At the height of his rule spanning four brutal decades, the Libyan dictator had announced: ‘God, Muammar, Libya: Enough.’ The eccentric leader thought he could weather the Arab Spring and cow his people into submission through threats and bullets. In the end, the man with the larger-than life personality was blown away as surely and as brutally as an unsuspecting airliner climbing gracefully through Scottish skies.
Muammar Gaddafi, who seized power in Libya in a 1969 coup and whose Tripoli stronghold has been violently seized , was a leader with many guises. He was a Bedouin tribesman, a colonel and a self-styled revolutionary. He was an Arab and an African, a nationalist and a socialist, a Muslim, a poet and a would-be ‘philosopher king’.
For the Libyan ‘masses’, he was, in his own words, their Brother Leader, Supreme Guide, mentor, patriarch and uncle. But for his domestic opponents and for much of the western world, Gaddafi was something else entirely: a hubristic oil shaikh, a buffoon, a braggart, and a heartless killer.
With his overthrow as Libya’s paramount chief, the international stage has lost one of its most colourful and disturbing personalities. Gaddafi had the ability to amaze and appal, to shock and amuse, simultaneously and in equal measure. This Janus-like quality, of looking both ways while maintaining contradictory views, made him both a foolish and a formidable adversary.
The Bedouin tent he insisted on pitching when visiting foreign capitals, his infamous entourage of heavily armed female bodyguards, grandiose projects (such as his $20 billion (Dh73.4 billion) Great Man-Made River through the Libyan desert) and his absurdist, finger-wagging homilies to world leaders often rendered him a figure of fun and derision.
But the darker side of his character and leadership also made him, at various times during his 42-year reign, an object of fear and hatred; a vicious, duplicitous and pitiless enemy who would seemingly stop at nothing to maintain his dominance at home and advance his eccentric, bizarrely warped view of the world.
Writing in the Times in 2009, author Amir Taheri recounted how he first met Gaddafi in 1970 during the funeral of the Egyptian president, Gamal Abel Nasser and how, typically, all was not how it seemed. “In a room in the Qubbah palace in Cairo I found Gaddafi squatting on the floor with a number of other Libyan officers, beating their chests and weeping uncontrollably while the television cameras rolled. Once the cameras stopped, however, it became clear that there had been no tears. The colonel and his entourage rose to shake our hands, all smiles.”
Taheri went on: “Gaddafi is a caricature of the Renaissance man; a pseudo-poet, pseudo-philosopher and pseudo-soldier. Without having seen a single battle he has collected more medals than generals in an operetta. He has published verse that would make a 12-year-old blush. [His] Green Book, echoing Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, [is] full of gems that would make even the Chinese Communist despot sound profound.”
Thirty-seven years later, a Gaddafi visit to Paris in 2007 at the invitation of President Nicolas Sarkozy proved that, if anything, the colonel’s eccentricities had deepened with age. While pheasant shooting at Versailles (he was refused permission to go fox-hunting at Fontainebleau), Gaddafi told his republican hosts he was, “a great admirer of King Louis XVI,” who was guillotined in 1793. Gaddafi toured Paris in a white stretch limousine, accompanied by a procession of cars and armed female guards that clogged the traffic and closed whole neighbourhoods. He also delivered a deeply insensitive lecture in the wake of the 2005 banlieu riots, admonishing an affronted audience about France’s mistreatment of North African immigrants: “They brought us here like cattle to do hard and dirty work, and then they throw us to live on the outskirts of towns, and when we claim our rights, the police beat us.”
As if for good measure, Gaddafi insulted Christians: “The cross that you wear has no sense, just like your prayers have no sense,” and, reverting to another favourite theme, condemned, “the tragic conditions of the European woman, who is forced sometimes into a job that she does not want.” His assumed support for women’s rights was intended, as ever, to disguise an almost pathological, life-long misogyny. But few, apart perhaps from Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, a one-time ally and fellow philanderer, were fooled.
Gaddafi’s other side murderous, blood-chilling and arrogant was on ugly display in an interview he gave to the Washington Post in 2003. He was asked about the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people. By this time a Libyan national, Abdel Baset Al Megrahi, had been found guilty of the crime and Libya had offered to pay $2.7b in compensation convincing many that Gaddafi himself was personally complicit in the plot.
