Anti-Gaddafists rally in London
Libyan opposition leaders at their first gathering in exile vow to oust Gaddafi, reports May Youssef in London
They say there is no other choice but ousting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. They say the Libyan constitution -- drafted in 1951 and one of the most progressive in the Arab world -- must be restored after 35 years in limbo. They blame the West for normalising ties with the Gaddafi regime, despite numerous violations of basic human rights and the execution of hundreds of opposition figures over the past three decades.
More than 200 leading opponents to Gaddafi, moved by winds of reforms blowing over many parts of the Middle East -- especially Egypt, Libya's neighbour -- met for the first time at the weekend to launch their united "national accord" call for regime change in the North African country which they say has been kidnapped and ruled with an iron fist. In their final declaration, opposition leaders vowed to try Gaddafi and other regime officials suspected of human rights crimes.
The location of the two-day conference wasn't revealed until the early hours of Saturday for fear that Libyan intelligence may disrupt the meeting or harm its attendants.
Despite all precautions, around 15 Libyan students marched on the second day of the conference carrying green flags and chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans inside the hotel where the gathering was convened, attempting to disrupt the meeting. The Libyan Embassy allegedly threatened to cut the scholarships of Libyan students who refused to participate in the pro-Gaddafi demonstration. Some 40 British police officers and hotel security guards dispersed the students.
On Monday two separate demonstrations were planned in front of the old and the new embassies of Libya in London to voice solidarity with the Libyan regime.
Meanwhile, the opposition gathering itself -- the first of a once fragmented movement established in European and Arab countries since the 1980s -- failed to formulate effective strategies for realising its objectives. Some critics dismissed it as going no further than mere sloganeering. This may be true, but certainly the conference itself marks a new beginning for the Libyan opposition.
Shifting to peaceful means over the use of force is something new; above all to the National Front for Salvation of Libya (NFSL), which carried out several coup and assassination attempts inside Libya since Gaddafi took power. The NFSL once formed an army on the Libyan-Chad borders, prompting Gaddafi to threaten the use of chemical weapons if they dared attack. One of the best-publicised assassination attempts took place in the late-1980s when members of the NFSL stormed Bab Al-Aziziya camp where Gaddafi was visiting. The attempt failed and many Libyan fedayeen were executed.
The London gathering also brought together old foes, such as the National Movement -- an umbrella group of pan-Arabists, Nasserites and Baathists -- which was once anti-monarchy, and Prince Mohamed Al-Senoussi, grandson of the ousted Libyan King Idris Al-Senoussi. Gaddafi, after the 1969 coup that got rid of the monarchy, launched a bloody campaign against Nasserites, including Mahmoud Abdel-Wanis, who called upon Gaddafi to return to military camp and leave Libya's leadership to civilian rule. The Nasserites were enemies of the monarchy, but now remember with nostalgia the golden times of Al-Senoussi, under which Libya witnessed a renaissance.
"With some negative aspects [under monarchy], it was the real beginning of democratic life in Libya, and for 18 years. Gaddafi kidnapped the country after the coup and took us into 35 years of darkness," said Nouri El-Khakhya, a leading member of the opposition and cousin of former Libyan foreign minister Mansour El-Khakhya who disappeared in 1993 while attending a human rights conference in Egypt. It is said that Mansour El-Khakhya was kidnapped and handed to the Libyan authorities, whereupon he was murdered.
The heir of the throne -- as many people called him at this weekend's gathering -- Prince Mohamed Al-Senoussi, said that the return of monarchy to Libya is not a priority, but "the United Nations must interfere and restore the constitution, to hold free elections and let the people decide what system they prefer."
The only major group that stayed away from the gathering was the Muslim Brotherhood which, in a statement issued Sunday, criticised the conference for listing preconditions for participation, including "ousting Gaddafi", which the group rejects. The Brotherhood insisted that the chance remained that the regime will change itself; that there are advocates of reform inside the regime who can push for change without the need to oust Gaddafi. The Brotherhood, with some 100 political prisoners in Libyan jails, has received assurances from Seif Islam Gaddafi, said to be in the process of being groomed to succeed his father, to free Islamist detainees.
Other opponents, such as Ashur Shames, author of the anti-Gaddafi website, Akhbar- Libya (Libya news), criticised the rhetoric of the conference. "How are they going to remove the regime? By force, or by threatening to use force?" he asked. Shames, who participated in early preparations but boycotted the meeting itself, believes, like the Brotherhood, that it is not too late to reform the regime through dialogue.
Three participants came from Libya using forged passports and nicknames.
On the last day of the conference, while opposition figures greeted each other with hugs and tears, the conference website received many messages of support from Libyan citizens. "The people are angry, but someone must start the fire... I am with you," one Libyan citizen wrote in an anonymous message.