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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 18:13 GMT
Eyewitness: Dialogue in the desert

James Robbins
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Sir David Frost, the Leader and the two Western academics talk Third Way

It was an intriguing event. Col Muammar Gaddafi, leader of Libya for almost four decades, leader of his own creation - the Jamahiriya (State of the Masses) for 30 years, was sitting down in the desert to discuss the future of Libya's political Third Way with Professor Lord Anthony Giddens, the brains behind Tony Blair's rather different Third Way in Britain.

Both believe they helped find a middle way between the old right and left in politics.

For Professor Giddens, it is a method of modernising social democracy.

For Col Gaddafi, it is a way for small, developing countries to avoid domination by the rich and powerful states, their corporations and their institutions.

The occasion was the anniversary of the establishment of Col Gaddafi's Jamahiriya, which he calls "direct democracy" in March 1977.

The precise forum was a dialogue involving the Leader, as he is known, alongside Anthony Giddens, together with University of Maryland professor and political scientist Benjamin Barber, all under the chairmanship of the veteran journalist Sir David Frost.

Different democracies

I was there with a handful of other journalists to listen and observe. After the two hour discussion, I had my own BBC interview with the Libyan leader.

The dialogue with the Western scholars was intriguing.

They were trying to edge Col Gaddafi towards their preferred political model for large societies - representative democracy (where citizens elect those they want to exercise power on their behalf) - and away from Col Gaddafi's own direct democracy (where, in theory at least, all decisions are taken at local level by thousands of gatherings of Libya's adult population, and then merely collated into a national decision at central level).

In practice, Col Gaddafi's critics insist, this gives him the freedom to manipulate outcomes and operate as a virtual dictator at the head of a powerful elite.

Critics accuse him of dominating a society without either a free press or viable opposition, where political parties are banned.

By the end, Col Gaddafi found himself saying: "I hope that the Libyan people will not need Muammar Gaddafi in the future. There should be no ruler or instrument to govern them".

It sounded uncharacteristically humble. But these were not the words of a man about to give up power. They were, however, the words of a man apparently much changed by the experience of the past four years.

Points of agreement

Does Col Gaddafi's own renunciation of a nuclear weapons programme and rejection of terrorism now mean he is willing to see Libya's political, or more likely perhaps, economic system, radically transformed? Possibly.

No country which has not opened up its markets has prospered
Professor Anthony Giddens

Across the two hour discussion, Sir David Frost teased out points of agreement, or at least sympathy, between the academics and the Libyan leader, as well as stark differences which remain hard to reconcile.

So, we heard Prof Barber argue strongly for far greater freedom of expression within Libya.

"It is not enough to allow satellite dishes on hundreds of homes to bring in free reporting from other parts of the world," he said.

"Libya itself needs that freedom internally too."

Scholarly praise

We heard Prof Giddens argue: "No country which isolates itself from the rest of the world can conceivably prosper.

"No country which has not opened up its markets has prospered."

Both scholars praised Col Gaddafi for the steps he has taken, while urging him to go further, faster.

Prof Giddens pointed to Ireland as a small country which has prospered hugely by investing in skills, in education and in its children.

By making connections with larger countries, he argued, particularly through the European Union, Ireland had prospered but had not been dominated.

"Libya has nothing to fear from change", insisted Prof Barber.

Col Gaddafi thanked them for participating in the discussion and dialogue, without quite signalling what change, and how much change, in Libya he would be willing to see.

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