Gaddafi waved away the interviewer’s questions, suggesting it was time to bury the whole affair. When pressed, he turned the tables, claiming Libya should be compensated too: “We hope an agreement can be reached to provide suitable compensation, which Libya alone will not pay. Perhaps Libya and the US will contribute to a compensation fund.”
Why would the US contribute? he was asked. Gaddafi replied: “To compensate for the Libyans who were killed in the 1986 [US] bombing [of Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli] as well as for the victims of Lockerbie. How much do you think the compensation should be for Gaddafi’s daughter [who was one of the victims]? If a normal American needs $10 million, then a daughter of Gaddafi should be worth billions.”
Gaddafi was not always the foppish monster he subsequently became. Born in 1942 in the desert near Sirte to an illiterate Bedouin family, his outlook seems to have been crucially shaped during his school days by revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world, principally in Nasser’s Egypt, and by the 1948 Arab defeat in Palestine. At the Libyan military academy, he fell in with a group of radicals influenced by their study of Greek democracy and Islamic egalitarianism.
As a young, handsome junior officer a far cry from the bloated, Botox-scarred dictator of modern times he helped lead a coup against the pro-western King Idris in September 1969 and so launched Libya into a new age of supposedly perpetual revolution. He expelled Italian colonists, closed US and British military bases, nationalised Libya’s all-important oil industry and positioned Libya firmly in the anti-western camp, championing liberation struggles across Africa and central and south America. In time he proclaimed the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, literally, ‘the state of the masses’, and organised a system of revolutionary or people’s committees in every town, village, factory and farm that became the de facto enforcers of the new regime’s diktat. Setting out his ideas (such as the mysterious Third Universal Theory) in the Green Book, the essential literary companion to his so-called Green Revolution, Gaddafi abolished formal government structures or, rather, created a more important, parallel power base that he, his relatives, and favoured tribal allies controlled. While professing his faith, he kept Islam and Islamists on a tight leash.
Relinquishing the post of prime minister in 1979, Gaddafi assumed no new formal title, preferring terms such as Brother Leader and Supreme Guide. All military ranks above that of colonel had meanwhile been abolished. Despite all his talk of rule by the people for the people, it soon became clear there was only one colonel in Libya and only one voice, among seven million, that really mattered.
Gaddafi was fortunate in the 1970s, in two respects. Firstly, the great powers did not consider Libya important enough strategically, geographically or militarily speaking to worry too much about its zany leader’s ideas, at least at first.
Secondly, Libya had oil. Before the war it was earning about $1.6 billion per annum from exports and Gaddafi used the wealth and influence it brought to keep potential enemies at bay and the country under firm control.
Under his unlikely tutelage, Libya’s population, small in comparison to countries such as Egypt, enjoyed relatively high living standards. Even Gaddafi’s opponents did not deny his road, school and hospital-building programmes brought significant benefits.
Of course, much of the oil wealth, worth an estimated $1 trillion, over the first 40 years of his rule was squandered, stolen or embezzled. Gaddafi and his six sons, increasingly important props for his one-man regime, became immensely rich. Most non-oil industries and the agricultural sector wilted from neglect, lack of investment and corruption. And in terms of human rights and media freedoms, the Libyan people’s state became one of the world’s most repressive.
But this chronic absence of honest and open government was offset by another factor: Gaddafi’s well-honed ability to manipulate people and events. US state department cables released by WikiLeaks show that US diplomats, who returned to Tripoli in 2006 when relations were restored, developed considerable respect for his skill in marginalising allies and rivals alike, and thus maintaining his own position.
Gaddafi, “remains intimately involved in the regime’s most sensitive and critical portfolios,” ambassador Gene Cretz wrote in a January 2009 cable. Gaddafi’s “mastery of tactical manoeuvring has kept him in power for nearly 40 years.”
Gaddafi’s dysfunctional character was on full display during a 2009 meeting in Tripoli with a US congressional delegation, the Washington Post reported, quoting WikiLeaks. “The lawmakers, led by Senator John McCain, were summoned to Gaddafi’s opulent tent at 11pm. Gaddafi ‘appeared as if he had been roused from a deep slumber’ and showed up with ‘rumpled hair and puffy eyes’. Wearing wrinkled pants and ‘a short-sleeved shirt patterned with the continent of Africa’, Gaddafi’s mercurial side seemed to be in control.
