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Libya’s prime minister optimistic despite country’s struggles

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Despite fissions that threaten to break up his state and rising concerns about human rights abuses, Libya’s new prime minister assured top officials in Washington this week that his government would create a democracy that protected minority rights.

But Abdel-Rahim el Keib — an electrical engineering professor at the University of Alabama until the fall of Moammar Gadhafi — appeared to offer few specifics in meetings with President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and lawmakers.

Instead, he repeatedly dismissed concerns that Libya is struggling on several fronts: to create a defense force, to stop rising crime, to hold the country together and to keep ungoverned cities from becoming havens for terrorist groups like al-Qaida.

When asked Friday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace why the first law Libya passed after Gadhafi’s fall was to approve polygamy, he responded: “Don’t worry about it.”

With debate over international intervention in Syria reaching a fever pitch, the Libya experience has offered an example of what can go right and wrong when Western powers try to help rebels overthrow longstanding dictatorships in the Middle East. Libya’s difficulties since Gadhafi was deposed in August have suggested that such efforts could lead to instability as inexperienced leaders learn how to build a fresh state.

This week, oil-producing eastern Libya declared itself an autonomous region with the city of Benghazi — the city that launched the uprising against Gadhafi — as its capital, in a move that eastern leaders said would end decades of marginalization. On Friday, thousands of Libyans reportedly protested the move in Benghazi, with chants such as, “Libya is one.”

El Keib dismissed concerns that the move would lead to a fractured state, telling reporters Thursday after meeting with Clinton, “This is a democracy in practice.”

But a 220-page U.N. Human Rights Council report released last week found otherwise. It concluded that the new Libyan government had been unresponsive to human rights abuses and was largely unable to govern, leading to armed factions of former anti-Gadhafi rebels committing crimes.

Among the abuses cited in the report were “unlawful killing, arbitrary arrest, torture, enforced disappearance, indiscriminate attacks and pillage.”

Many of the crimes were committed against suspected Gadhafi supporters or beneficiaries of his regime. The report went on to say that the difference between the abuses committed by Gadhafi’s dictatorship and those of the current militias are “that those responsible for abuses now are not as part of a system of brutality sanctioned by the central government.”

El Keib said Friday that the government was investigating human rights abuses and “believes in equality.”

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