” one said. As in Egypt, the revolution has a broad social base, unified around the essentially secular themes of freedom, justice and equality. Religion matters but does not dominate — at least, not for now.

At a hotel in the center of Benghazi I met some of the people from civil society. One human rights activist, Mohamed, had spent eight years as a political prisoner under Qaddafi. “Being in prison wasn’t the worst,” he told me: “the biggest crime was that Qaddafi tried to kill our spirit and our dreams.” Yezid, a former engineer, is typical of the young pro-democracy revolutionaries known as “shabab.” Now he runs a radio station. Media is big in Benghazi — I was told that 55 newspapers have started since the revolution.

The women I met want to play a big role in the future of their country. Their message to me was: “We need women to believe in themselves, to understand that they can get involved in building our democracy. They have never been given that chance so we need help.”

I left Benghazi determined that the European Union should provide that help. In Libya, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the E.U.’s task is to provide practical assistance, not just now but long after the guns fall silent and the Western media return home. We can help put down the roots of deep democracy — free speech, impartial administration, an independent judiciary, enforceable property rights and a culture of equality.

However, deep democracy cannot be imposed from outside. It will fail if it is seen as a 21st-century version of Western imperialism. My short visit to Benghazi dispelled any fears that this need be the fate of E.U. assistance. The yearning for democracy — and for the whole of Libya, not just the eastern towns the National Transitional Council currently controls — is palpable. I did not introduce human rights and the rule of law into our discussions; they did.

Of course, nobody can guarantee that Libya, after Qaddafi, will become a beacon of liberal democracy. History supplies many examples of revolutions that turn sour. Indeed, it is precisely because tyranny, fear and corruption could return that the European Union will work hard with the new Libya to ensure that democracy thrives and lasts.

I left Benghazi optimistic that Libya can achieve that goal. I met people who are smart, realistic and up for the challenge. And the most encouraging moment came when I asked a group of them about the future of the people who had been around Qaddafi.

One said they would follow South Africa and set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission. The others nodded, not just in agreement, but as if this were blindingly obvious.

Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union.

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