“But, the cable reported, Gaddafi ‘was lucid and engaged throughout the meeting’, exhibiting a command of the issues at hand and a diplomatic manner. When his son Muatassim, who serves as his national security adviser, tried to interrupt the US lawmakers, Gaddafi ‘shushed’ him and bade the visitors continue.”
All the same, the US diplomats cannot suppress a snigger about Gaddafi’s vanity and hypochondria. His numerous female bodyguards had been replaced by a Ukrainian nurse, a ‘voluptuous blonde’ named Galyna, who accompanies him everywhere, they noted slyly.
Despite its fortunate beginnings at home, Gaddafi’s revolution left the rails almost as soon as he began to dabble in foreign affairs. It was as though Libya was not a big enough stage. His ego demanded a larger audience. In time, he certainly obtained one.
Gaddafi’s ideas about mergers with other Arab countries, replicated in his later enthusiasm for a ‘United States of Africa’ — with him as president — were mostly harmless, though he did launch a nasty, expensive and largely meaningless war with Chad in 1972.
But his ill-concealed backing for anti-western terrorist groups, part of his revolutionary mission to change the world, made him multiple enemies.
Libya’s support, direct and indirect, was as indiscriminate as it was lavish. From the IRA, the Red Brigades in Italy, and Eta in Spain to Shining Path in Peru and the Sword of Islam in the Philippines, terror groups everywhere benefited from his largesse
Infamous individuals such as Palestinian extremist leader Abu Nidal were given shelter. A French plane, UTA Flight 772, was blown up over Niger in 1989, killing 171 people including the wife of the American ambassador to Chad. European capitals were bombed. Assassination squads were sent around the world, targeting Libyan dissidents who Gaddafi labelled ‘stray dogs’. Amnesty International listed 25 such killings in the 1980s.
But when Gaddafi turned his murderous attentions directly on the US, sending agents to bomb a nightclub in Berlin packed with American servicemen, Washington and its allies drew the line. Britain had already cut diplomatic relations after the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.
In 1986, denouncing Gaddafi as ‘the mad dog of the Middle East’ and following aerial dogfights over the Gulf of Sirte, Ronald Reagan sent flights of sea-launched cruise missiles slamming into Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli. It was, the US later freely admitted, a deliberate attempt to kill him, echoing a similar alleged attempt by Britain’s secret services.
Two years later, in presumed retaliation, came the Lockerbie horror. Ever tougher UN, US and EU sanctions and deepening international ostracism ensued. Even fellow Arab leaders, alienated by his arrogance and meddling in their affairs, kept their distance. African countries took his money as he tried to curry favour, and mostly laughed at him behind his back. By the 1990s, Libya had become a pariah state and Gaddafi its pariah-in-chief.
Isolation did not suit Gaddafi’s self-aggrandising, showman side, nor were his banknote-scattering, one-man African tours sufficient to feed his ego. But then came the 9/11 attacks and with them, an opportunity. The US was suddenly badly in need of allies. The Americans’ subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussain in Iraq in 2003 seriously spooked Gaddafi. One of his envoys asked a western diplomat: “Are they coming after us too?”
In a spectacular volte-face, the Libyan leader came over to the west. But his 2003-2004 rehabilitation, lubricated by oil contracts and engineered through his surrender of his weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, his cooperation in combating Al Qaida, and his agreement to help curb illegal sub-Saharan immigration into the EU now looks, with hindsight, like an embarrassing blip; a sort of strategic con trick that only the colonel could pull off.
Tony Blair and other European leaders and diplomats, dutifully trooping down to Tripoli and grinning for the cameras with the Arab world’s prodigal son at their side, tacitly agreed to turn a blind eye to the past. A host of multinational oil companies returned to the Libyan desert. Gaddafi’s comeback was crowned in 2009 by his first address to the UN general assembly. Predictably he used his speech to attack the pre-eminence of the US and other permanent security council members.
But Gaddafi was still, at bottom, the same man. There was no true change of heart, only cynical political calculation in the cause of self-preservation.
He admitted no fault for the terrors of the past, and his sinister menace continued to hover oppressively over his native land. Even if naive western politicians and businesses could not or would not see it, the Libyan people did. As the Brother Leader aged, as younger generations rose in search of their rights, as his rival sons fought to secure their undeserved inheritance, as tribal loyalties frayed, and as the Arab world exploded in tumult, his weakness, his cruelty, and his moral bankruptcy were plainly exposed for all to see.