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[Radek Sikorski] The front line of democracy across North Africa

BENGHAZI ― This week, I flew to Benghazi to meet Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), a visit coordinated with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and NATO allies. I was the first Western foreign minister to travel to Libya since the crisis began. What I saw reminded me of my country 20 years ago, just after Poland’s first free elections, which, together with the fall of the Berlin Wall barely six months later, came to symbolize the Cold War’s end.

Peoples in transition from authoritarian rule ― peaceful in Poland in 1989, bloody in Libya today ― grapple with decisions that determine their fate for decades. How should the former regime’s worst wrongdoers and security police, with their insidious archives, be treated? Should the former ruling party be banned? How can civilian, democratic control of the army and police be secured? What role should religion play in public affairs? Should the constitution establish a presidential or parliamentary system?

The former communist world made those choices 20 years ago. But very different choices ― for better and for worse ― were made in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, in the Baltic states, across the former Soviet Union, in Central Asia, and in East Germany. The results form a crucial database of experience. Today’s Arab reformers thus can draw on our successes ― and avoid our mistakes.

We central Europeans knew the misery of communism. Yet we knew what we wanted to replace it with ― a system based on modern European democratic market values. Building democratic structures requires time, discipline, pain, and patience. But it pays off. In July, Poland will assume the EU presidency for the first time; we have earned this responsibility to lead European affairs over the next six months.

Poland learned the hard way that demanding change and defying oppression are much less difficult than formulating and delivering a clear, reasonable program for a better future. Not all popular demands for freedom succeed: in the confusion, reactionary forces can make their move. The fall of the shah in Iran had ruinous consequences for that country. Belarus won independence in 1991, but, since 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko has shamelessly embraced communist symbols ― and methods ― to cling to power. Europe has unfinished business here.

Today, across North Africa, millions of people are demanding a voice in their own destiny. Each country is looking to change and move forward. In Morocco, the king has announced constitutional reforms, including guarantees for public participation in national decision-making, an independent judiciary, and new regional authorities. This measured, inclusive reform can be a model for others. And reformers in the Arab world have had tremendous support from Qatar, which has provided an example of strong leadership, particularly in Libya, but also through the news channel Al Jazeera ― a real force for change in the region.

Libya is experiencing a deadly struggle between people insisting on change, and a desperate, greedy regime determined to cling to power after 40 years of crass misrule. The United Nations Security Council, supported by the Arab League, has authorized the use of all necessary means to protect Libyans from the cruelty of their own leaders. Our NATO allies launched proportionate military operations aimed at denying Col. Muammar Gadhafi’s regime the means to attack civilian targets. Governments worldwide have frozen illicit assets stashed abroad by the regime ― money that should be used to help the opposition to build a new society.

I went to Benghazi to assess the intentions and credibility of the Transitional National Council and Libyan opposition. We brought medical supplies for the Benghazi Medical Center, where injured people from Misurata and elsewhere are being treated.

Around the table sat improbable allies: some had been prominent officials in Gadhafi’s regime; others had spent many years in prison under sentence of death. They were united in recognizing that their country deserved a new start. I was reminded of Poland’s “roundtable” in 1989, when Solidarity sat with the ruling communists to negotiate the end of the regime.

I talked frankly with TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Deputy Chairman Abdul Hafez Ghoga, and TNC Defense Minister Jalal Dheili, himself a former political prisoner. They were grateful for the international community’s involvement, but described in moving terms the huge loss of life that Gadhafi had inflicted on his own people.

I told them that we considered the TNC to be our new legitimate political interlocutors in Libya and were ready to support them, but that in return we expected the TNC to work towards the best standards of transparent democratic government. They had to realize that they need a plan ― revolutionary moments are moments to be seized. Poland would help by offering training for TNC officials.

Following this visit, my message to European leaders is twofold. First, Libya’s TNC is the best bet we can make now for Libya’s future. Its leaders are cooperating in an effort to bring about real reform in a way that was unthinkable a few months ago. They deserve the world’s energetic support.

Second, while Europe has much to offer its North African neighbors in terms of financial support, advice, and training, the region needs to find its own path to freedom and success. Let us approach this task in the best spirit of European solidarity, but also with a certain humility. Europe’s former communist countries can make a special contribution to the process of transition across North Africa. Above all, we understand that sustained reform requires assuming responsibility by mobilizing the energy of one’s own people, not relying on well-intentioned but often ill-focused outside help.

Poland is ready to lead the way, on its own and as EU President. For example, former President Lech Wałesa recently visited Tunisia to offer advice as part of a Polish program to help Tunisia devise robust constitutional reforms and election laws.

North Africa’s people know what they don’t want ― and won’t accept. But they are struggling to identify what they do want, and how to build it. As I saw in Benghazi, there is a fair chance that Libya’s emerging leaders will be good, realistic partners for good realistic policies.

By Radek Sikorski

Radek Sikorski is foreign minister of Poland. ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)