Cameron Condemns Libya Repression, Urges Middle East Democracy

British Prime Minister David Cameron
British Prime Minister David Cameron used a speech in Kuwait’s parliament to say he sees grounds for “cautious optimism” in the wave of political protest sweeping the region from Algeria to the Persian Gulf. Photographer: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the violent suppression of anti-government protesters in Libya as he urged Middle Eastern leaders to heed the demands of their people for political change.

Violence has intensified in Libya, the holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves, where Muammar Qaddafi, its ruler since 1969, denied last night he had fled. Diplomats have resigned and soldiers have deserted in protest over a crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that has left hundreds dead. Oil climbed today to the highest level in more than two years.

“The level of violence committed by the regime on the people is completely unacceptable,” Cameron told a news conference in Kuwait City today as he continued a Middle East tour. “There needs to be a full investigation into the events in Benghazi and eastern Libya. I would call on the government to give access to human-rights organizations and the press.”

The prime minister used a speech in Kuwait’s parliament to say he sees grounds for “cautious optimism” in the wave of political protest sweeping the region from Algeria to the Persian Gulf. He said political and economic change are essential for stability.

Cameron traveled to Kuwait after a surprise visit to Cairo yesterday to urge Egypt’s military rulers to demonstrate they’re serious about moving to hold free elections following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak.

‘Peacefully and Bravely’

The premier told his audience in Kuwait’s National Assembly they should welcome the demonstrations springing up across the Arab world. He said young people, protesting “peacefully and bravely,” are showing that there are alternatives to “repression and extremism.”

“History is sweeping through your neighborhood,” Cameron said. “Across the Arab world, aspirations are stirring which have lain dormant. We cannot remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success.”

In Libya last night, Qaddafi appeared on state television to say that he was “here in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.” In Tripoli, bodies are lying outside a day after protesters were attacked by pro-Qaddafi gunmen, the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya said.

The flag of the constitutional monarchy overthrown by Qaddafi flew on streets and over several buildings in the second city, Benghazi, and there were no security forces in evidence except traffic police, witnesses said.

Oil for March delivery rose as much as 9.6 percent, and traded 7.1 percent higher at 7:23 a.m. in New York.

Political Opposition

Kuwait has allowed more space for political opposition than other Gulf monarchies, opening a fault line between an executive appointed by the hereditary ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, and elected lawmakers seeking wider powers. Their disputes have repeatedly shut down the assembly and stalled investment plans.

Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah survived a challenge in parliament last month over a police crackdown on opposition lawmakers, who vowed to continue their campaign to bring down the government.

“For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk,” Cameron said in his speech. “Countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values.  And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice. Denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability.”

‘Borders on Racism’

He said the view that “Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy” was “a prejudice that borders on racism.”

Cameron has argued that the business-focused foreign policy he wants is compatible with speaking up for human rights. That view is being tested back in London, where the government is reviewing its export licenses to countries in the Middle East after security forces in Libya and Bahrain opened fire on protesters.

Out of the 36 businessmen in the prime minister’s trade delegation, eight are involved in the defense industry, representing companies including Thales SA, BAE Systems Plc and Qinetiq Group Plc.

“I simply don’t understand how you can’t understand how democracies have a right to defend themselves,” Cameron said in response to a question about the arms trade. “Are we saying that for all time countries like Kuwait have to manufacture and maintain all parts of their own defenses?”

He added that the U.K. has “probably the tightest set of export licenses and rules anywhere in the world.”

The opposition Labour Party said that before the government sanctions new arms sales, it needs “a better understanding of how the politics and foreign policy of countries in the region will settle after this time of change,” according to a statement from Kevan Jones, a defense spokesman.

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