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."
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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 United Nations 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."
Publicly, at least, Obama administration officials put little pressure on the Libyan leader. Clinton, speaking after their meeting Thursday, said of Libya's transition, "We've seen progress in each of the three key areas of democratic society — building an accountable, effective government; promoting a strong private sector; and developing a vibrant civil society. And we will stand with the people of Libya as it continues this important work."
Libya is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in June followed by a constitutional referendum.
At the United Nations, el Keib said he was "not aware" of accusations by Russia that Libyans were arming and training Syrian rebels.
Despite el Keib's apparent lack of specifics, top U.S. officials said that while they recognized there were problems, they were optimistic. After decades of international isolation under Gadhafi, el Keib told the audience at Carnegie that "we are now proud to call ourselves your partners."
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