Contribution to Statements on Libya in Dail Eireann on Thursday, 24th March 2011

March 30th, 2011 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the events taking place throughout the Arab world. What is happening there is similar to what happened in the old Soviet Union with the emergence of new countries. I was fortunate last weekend to be part of a European Union delegation which travelled to Cairo to see at first hand what has happened since the revolution that took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo on 25 January. Since then we have also had a relatively peaceful changeover in Tunisia.

Most of these regimes in North Africa and elsewhere in the Arab world are run by dictators and there have been serious violations of human rights in all cases. The major difficulty now for Egypt and other Arab countries is how to cope with an emerging democracy. Last Saturday in Egypt a referendum took place on a change to the constitution in which 60% of the people came out to vote. I met an English-speaking woman at a polling station who told me she did not mind what was on the ballot paper — what was important was that this was the first time she had taken part in a free ballot. Instead of fear there was freedom. It was the first time in 35 years that the Egyptian people did not know in advance the outcome of a vote.

What is happening in the Arab world, particularly Libya, is precisely what is bound to happen when a dictator is in power too long. President Mubarak was in power in Egypt for 35 years and Gadaffi has been in control of Libya since 1969 having seized power in a coup d’état from King Idris. Libya has a population of some 6.5 million, which is low relative to its landmass, it being the fourth largest country in Africa. Some 70% of the terrain is desert and most people live on the Mediterranean coast. The capital, Tripoli, is on the eastern coast and has a population of some 1.7 million. The country has a beautiful coastline and the tenth largest oil reserves in the world. Much of the wealth associated with those reserves has been appropriated by Gadaffi’s regime with the people receiving little benefit from it.

Following recent events there are now two entities claiming to be the official Government of Libya. Colonel Gadaffi controls Tripoli and most of the western half of the country, while the national transitional council of the Libyan Republic, led by Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalal, is based in Benghazi and controls the eastern half of the country. The only two countries in the European Union that have thus far recognised the new council are France and Portugal. Gadaffi’s attacks on his own people have infuriated the whole Arab world. My group met Amr Moussa at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo last Sunday after his return from Paris where he had given his approval for the air strikes on Libya to prevent Gadaffi’s troops from killing civilians.
More people were killed in Yemen yesterday and there has also been unrest in Bahrain. This unrest is spreading throughout Africa and further afield as various dictators come to the end of their term.
The Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, referred to some of the difficulties that may arise as a result of recent developments. For example, there are almost 1 million Egyptians living in Libya. If the war continues — as it is likely to do even though the coalition says it has taken out most of Gadaffi’s air bases — there will be a civil war and an attempt by the Libyan people to take out Gadaffi. It was made clear to us at our meeting last weekend that the Arab world wants him gone. Unfortunately, however, he is holding on and he has his supporters.

The borders of many countries in the region will be under pressure as refugees in Libya seek to return to their home countries. If a significant portion of the 1 million Egyptians living in Libya seek to return home it will cause more problems for Egypt which is facing severe economic problems as a consequence of the regime that was in operation for 35 years. Much of that country’s wealth was taken into foreign banks and Mubarak and his allies have plundered the country. People in the region are crying out for help and Europe must answer that call not only in terms of military intervention but in the form of economic assistance. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Catherine Ashton, and the United States Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton, have visited the region. In many cases the transition to democracy will cause problems and it is vital that we offer support in this regard.

On 17 March the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 by a vote of 10-0. French fighter planes entered Libyan airspace last Saturday in the first step in the coalition’s imposition of a no-fly zone under the UN resolution. I hope there will be an end to that within a week or two. It is not a situation we want to see continuing and I hope Colonel Gadaffi sees the light and lets democracy take its place.

I commend the Tánaiste’s humanitarian contribution of €650,000 this morning, it is vital that Ireland plays its role in the humanitarian field. There were reports this morning of tanks attacking a small town in Libya, with brutal forces acting on behalf of Colonel Gadaffi to try to hold on to power.

I welcome this debate. That we have spent time on it shows that Ireland is concerned about what is happening with our neighbours in the Arab world.