June issue 2006

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago

Not long after Muammar Gaddafi, then a 27-year-old colonel, spearheaded a successful coup in Libya in 1969, it became clear that he would be something of an enfant terrible among Arab leaders. Alongside Houari Boumediene’s Algeria and Syria under Hafez El Assad, Libya was soon recognised as a full-fledged “frontline state” complete with a leader who spoke his mind, seemingly unconcerned about causing offence.

The more conventional Arab potentates were uncomfortable with his rhetoric, not least because Gaddafi saw himself as an heir to Nasserite pan-Arabism. The west began keeping a wary eye on him well before he was designated as a sponsor of terrorism. The Soviet Union never saw him as much of an ally, not least because Gaddafi rejected capitalism and communism with equal vehemence. The alternative he posited was supposedly a mixture of Islam and socialism — and it is not particularly surprising that Gaddafi got along famously with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Thirty-seven years after the coup, Gaddafi remains firmly ensconced in power. Although he holds no formal position in Libya, no one doubts that the Jamahiriyah is, in effect, a dictatorship, nor is there any speculation about who, in fact, is in charge. That’s pretty much par for the course as far as the Middle East is concerned, with few exceptions.

It’s Gaddafi’s militant past that makes his recent conversion particularly remarkable. In fact, his conversion is not all that recent: the Libyan leader has, for several years, been trying to get himself into the good books of the United States. His efforts bore fruit last month with the announcement that full diplomatic relations between the two countries are to be restored after a 26-year breach.

The breakthrough actually came towards the end of 2003, when Libya announced it was unilaterally suspending its work on chemical and nuclear weapons (in the case of the latter, it’s accepted that there was an A.Q. Khan connection). Tripoli also agreed to pay up to $10 million each in compensation to the families of all the people who died when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1989.

In 1999, Libya accepted legal responsibility for that act of terrorism and surrendered, after several years of defiance that entailed international sanctions, the two Libyan officials named by the west as its chief suspects. One of the officials was subsequently acquitted by a Scottish tribunal, while the other is serving a prison sentence in Scotland, where his visitors include Nelson Mandela — who knows a great deal about solitary confinement — and who was instrumental in persuading Gaddafi to give up the two men.

The Lockerbie bombing wasn’t by any means the first such allegation against Libya. A few years earlier it had been held responsible for the bombing of a discotheque in West Germany, in which a couple of US servicemen had died. Notwithstanding the absence of clear-cut evidence, the Reagan administration had reacted with a bombing raid that killed scores of civilians, including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter. Through much of the 1990s, with Gaddafi refusing to hand over the Lockerbie suspects, Washington and Tripoli regularly exchanged barbs and insults and, on occasion, military action by the US seemed imminent.

Throughout this period, Gaddafi did not receive much sympathy from fellow Arab heads of state. They were already wary of his idiosyncrasies and his fraught relations with the US only added to their discomfiture and made him a virtual pariah in the Middle East. This was a bitter blow to Gaddafi, whose penchant for federations was based on a firm, Nasserite devotion to notions of Arab unity. By the turn of the century, he’d evidently had enough of the Arab world. In 2001, he told an interviewer that Africa “is closer to me in every way than Iraq or Syria.”

The isolation his country faced during its sanctions ordeal must have helped to convince Gaddafi that the easiest way out would be for Libya to quietly meet all American demands. He began doing so in 1999. When Tripoli renounced its chemical and nuclear weapons programmes in 2003, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi said the Libyan leader had confided during a phone call that he had been scared senseless by the invasion of Iraq and was willing to do whatever was necessary to avoid a similar fate.

Berlusconi is not the most reliable of reporters, and even though it is not hard to believe that the events in Iraq were weighing on Gaddafi’s mind, the fact remains that behind-the-scenes negotiations between Libya and the US were launched long before Baghdad was overrun. Predictably, that didn’t prevent Washington from casting Tripoli’s announcement in a light that reflected well on the American misadventure in Iraq: Libya, it was suggested, had showed the way and other recalcitrant states in the region should follow suit if they know what’s good for them.

The hint was mainly intended for the benefit of Syria and Iran: most of the remaining countries in the Middle East didn’t really need to be pushed towards following Washington’s dictates. This time around, the announcement about the establishment of full diplomatic relations was accompanied by the explicit suggestion that Iran and North Korea would have much to gain from emulating Libya.


Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi. Photograph: AFP

One of the reasons that neither Iran nor North Korea were about to follow suit is that whereas Libya and the US were all along talking to each other directly, and Libya was never left in any doubt about the correlation between meeting American demands and the concessions that would follow, Washington has, time and again, refused to engage either Iran or North Korea in direct bilateral negotiations about their respective nuclear programmes.

Another reason is that the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang do not have a great deal in common with the set-up under Gaddafi. But what if a comparable deal had been offered to Saddam Hussein at almost any point during the 10 years leading up to 2003? It is unlikely that he would have been able to resist it, particularly if the perks included even a perfunctory ego-massage. (In Gaddafi’s case, this aspect has been left to the British: the colonel’s statesmanlike qualities have attracted generous tributes from Tony Blair as well as from his former foreign secretary, Jack Straw.) If Saddam could have been won over, the idea of regime change would have been rendered superfluous and the vast, bloody mess in Iraq could have been avoided.

So perhaps the real lesson of recent developments doesn’t lie in the prospect of anyone following suit, but has more to do with lost opportunities and double standards. The rehabilitation of an autocrat also reminds us that American enthusiasm for the democracy that was supposed to engulf the Middle East after the conquest of Iraq has sharply waned.

Beyond that it is hard to imagine any far-reaching changes in the Middle East as a consequence of Libya’s willingness to play the game by America’s rules. According to the US, Gaddafi’s government has proved to be an extremely helpful partner in the so-called war against terrorism. In his 1970s heyday, and for quite some time thereafter, Gaddafi was willing to share his nation’s oil riches with a wide variety of radical groups, ranging from Palestinian factions to the Irish Republican Army and other armed militants in Europe. But that was long ago, and even then, Salafist jihadis were never his cup of tea.

More recently, Gaddafi was accused of having ordered the assassination of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah when he was crown prince. It has been suggested that the plot was hatched after Abdullah had played a crucial role in setting up a dialogue between Libya and the US in 1999. If there is any truth in this tale, it is bound to involve a range of factors that are not public knowledge — because it superficially makes little sense. Nor is it easy to understand how Tripoli and Riyadh resolved their dispute with a minimum of fuss, unless Gaddafi was able to convince Abdullah that the allegation was a lie.

Even Libya’s role in the Lockerbie disaster continues to invite conjecture in some quarters where the evidence against Abdul Basit Ali Al Megrahi — the former intelligence and Libyan Airlines officer currently serving a life term in Scotland — has never been seen as completely convincing. But even if Al Megrahi was guilty as charged, it is hardly conceivable that such a low-level operative would have decided of his own accord to bring down an American passenger airliner. If he was following orders, where did those orders come from? There is a plethora of unanswered questions, and it is at least possible that Gaddafi decided the acknowledgement of legal responsibility (rather than guilt) and doling out compensation worth a couple of billion dollars would be better than indefinitely being kept out in the cold.

The renunciation of nuclear and chemical weapons was a commendable step, regardless of the reasons behind it. Even if fear was the chief motivating factor, the point is that no country needs such weapons. What will be interesting to see is the degree to which Libya’s independence may have been compromised by whatever measures it has taken to earn its removal from the American list of countries that supposedly support terrorism. In the past, Gaddafi spouted nonsense at times, but more often than not he had an interesting take to offer on regional developments. It’ll be a pity if that ceases to be the case.

Two days after the new level of US-Libyan rapprochement was announced, Gaddafi played host to Venezuela’s outspoken president, Hugo Chavez, whose call for unity against the “hegemony of the United States” was not echoed by the Libyan leader. On an earlier visit to Tripoli a couple of years ago, Chavez received a human rights award for “resisting imperialism.” It is difficult to imagine a similar gesture being made in the future.

Although Gaddafi’s Green Book remains at the top of the mandatory reading list in Libya, the brand of socialism he once championed has been giving way to the neoliberalism fancied by Saif Al Islam, his pro-western son and likely heir. Libya’s oil revenues are more than sufficient to keep its population of six million fed and clothed (although that may cease to be the case if everything is privatised, which is what Saif apparently has in mind), but investment in health and education has been woefully deficient. The re-entry of American oil conglomerates cannot compensate for such shortcomings.

It is too soon, however, to start evaluating Gaddafi’s legacy. Although he’s been in power for 37 years, the colonel’s only 64 and could be around for a while. And if his eccentricity and unpredictability are not traits of the past, he may yet have a surprise or two up his sleeve.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.