University News

Prodi: African Union key player in Libya

A Herald exclusive interview

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pounding his firmly clenched fists on the table, Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy and former president of the European Commission, called on global leaders to take “strong action” to aid the Middle East and North African countries in their current crises. As president of the commission —  the executive arm of the European Union — he held the highest office on the continent from 1999 to 2004.

In an exclusive interview with The Herald last week, Prodi, a professor-at-large at the Watson Institute for International Studies, stressed that more attention should be placed on Egypt and that mediation efforts on the part of the African Union may be the key to ousting Colonel Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya.

Though opposition forces in Egypt succeeded in overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak Feb. 11, the country’s worsening economy could threaten the success of its “freedom revolution,” Prodi said. Criticizing the gradual retreat of world powers from Egypt after supporting its democratic uprising, he said the rebellion may face severe problems unless European and U.S. governments step in to upstart the economy. He invoked the Marshall Plan, an economic plan the United States undertook following World War II to strengthen and stabilize Europe’s economy.

Though the war in Libya has recently shifted much of the regional focus away from Egypt, Prodi said “the real country’s Egypt” because of Egypt’s leading role in the Arab world.

A country of 80 million people, Egypt has served as a “center of the deepest Islamic thought,”  enjoying influence throughout the Middle East and Africa, Prodi said. Its universities are renowned around the world, and the nation has always “exercised a moderating action” in the region, he said.

But with tourism — one of the largest sectors of the nation’s economy — lagging, and capital flight outweighing incoming aid money, Egypt’s economy is struggling. “The situation, instead of improving, is worsening,” he said.

The educated and unemployed youth who live in Cairo and Alexandria were major contributors to the revolution and saw it as “the startup of a solution” for the nation. But with the deterioration of the economy, “I am obliged … to put a question mark on the future,” Prodi said.

Recalling his experiences with Mubarak, Prodi said the Egyptian leader is highly intelligent and knowledgeable in the political arena and had gained the support of Western countries through his ability to serve as a moderator in the region.

Mubarak had expressed concern about an emerging student revolution about a decade ago, but since then, “his behavior … was of a man who was absolutely certain (there was) no risk in his power,” Prodi said.

Prodi said Mubarak is an outspoken man with whom he has had several enjoyable experiences. Prodi called these episodes “absolutely funny” but declined to comment further.

“I shall make an interview, say, in 2020 to you” to talk about his experiences, he said, but declined to elaborate on specific episodes during this interview.

While the uprising in Libya also aims to dethrone a dictator, the struggle is fundamentally different from that in Egypt, Prodi said. The Egyptian movements were primarily class-based, whereas the conflict in Libya is rooted in the ethnic differences of people who inhabit Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, two major historical regions of the country, Prodi said.

Tripoli, the capital of Libya and the center of Gadhafi’s power, is located in Tripolitania, and Benghazi, the rebel government’s base, is located in the eastern region of Cyrenaica.

The Tripolitanians have dominated the Cyrenaic people since Gadhafi ousted King Idris, who was of Cyrenaic origin, in 1969, Prodi said, and the modern union of these two entities, represented by the nation of Libya, has always been “artificial.”

The ethnic and geographical differences have created a “cumulated tension” exasperated by Gadhafi’s dictatorial policies. Prodi was hesitant to call the revolution inevitable, but he said the uprisings in the Middle East sparked the tinder of Libyan society’s innate tensions.

The African Union sent a delegation led by South African President Jacob Zuma to Libya last week in hopes of fostering negotiation between Gadhafi and the rebel government and achieving peace. While Gadhafi reportedly accepted a peace agreement, the rebels rejected the proposal, which would have left Gadhafi in power.

Prodi said he has always supported the African Union’s mediation efforts, but it would have been “wiser” if the union had stepped into the conflict earlier. Though he is unsure if the union’s efforts will succeed, he said, based on his experience with Gadhafi, the African Union is the only body that has the potential to successfully negotiate with Gadhafi regarding his own withdrawal.

According to Prodi, Gadhafi frequently talked about Africa and donned clothing imprinted with maps of the continent. He contributed a significant amount of money to the African Union, and he wanted to eventually become “the recognized leader of Africa.”

Prodi, who first met Gadhafi during his term as prime minister between 1996 and 1998, said the Libyan dictator stressed his desert origins, and most of their meetings were held in tents or in the desert.

While Prodi said he hopes NATO air strikes will help end the struggle, he added there is no consensus on how Western powers will ultimately end the strikes. Calling the African Union the “winner in this situation,” he said NATO and global powers should not engage in a project if they are unsure how to end it.

Prodi said he pushed for a number of initiatives during his time as president of the European Commission to help the countries of North Africa. For example, the European Neighbourhood Policy, approved in 2004, aimed to incorporate countries adjacent the Mediterranean — including Egypt and Libya — into various aspects of European policy without including them in the European Union. The policy’s goal was to effectively make use of the Mediterranean’s economic potential.

The Union for the Mediterranean was also established in 2008 to promote and maintain stability in the region. But European efforts in the Middle East and North Africa have been limited by immigration concerns, the economic crisis and tensions in European political relations, he said.

“If we are wise and if we love, really, democracy, we must, in spite of the economic crisis, in spite of our problems … build a plan in order to help the recovery of the countries,” he said.

Prodi declined to comment about the underage sex scandals surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who succeeded him in 2008, saying such talk would be in “bad taste.”

But he did add, “I’m very sorry for my country.”