November issue 2011
The Life and Times of Gaddafi
Muammar Gaddafi may well be the only foreign head of state to ever have addressed a mammoth public meeting in Pakistan. He had stayed on after attending the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Lahore in 1974, and it’s unlikely his host, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, found it particularly hard to persuade the youthful and voluble Libyan leader to make a speech. The venue, if memory serves, was the very stadium that has since then borne his name.
At the summit, Gaddafi, Algeria’s Houari Boumediene and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad stood out as young radicals with a somewhat different perspective on Arab and international affairs than their older, generally conservative and predominantly hereditary counterparts in the region. Like Bhutto, they were ostensibly inclined towards some form of socialism, wary of western imperialism and vociferous in their support of the Palestinian cause.
Who could then have known that two of them would remain entrenched as dictators for decades, becoming ugly caricatures of their idealistic younger selves?
In Gaddafi’s case, it would be fair to say that his public persona was always somewhat off-the-wall. Over the decades, his performances on the international stage were invariably entertaining for outsiders, but Libyans had less cause for amusement. There is considerable irony in the fact that the United Nations Security Council resolution that effectively condemned him to death was numbered 1973, because that was the year in which he unleashed his version of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and many of those deemed not to be in tune with the politics and philosophy of the new Libya paid a heavy price.
The paranoia-driven repression never eased up, although its intensity was variable. And for dozens of dissidents, exile proved to be a less-than-safe haven, as the Gaddafi regime had little compunction about hunting them down in distant lands.
Gaddafi was a relatively lowly captain in the Libyan army in 1969 when he masterminded a coup that toppled the pro-western King Idris. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that there was no room in Libya for ex-colonists of Italian origin, nor for US or British military bases. A greater proportion of revenues from the nation’s natural resources was thenceforth poured into projects that most Libyans appreciated — schools, hospitals, roads. But by the time Gaddafi relinquished all state posts and turned into Brother Leader in 1977, corruption had set in.
Early last year, when Gaddafi escalated a feud with Switzerland over the arrest in Geneva of one his sons and the latter’s wife and declared a jihad against the quintessentially neutral state, he was reported to have transferred $5 billion from a Swiss bank account. That sort of money does not accumulate without graft.
There are many other contradictory aspects in the way Gaddafi has conducted state affairs. Libya was never a sufficiently large amphitheatre for his ego and his ambitions. As someone who strove to emulate his role model, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, he sought Libya’s unification with Tunisia and Egypt, and was rebuffed by both Habib Bourguiba and Anwar Sadat (although the latter had initially encouraged the idea, possibly with an eye on Libya’s oil wells and its higher standard of living).
Nasser had briefly succeeded in uniting Egypt with Syria in the United Arab Republic, but wisely chose not to try maintaining the union by force when Syria changed its mind. Notwithstanding his dictatorial tendencies, Nasser was an astute politician who was genuinely popular not just in Egypt, but across the Arab world, although despised by the potentates. (King Saud bankrolled an assassination attempt, yet sought refuge in Nasser’s Egypt after he was forced to abdicate by his brother Faisal). Gaddafi is believed to have been emotionally shattered by Nasser’s sudden demise in 1970. It is perfectly possible that with Nasser as a longer-term mentor, he would have evolved into a less capricious ruler.
But that was not to be, and there were periods when Gaddafi turned his back on the Arab world and cultivated dreams of a United States of Africa. Tripoli was one of Nelson Mandela’s first ports of call following the end of his incarceration; notwithstanding strong American objections, he wanted to personally thank Gaddafi for the moral and material support Libya had provided to the African National Congress (ANC). At the same time, however, Gaddafi also provided assistance to the grotesque Idi Amin of Uganda and to Liberia’s Charles Taylor, among others. There is no evidence that he found his own conduct contradictory.
His anti-imperialist mindset also prompted him to aid European terrorist organisations such as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist ETA and the Red Army Faction in West Germany. Al-Zulfikar, too, is believed to have benefited from his generosity. The designation of Libya by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979 was not entirely arbitrary.
In 1986, when an American serviceman was among the casualties in a bomb blast at a bar in West Germany, the Reagan administration carried out bombing raids against Libya with British assistance, in which Gaddafi’s compound was targeted and an infant adopted daughter of Gaddafi reportedly died.
Two years later, a Pan-Am airliner exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland, and Libya was accused of having planted the bomb. The evidence to that effect is not universally accepted, but Gaddafi nevertheless eventually surrendered the two Libyans accused of the crime and paid compensation to the families of the victims, presumably in order to bring Libya in from the cold.
At the same time, he was apparently trying to acquire nuclear weapons. It is said that he tried to buy a bomb from Nawaz Sharif and insulted him when Sharif refused. A.Q. Khan is believed to have been a great deal more obliging in selling the technology. But Gaddafi panicked as the invasion of Iraq got underway in 2003, and intimated to the British intelligence agency MI6 that he was interested in giving up Libya’s nuclear pursuit. It took several months to work out a deal, whereafter he was applauded in the West for his “statesman-like” conduct.
