Ripped Gaddafi poster (photo: dapd)
Interview with Ahmed Shebani

For a Secular and Democratic Libya

Ahmed Shebani, founder and chairman of the Democratic Party of Libya, explains his critical stance towards Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and the Libyan transitional council, in conservation with Beat Stauffer

In the charter of the Democratic Party of Libya, which you founded, you outline a vision of a secular, open and tolerant society, in which religious freedom should be guaranteed if nothing else. Is Libyan society ready for these ideas and goals?

Ahmed Shebani: In 1969 we missed the chance presented to us by the revolution at the time. It was to a certain extent kidnapped by Gaddafi. He only revealed his true nature once he had consolidated power.

Now we have at last liberated ourselves from the Gaddafi dictatorship, we won't allow the Libyan people to miss their chance again, the chance to build a democratic system in Libya. And I'm very happy that the international community has already sent a delegation to Libya led by Ian Martin, the former secretary general of Amnesty International. We hope that he can help us to establish a democratic order and a constitutional state in Libya.

Why does Libya need this support from outside?

Ahmed Shebani (photo: private copyright)
43-year-old Ahmed Shebani is one of many foreign-educated Libyans who now want to help put their nation on the path to democracy after 42 years of dictatorship

​​Shebani: No one in the Arab world has the comprehensive political know-how necessary to build a democracy. We don't have this knowledge. Instead of waiting several years trying to reinvent the wheel, we would rather adopt democratic standards and procedures from other countries with substantial experience in such matters. That's why we're asking for help and support from abroad. This can only come from the UN, because the United Nations is not suspected of wanting to control any one country.

The UN should despatch a committee of experts for the purpose of "nation building", as well as a peacekeeping force to be able to deal with increasing security problems. We also need this support from the UN to found a truth commission, in order to be able to investigate the crimes of the Gaddafi regime as well as the numerous human rights violations that took place during the uprising.

In your charter, the first of its kind in the new Libya, you call for a secular state. But the Chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, recently said that Sharia would form the basis of new legislation in Libya…

Shebani: I have a different view. We want to have an efficient constitutional state in which religion and secular power are clearly separated. Our main goal is to establish a liberal democratic order.

Libyan Prime Minister Jibril (photo: dapd)
Under massive criticism: Shebani and other representatives of the Democratic Party of Libya accuse Libyan Prime Minister Jibril of undemocratic behaviour and overstepping his authority

​​To achieve this, we must keep religion and politics separate. Religion is, in my view, the interaction between the faithful and God. But we can't base a constitution on divine law. I'm convinced that the Islamic political discourse has failed. We want to become a democratic county, not a failed state like Somalia.

When it comes to criticising Mahmoud Jibril, the president-designate of the new cabinet, you don't mince your words. What exactly do you accuse him of?

Shebani: I've got good reason to criticise him. Mahmoud Jibril has monopolised power, he's pulling the strings in the background in all important decisions, and demonstrates clear dictatorial tendencies. As a democrat, I'm deeply unsettled by this development. It's a grave error for the West to put its faith in this dubious character. In February of this year, Jibril was still advising Gaddafi how best to crush the national revolt. For many Libyans, he's an elusive politician with a questionable past and an unclear loyalty to the revolution, a person whom they do not trust in the least.

We accuse Jibril of undemocratic behaviour and overstepping his authority on a massive scale. We can verify that he has already signed preliminary contracts with several foreign oil companies for lucrative business worth billions, without having consulted the transitional council in this regard. He has clearly afforded preferential treatment to members of his tribe, the Warfalla, in the process. Jibril's entire mindset could be described as "tribalist" – he's someone that thinks in terms of tribes and clans. But this is precisely one of the main evils afflicting Libya to this day.

photo: dapd
A double agent working for Gaddafi? The rebels' military commander Younis had served as Gaddafi's interior minister until January, but switched his allegiances at the start of the revolution

​​We also have information that Jibril lied to the transitional council over the siege of Bani Walid, which has now lasted more than a month. Many young fighters have died during this siege of the city, or have been exposed to extremely tough conditions. We suspect that a betrayal has occurred in the course of supposed negotiations with tribal elders in Bani Walid.

The Democratic Party of Libya now wants to call Jibril to account over all these contentious issues. They're not just wild suppositions, as the murder of General Younis at the end of July 2011 goes to show – a case that's still not been officially solved. We are absolutely sure that Younis was a double agent working for Gaddafi. He was murdered by revolutionaries when his cover was blown.

What consequences do you see resulting from these appraisals of the situation?

Shebani: For the afore-mentioned reasons, it's completely unacceptable to us that Mahmoud Jibril will govern the country in future. We will use all the means at our disposal to prevent this.

I call on Jibril to resign from his posts and instead return to his tribe, the Warfalla. Once there, he should conduct negotiations with tribal representatives so that they give up their armed resistance to transitional council forces. This is the only way that Jibril can still perform a valuable service for his nation.

Your criticism is also aimed at the National Transitional Council. Why?

Shebani: The Democratic Party of Libya supports the transitional council (NTC) and has also called on the international community to recognise it. At present, there is no alternative to this political representation of the Libyan people. But the NTC suffers from numerous shortcomings: For example, council members still include former ministers of the Gaddafi regime, who cannot be expected to represent the new Libya in the long term. We call on these individuals to withdraw from public office for at least five years.

photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Active in the fight against the dictator: Women in Bengasi call for an end to the "mass state" and a democratic renewal in their country

​​And as far as the chairman of the transitional council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, is concerned, he is a dignified and devout man. But he possesses neither charisma nor leadership qualities. In actual fact, the NTC is today already being led by Jibril. And there are also clear indications that Jibril has attempted to force Abdul Jalil out of office.

You are also concerned that only the older generation is represented on the transitional council…

Shebani: This is indeed the main problem. Seventy percent of the Libyan population is under 30. The chasm between the young fighters who helped the revolution attain its breakthrough, and the ageing council, grows with each day that passes. I fear that we're heading blindly towards a catastrophe because of this.

You are also critical of the fact that there are no women sitting on the committees of the transitional council…

Shebani: Yes, despite the fact that they played a significant role in the Libyan revolution. They are however not represented on the transitional council. That's unacceptable. Our party attaches great importance to the participation of women in public life and politics.

Do you think that Libya needs new, charismatic leaders?

Shebani: None of the Arab revolutions had true leaders. The Democratic Party of Libya doesn't have a single leader either. The focus of our work now is to encourage the participation of all citizens in the political process and the legitimacy of political institutions. And the only way to achieve this legitimacy is with free elections.

What political clout does the Democratic Party of Libya wield today?

Shebani: To date, our party is the only political force calling for a constitutional, secular democracy in Libya. More and more people are joining our ranks. Most of our members are still living abroad, but the number of supporters and members is also increasing by the day in Libya. Most of them are from the well-educated middle classes.

Our party is popular because we have a clear agenda and can also demonstrate political vision. I'm convinced that the Libyan people will reward us for this. Many exiled Libyans have lived in functioning western democracies. This is the best present we can give to our nation, to reintroduce the idea of democracy.

Interview: Beat Stauffer

© 2011

In 2007, Ahmed Shebani was arrested and tortured in Libya following the publication of an interview criticising Gaddafi in the New York Times. He has been living in exile since then, mainly in Britain. At the end of February 2011 he founded the "Libyan Initiative for Freedom and Democracy", which became the "Democratic Party of Libya" (DPL) in July 2011.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/

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