Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is the Arab world's longest-serving leader. He seized power in a military coup in 1969. Image Credit: EPA

Anyone interested in the televised appearances of Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi would certainly remember his distinguished interview on Al Jazeera, which was reported in the international press.

During the interview that was conducted, as usual, in his desert tent, Gaddafi was speaking on a wide range of issues, including his confrontations with the West, intra-Arab relations and Libyan politics when suddenly he pointed towards a figure in the distance. "See that camel-rider over there?" he said. "That camel-rider takes part in the decision-making process in Libya!"

While the role of that camel-rider in Gaddafi's decision to bomb and kill his own countrymen is likely to remain a mystery, we can state with absolute certainty that the rest of the Libyan people have had enough of the sick policies of their ‘Great Leader'.

No matter how indicative this story might be, Gaddafi, unlike most leaders, does not seem to make decisions on the rational basis that we all consider common sense. His handling of the ongoing popular uprising against his rule is a testimony to the senselessness of his regime.

The West in general and the US in particular recognised the nature of Gaddafi's rule from the very beginning. He was accused of sponsoring international terrorism, condoning piracy, kidnapping, hijacking and even hired-killing. In the media, Gaddafi was portrayed as a ruthless autocrat and power-hungry nationalist, who very often expressed explosive social ideas.

His weird ideas were depicted as radical and utopian fallacies closer in shape and essence to chauvinism than to traditional nationalism. In addition, Libya's dismal human rights record was denounced and as a consequence Gaddafi's regime was isolated, contained and became subject to international sanctions.

Double standards

Indeed, Gaddafi's bizarre personality and reckless policies have helped consolidate most of these ideas. His lack of statesmanship and attempts to lead his people like a herd, with little regard to national interest or domestic public opinion, have made things even worse.

Many still question the benefits of shipping arms to the IRA or getting Libya involved in meaningless confrontations, such as the Lockerbie and the UTA incidents.

Yet, since Gaddafi agreed to let western oil companies back into his country in 2003, this picture was replaced with a more positive one. Indeed, Libya's human rights record has since gotten worse and corruption has increased; but that did not matter much to the West. Western leaders started praising Gaddafi in every possible way. All the key European leaders visited Libya thereafter, including former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, former British prime minister Tony Blair, Germany's former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nickolas Sarkozy, and, even former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

This dramatic shift in public diplomacy reflected a long-standing tendency in western political discourse, concealed political and economic interests and culminated in the dramatic rapprochement with Libya.

German episode

Most indicative of this tendency was perhaps Schroeder's visit, which came weeks after Gaddafi agreed to pay compensation to non-American victims of a 1986 disco bombing in Berlin.

Unsurprisingly, business interests were at the top of the chancellor's agenda, who along with two dozen German business leaders, flew into the Libyan desert to inaugurate an oil well run by a German company. The chancellor described Gaddafi's attitude as "really remarkable" and said he deserved "every support".

A few weeks earlier, Blair, encouraged by Gaddafi agreeing to compensate victims of the Pan-Am 103 airline bombing, flew to Tripoli to get ahead in the rush of western economic interests in Libya and secure Britain's share of its oil bonanza. Rice described her meeting with Gaddafi in Tripoli as a "historic moment".

Western leaders all but forgot Gaddafi's gross violation of human rights and even argued for accepting Libya into the World Trade Organisation and the Barcelona process, which links the European Union with 10 Mediterranean nations and aims eventually to create a free-trade zone.

Indeed, Gaddafi's concessions brought about a change in the western approach towards him. European satisfaction was clearly manifested during the annual revision of the EU policy over arms sales. In 2006, Brussels ended 12 years of sanctions against Libya and eased an arms embargo.

The European Commission, by comparison, refused to lift a similar arms embargo against China because, according to the British delegation, Beijing has not done enough to improve its record on human rights.

So one should not be really surprised by the disgraceful western reaction — amounting to mere verbal condemnation — to the atrocities committed by the Libyan autocrat against his own people.


Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is director of the Damascus Centre for Economic and Political Studies.