SABHA, Libya – Libya's Moammar Qadaffi said in an unusual debate Friday it was time for his long-isolated nation to open up to the world and that one day it won't need him as leader. Still, he touted the ruling ideology he has entrenched here for three decades as superior to Western democracy.
The debate itself was a sign of the gradual change in the oil-rich country: Two Western intellectuals held a rare back-and-forth with a leader long vilified in the West, who is still viewed as an eccentric autocrat even as Libya emerges from its pariah status.
Having improved ties with the United States and Europe, Qadaffi has backed ambitious economic reforms. The large, mostly desert nation has the highest GDP in North Africa because of its oil wealth, but most of its 5.6 million people are impoverished, schools and hospitals are in disrepair and infrastructure is poor. It has called in U.S. consultants to help streamline investment and train Libyan entrepreneurs.
But signs of political change are few.
The debate was held on the sidelines of celebrations Friday marking the 30-year anniversary of the declaration of the "jamahiriya," or "rule of the masses," the political philosophy created by Qadaffi in his famed Green Book. It calls for a direct democracy in which every citizen is involved in rule through People's Conferences — but critics say it has translated into one-man domination.
"Forming political parties is treason," read one of the billboards touting Green Book slogans lining roads in the Sahara Desert town of Sabha, 360 miles south of Tripoli, where the "jamahiriya" was declared in 1977 and where Friday's ceremonies were held. A crowd of thousands waved their fists and cheered Qadaffi at a rally in the evening.
In the debate, held earlier Friday in front of a group of Western journalists, American political theorist Benjamin Barber and British social scientist Anthony Giddens politely — sometimes deferentially — pressed the man known here as "Brother Leader" on the need for reform.
Qadaffi, dressed in brown robes and a traditional Libyan cap, argued against representative democracy, insisting that under Libya's system, "everyone enters into authority, there's not a single person who monopolizes authority. Thus the struggle for power ends."
"If the Leader will forgive me saying so, I think it's wrong to say you can have full direct democracy," Barber said in the forum, which was moderated by David Frost and is to be aired by the British Broadcast Corp.
"I think this is a very basic difference here," said Giddens, the former director of the London School of Economics.
Qadaffi dismissed the need for greater freedom of expression in Libya, where tight control is kept on the state-run media and many foreign newspapers are banned.
"The press (in Libya) is owned by the community, not by a company ... that reflects the views of its owners," he said. "That is not freedom of the press at all, it is freedom for those who have the money to publish these newspapers. Freedom of the press does not exist in a genuine sense in the world."
But Qadaffi acknowledged that Libya must open its economy to the world.
"No doubt, Libya is part of a world in which globalization prevails," he said. "It cannot row against the current."
"Libya has had to open up. Our People's Conferences realize that this is the world today. From this realistic, pragmatic point of view, Libya has improved its relations with the West.
"I hope that the Libyan people will rule themselves through Popular Conferences and there will be no need for Moammar Qadaffi now or the Moammar Qadaffi of the future," he said. "The masses are gaining power now. I hope the Libyan people will be a model for the world."
Libya clashed with the United States in the early 1980s, then was under U.N. sanctions for a decade over the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie in which 270 people were killed. But Gadhafi rehabilitated ties with the West by agreeing to compensation for the Pan Am victims and announcing in 2003 that Libya would dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs.
Last year, the United States removed Libya from its list of states supporting terrorism and has established diplomatic relations cut off since 1980.
Giddens, who has met with the elder Qadaffi several times previously, said Friday's debate was a sign that he was serious about change, saying he has "endorsed an opening-up process."
"I've seen a change over the past months, a willingness to consider modernization," he told the Associated Press afterward. "Qadaffi can play an important role."