If you had to look back at our country’s media since last February you will not be surprised to see that Libya and its now-deposed Muammar Gaddafi dominated the headlines. Rivers of ink have been written and we have passionately supported the Libyan people while arguing among ourselves over our own past relations with the Colonel.
...the government would do well to appoint a Special Envoy to Libya - or to the Mediterranean...- Simon Busuttil
This is perfectly normal. For Libya is a neighbouring country and, as is typical among neighbouring countries, we have had a love-hate relationship for decades.
Many of us do not even know Libya without Col Gaddafi and our views on this country – and its people – were often distorted by our views on Col Gaddafi himself. In everyone’s mind Libya was equivalent to Col Gaddafi.
Well, that era is over.
Col Gaddafi met a harrowing death that does not befit a human being, even a monster of his ilk. Probably, we all secretly hoped that he would meet his bullet sooner rather than later. But his mass lynching, understandable as it may be, has tainted the image of moderation that had been carefully projected by the Libyan transitional authority, the National Transitional Council. The onus is now on them to prove that Libya has truly turned the corner.
The task of rebuilding a war-torn country will be a herculean one. To do so within the constraints of a democracy – where people are free to disagree and to protest – will make it harder still. The NTC needs all the luck it can get.
But it also needs our help.
So, the question that we should ask ourselves is what and how can our own country help Libya in the transition to a democracy. There is a lot that we can do and it is not just about business.
First of all, as close neighbours, we should use this new opportunity to get to know each other better. What are Libyans really like when you take Col Gaddafi out of the equation? Well, for the first time we have the possibility of building a truly honest friendship that is based on mutual respect. There are no more inhibitions and we can learn to trust each other again. If truth is to be said, some of us are open to Libyans, not least because of inter-marriages, but prejudice is still prevalent among many others.
Secondly, as a members of the European Union we can help Libya reintegrate itself into the international community, starting with Europe, which is set to be its most important strategic partner. Libya will need a great deal of help in the building of a new statehood based on democracy, rule of law, human rights and good public governance – all areas where Europe has expertise in abundance. So we have a clear role here. Not just as neighbours but also as EU members. Libya will find that Malta can be a useful friend in Brussels. But we must be prepared to deliver.
Thirdly, on a bilateral level, we can participate in the rebuilding of the country and we would do well to do this in an organised fashion. The government is right to plan a strong delegation to Libya – and the interest that it has generated is truly remarkable – but it must get on with it now as soon as possible and it must make sure that it follows it up assiduously.
Business contacts must not only be promoted but must be supported over time. And not just through a strengthening of our presence in Tripoli (as well as Benghazi and, perhaps, Misurata) but also through the facilitation of visas and other bureaucratic hurdles. Crucially, we must also support business through specific public support schemes in which Malta Enterprise has now mustered significant expertise and experience.
Rebuilding Libya as a democratic state is a vast undertaking that does not merely involve governments, public administrations and businesses. There is a lot of space for non-state actors to participate and make their mark. I have in mind bodies such as trade unions and civil society organisations, such as the national councils representing youth and women as well as political parties. The Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin, for instance, has engaged with its Tunisian counterparts following the Jasmine Revolution there.
This is a laudable initiative and it should be replicated in Libya.
The participation of civil society is particularly beneficial because it helps people-to-people contact and goes down to the grassroots.
On the political level, the government has issues of its own to tackle and we all know what they are. But the good chemistry between our Prime Minister and the NTC leaders looks promising.
It is a vast challenge and the government would do well to appoint a Special Envoy to Libya – or to the Mediterranean – perhaps even at Cabinet level, to organise all this in a proper manner and to assume political leadership in the building of our new relationship with our neighbours. The opportunities are great. We can either take them or we can just look at them.
PS: A final note – the Arabic language. For so many years, the teaching of this language in our country has been taboo because there was a time when we were obliged to learn it and, so, we hated it. Well, the Arab Spring and the demise of Col Gaddafi have now knocked that taboo off its historical pedestal and we would do well to rethink our language proficiency. If there was ever any sense in learning Arabic, surely it is now.
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.