The colonel and his third way

Muammar al-Gaddafi has rejected terrorism and brought Libya back into the international fold. Now he

It isn't so much a tent as an awning, open to the desert at the edges. Inside, there are some white plastic chairs, a plastic table and two easy chairs. I am sitting in one of them, waiting for Colonel Gaddafi. To get here, I flew to Tripoli and then took another plane up the coast, followed by an hour and a half's car ride into the desert scrubland. Gaddafi moves around a lot, like the nomadic groups he comes from, and no doubt also for security reasons. This evening he is camped at a small oasis, replete with camels and some tired-looking palm trees. It's only a few minutes' wait before he arrives.

Dressed in a brown-gold robe, he cuts an impressive figure. There are no guards or minders in view, and the occasion is a completely informal one. He is instantly recognisable and would be so to a great many people across the world, whatever their feelings about him might be. In a way, it is an extraordinary phenomenon. Libya is a tiny country in terms of population, with only 5.8 million people. Gaddafi's global prominence is altogether out of proportion to the size of the nation he leads. He is now 64, in power since 1969. Rumours abound that he is in failing health, but he looks robust.

You usually get about half an hour when meeting a political leader. My conversation with Gaddafi lasts for more than three. Gaddafi is relaxed and he clearly enjoys intellectual conversa tion. We sit close together and occasionally sip mint tea. He has a tiny notebook in front of him, into which he sometimes makes short scribbled entries. He is not a fidgety person but has a calm, articulate manner, and cracks the odd joke or two as we go along. The only other direct participant is a man who has just flown in from New York, apparently especially to do the translation.

Gaddafi speaks some English, and occasionally during the encounter makes comments to me directly. But, for most of the time, we converse through the translator. Gaddafi is interested in the debates and policies involved in social democracy in Europe, which is the reason he has invited me. He likes the term "third way", because his own political philosophy, developed in the late 1960s, was a version of this idea. It has been written up in the form of The Green Book, authored by Gaddafi, on display almost everywhere in Libya.

Another kind of green politics

The Green Book is based upon a theory of direct democracy. Representative democracy, Gaddafi argues, is an inadequate form of government, given that it means rule by a minority and in which the majority have little direct say. Soviet communism, on the other hand, led to government by an even smaller elite. His "third alternative" favours self-rule, in which everyone can, in principle, be involved. At one point in the conversation he points to the symbol with which the awning is covered. It is a series of concentric circles, with points of connection between them marked. The outer circle is formed by the basic people's congresses, which anyone can attend and contribute to. They communicate decisions to inner groups, which pass them on finally to the General People's Committee - which is supposed to register and act on them, with further consultations if necessary. In theory, Libya has self-government without a state.

Gaddafi's economic theory holds that everyone should receive the fruits of their labour. In a capitalist economy, so his account runs, workers get only a proportion of the wealth they create, the rest being appropriated by the employer. Freedom can be built only on individual econ o m ic autonomy. The material needs of life - clot h ing, food, a home and means of transportation - must be owned by the individual family. Hence in Libya, at least until recently, no one was allowed to rent property.

Our conversation is wide-ranging and "The Leader", as he is universally known in Libya, makes many intelligent and perceptive points. He continually reverts to the ideas of The Green Book, but makes it clear that he wants to adapt and update them. Over the past three or four years, Gaddafi has come in from the cold internationally. He has renounced his support for terrorism and Libya has paid compensation to the families of those killed in the Lockerbie attack. Libya has terminated its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes. In conjunction with Gaddafi's son Saif, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, the British Foreign Office played a large part in producing Libya's re-engagement with the wider world. UN sanctions, which had severely affected the economy, have been lifted, and Libya has been taken off the US list of states that support terrorism.

Gaddafi's "conversion" may have been driven partly by the wish to escape sanctions, but I get the strong sense that it is authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it. Saif Gaddafi is a driving force behind the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya. Gaddafi Sr, however, is authorising these processes and retains a strong grip upon the country.

Stage-managed debate

During our talk, we discuss the fact that there is a major revival of thinking in modern political philosophy about participatory and discursive democracy. I say that, contrary to his thinking, a democratic system must have mechanisms of representation, choice between parties and a regular system of voting. Yet these could be complemented by direct forms of citizen involvement, making use of information technology, such as citizens' juries, and national "discussion days", as pioneered in Scandinavia, in which important initiatives are debated. Much will depend upon the creation of a healthy civil society.

