Divorce over Libya or ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ routine?

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

It seems only yesterday that, on January 14, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country. He tried to repress his angry people killing some of them in the process but that made matters worse. He tried to appease them with empty promises of reforms and elections but it was too little too late.

Already one day before Mr Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia, on January 13, largely unnoticed by the world, there were protests in several towns in neighbouring Libya over the late delivery of social housing.

On the night of January 15, hundreds of people broke into empty apartments in Bani Walid, about 180 kilometres to the southeast of Tripoli.

Many of them had been waiting for years to take possession of homes for which they had already paid most of the instalments. Many of them also claimed to have had to pay something on the side to corrupt local officials to be allocated a flat in the first place.

The police did not intervene. Official Libyan media did not report the incident but this did not stop it from, typically, reporting an official statement condemning the protests as “demagogy”. Also typically, the statement announced the setting up of a special committee to investigate every complaint and solve all problems. Similar protests took place in Al Bayda and Derna on the Cyrenaican coast and in Sebha in the Fezzan.

A month later, on February 15, several hundred people assembled in front of Benghazi’s police headquarters to protest against the arrest of Fathi Terbil, the Libyan lawyer representing the families of the circa 1,000 prisoners who are claimed to have been executed by security forces in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. As the police attempted to disperse the crowd with hot water cannons, plainclothes security officers were reported to have shot at the demonstrators. The protest spread to Al Bayda to the east of Benghazi and to Az-Zintan in the Nefusa range south of Tripoli where police stations were set on fire.

If we take February 15 as the beginning of the war in Libya – for war it is – then tomorrow we enter the seventh week of hostilities. It’s been 11 days since, on March 17, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1973, authorising a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from attacks by loyalist forces. It’s been nine days since French planes fired the first shots that started the military campaign.

The war in Libya has provided one of those rare opportunities for the government and the opposition in Malta to unite in the national interest, a unity based on a common understanding of what is our national interest in such a situation. The Prime Minister stood by his government’s decision not to host military aircraft used against the Gaddafi regime. He explained that Malta only has one airport and that military bases were available only a few minutes away from Malta. In the past weeks, the Maltese government has consistently cited Malta’s constitutionally enshrined neutrality, which rules out the location of foreign military bases on the island and use of military facilities in Malta by any foreign armed force.

Lawrence Gonzi told the media his “priority as Prime Minister is the security of the country”. He also reiterated Malta’s willingness to continue to play a “pivotal role on humanitarian and evacuation issues” arising from the situation in Libya. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition confirmed that the government and the opposition were in agreement regarding Malta’s position. Malta, he said, should continue to be prudent, serving as a humanitarian Mediterranean hub and keeping its security as the utmost priority.

Not everybody quite agrees with the government and the opposition. Take President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami. Speaking on March 20 at an event at Tarxien to mark the Nationalist Party club’s 25th anniversary, the former PN leader and Prime Minister is reported to have said that if coalition forces need to use Malta to carry out the UN-mandated military action against Libya, “we should accept”. He also made the legal point that Malta’s Constitution allowed it to take full part in action so long as it were sanctioned by the UN’s Security Council.

Although the newspaper report indicates he was careful (I quote what I assume are the reporter’s words) “not to criticise the government’s cautious approach so far”, he did emphasise (I quote direct speech from the report) “that if what is happening is done with the blessing of the Security Council, we are… I would not say obliged… but free to accept that decision. We should not go against the concrete resolutions of the UN”.

How to interpret Dr Fenech Adami’s words? Is it the good old good-cop-bad-cop routine? In this case, the former Nationalist Prime Minister is serving to balance Dr Gonzi’s position in the eyes of the PN’s core electorate. The subtext would be: OK, the PN government does not want Malta to be used as a military base but this has nothing to do with the neutrality bit in the Constitution because that clause is not binding in the case of UN-sanctioned military action. Further: We did it freely and not because we were forced to do so by something invented by Labour in the 1980s.

The other interpretation is more intriguing. Here goes. Perhaps the former PN leader and former Prime Minister is indicating an underlying and fundamental disagreement with his successor, Dr Gonzi. An ideological divorce as it were. The Tarxien debate was, as was inevitable, focused on the divorce issue. On that issue, Dr Fenech Adami reiterated his categorical no.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on March 28, 2011, and may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110328/opinion/an-ideological-divorce-on-libya


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