He also became a keen participant in the so-called war on terror, and questions are now being asked about the British-American role in rendition activities whereby purported Libyan Islamists were airlifted to Tripoli, where they faced opprobrium and torture.
The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of this year caused him to panic once more. A very distressed-sounding Gaddafi berated Tunisians for getting rid of his “brother” Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. He was obviously petrified by the prospect of similar unrest in Libya. When it inevitably broke out, in a rambling peroration he condemned the rebels as vermin who would be hunted down and eliminated.
It is the prospect of a massacre in Benghazi that supposedly prompted UNSC 1973, Britain, France and, somewhat more reluctantly, the US to spring into action by imposing no-fly zones. The mandate was to protect civilians, but the essential aim was clearly regime change and, before long, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama were openly saying that Gaddafi would have to go.
The initial idea that NATO would operate exclusively from the air was rapidly muddied when reports emerged of boots on the ground in the shape of British and French special forces as well as the CIA. The Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya as a whole was violated by the supply of weapons to the rebels. And falsehoods were cited as proof of Gaddafi’s ruthlessness: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found no evidence whatsoever for the appalling allegation that the dictator had equipped his troops with viagra and ordered them to go on a raping spree. And while the regime had, no doubt, reacted violently to the outbreak of rebellion, claims of massacres were exaggerated, if not unfounded.
Gaddafi had, early on, dismissed the Benghazi-centred uprising as an Al Qaeda-sponsored venture. That wasn’t true, but it also wasn’t as absurd as it sounds. Al Harakat Al Islamiya Al Libya, which was previously known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and which has played a crucial part in the fight against Gaddafi, was formed two decades ago by veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. It denies having cooperated with Osama bin Laden, but is presumed to be a source for many of the Al Libbis who keep turning up in the annals of the war on terror. As former CIA operative Robert Baer put it a couple of months ago, the people that the US was aiding in Libya were not terribly different from the ones it was fighting in Afghanistan.
The imperative to dislodge Gaddafi was essentially opportunistic, but the background stretched back for four decades during which both the West and the Arab world perceived him as an inconvenience. The Arab League’s initial support for the no-fly zone was considered an important endorsement, but it was essentially only Qatar (and the UAE) that chipped in — both of them pretty far removed from any notion of democracy. Given that Gaddafi is said to have sponsored an attempt to assassinate King Abdullah when he was crown prince, it’s not unreasonable to presume that Saudi Arabia, too, was pleased at his departure even as it continues to shore up a brutal and unrepresentative regime in Bahrain.
It is unlikely any Arab leader was particularly sorry to see him go, although the profoundly brutal manner of Gaddafi’s death might have stirred a degree of remorse — not least because it reinforces the prejudice whereby Arab Muslims are seen as barbarians.
In the end, Gaddafi’s unpredictability played a significant role in his undoing. No one appreciates a mercurial ally. Even though he had lately been on reasonably good terms with the West, both politically and economically, his legendary unreliability sealed his fate. As soon as the dictator was dead, a couple of months after having been toppled from power, the British defence secretary was quoted as advising his nation’s businessmen to pack their bags. In the US, The New York Times reported late last month, “Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya … Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude towards the United States and its NATO partners.”
The rebellion against Gaddafi has been tainted almost from the beginning by western military interference, unlike the popular revolts in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. NATO planes flew tens of thousands of sorties before the operation was concluded at the end of October, and even after the dictator had abandoned Tripoli, western air support was crucial in the battle of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, where no effort was made to avert civilian casualties — the purported aim of NATO’s mission in the first place.
Gaddafi had apparently engaged the services of South African mercenaries to facilitate his exit from the country. A convoy was headed towards the border when its progress was halted by a missile strike from an American drone. The ex-dictator took refuge in a drainpipe, where he was discovered by rebel forces, humiliated, tortured and then murdered in cold blood. The National Transitional Council has said it would investigate the killing and punish the perpetrator — without acknowledging that the culprit’s identity is no secret in Misrata.
Despite a series of defection from the civilian and military ranks of the Gaddafi regime, it is perfectly possible that it would not have crumbled in the absence of the western intervention — not only on accounts of its superior firepower and its willingness to use it, but partly also because Gaddafi was not universally unpopular. It is said Tripoli did not erupt in the same way as Cairo or Tunis because Libyans feared the regime, which is by no means an absurd proposition. Conversely though, it’s probably also true that in the aftermath Gaddafi supporters are afraid to stand up and be counted, particularly in the wake of a massacre at a hotel in Sirte, which, too, will be “investigated.”
Libya’s future remains unwritten, and one can only hope the expectations that it will be better than the previous 42 years will prove to be well-founded. A puppet state akin to the Emirates that bankrolled the change would be an unfortunate outcome. It would have been sensible of Gaddafi to stage a relatively dignified exit back in February, but sense and sensibility were never his forte and his notorious narcissism no doubt got in the way. His end was indubitably, and unnecessarily, tragic, yet the tendency among sections of the left (including Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez) to regard him as some sort of a hero can be based only on an ignorance of his malevolent and nepotistic regime.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.