Discussing these matters with others later, I find out that the modernisers working with Saif are taking such ideas seriously. A committee has been meeting for the past two years to draw up a new constitution. I sit in on one of their discussions and am impressed by the sophistication of their ideas. The group has made much progress and has recognised the need for far-reaching trans formation of the political system, while seek ing to sustain the genuine elements of egalitarianism that Gaddafi's rule has sustained.

Gaddafi does not demur when I point out that his economic approach has to be rethought. Egalitarianism is a core social-democratic value, but it cannot be built upon denying basic principles of capital accumulation and investment. Competition and profit are the conditions of economic success, not intrinsic barriers to it. To control inequality, the country needs other measures, especially in relation to taxation, welfare and corporate governance.

I leave Gaddafi's tent to make the trip back to Tripoli enlivened and encouraged. Libya may be small, but it is a front-line nation in global terms because of its leader's decision to open up to the wider world after years of international isolation, and because of the abolition of its WMD programmes. The country is going in the opposite direction from Iran and North Korea and it is in virtually everyone's interest that this process be sustained. On the way back from the desert to Tripoli, I talk to some of the modernisers working to implement specific policy programmes. I am impressed both by their sophistication and their determination to reform.

The next day is more sobering. I give a lecture at al-Fateh University and the reactions to it give me a sense of how challenging it might be for them actually to push their reforms through. My speech is about globalisation and its relation to social welfare. I point out that Libya, as a small country with a great deal of oil wealth, might look to Norway as something of a model to aim for in the future. Norway has a high degree of equality, good growth rates and a strong welfare system, and has used its oil wealth sensibly in long-term planning. It has adjusted very effectively to the new global environment.

When I finish my lecture, the chairman, who originally introduced me, begins a vigorous and impassioned denunciation of more or less everything I said. About a quarter of an hour into his diatribe, I feel I must stop him and go back to the podium to react to his critique. At this point, about a third of the audience gets up and files out of the auditorium. After I have responded, and tried to show how empty and rhetorical my opponent/chairman's views are, those who remain in the audience ask a variety of sensible and penetrating questions.

It is only following the event that I learn what was actually going on. A moderniser was supposed to have chaired the lecture, but before I got there he had virtually been manhandled off the stage and a hardline traditionalist put in. The graduate students had been instructed to leave before I began to respond to my critic, as he had said the final word (sic) on the issues.

In a way, I was glad that I had been attacked in such a fashion, because it certainly livened up the discussion, and, lurking in the rhetoric, there were some serious questions that could be brought out into the open.

When my denouncer was some way into his performance, I sat listening to him thinking that what I had come to do - help open up debate in the country about social and economic development - had completely rebounded. I had simply ruffled too many feathers. However, people I spoke to afterwards said that he is one of a dwindling minority. They felt it was a very good thing that I had managed to skewer his arguments so effectively, and in such a public setting, too.

Change will be difficult in Libya, as it always is in a system where one man has held power for a long time. I came away confident that, for the moment, the modernisers have the upper hand over the traditionalists; but, as my experience at the university shows, those who want to block reform are making their voices heard in no uncertain manner.

Modern persuasion

Libya thus far has squandered its oil wealth, but it could be used to help diversify the economy, and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit, highly visible in Libya, in spite of its being constrained by a welter of restrictions. It could also be spent on a state-of-the-art welfare system to protect the poor and vulnerable. Libya needs foreign direct investment, and the expertise that comes along with it. Such investment will emerge if it is clear that social and economic reform are for real. The country has some clear advantages over others in the region. Literacy, for example, is above 80 per cent. Women fare better than in most Muslim countries. According to the latest report of the Economist Intelligence Unit, economic growth in Libya in 2006-2007 is expected to exceed 9 per cent. There are clear strengths to build on and it is in the interests of the global community to support those people in the country who are pushing for change.

Much will depend upon Gaddafi himself, as he sits ruminating upon the relevance of his political thinking to current times. He could play a crucial role in easing transition if he decides to support the modernisers. He does seem set on this course, but must use his influence to persuade the doubters - yet perhaps, first of all, he must fully persuade himself.

Tags:Libya