Blog About Books Journalism Consultancy Broadcast

[Posted in Features Journalism]

The Spectator – Killer Clowns: For too long, the absurdity of Libya’s rulers obscured their brutality

For 20 years I have seen Colonel Gaddafi every morning. He greets me with a faraway look in his eyes as I step into my study. It is one of those vast propaganda portraits, 5ft by 3ft, beloved by serial kleptocrat dictators. Looking youthful, almost serene, he sports a bouffant hairdo and military uniform with enough gold thread on his epaulettes to embroider a WMD. Behind him is a desert panorama of rolling sand dunes, date palms, camels and a huge pipe with torrents of water gushing out to create fertile agricultural land, along with combine harvesters, a flock of sheep and the sort of Harvest Festival fruit basket most vicars could only ever dream of. All of this above the legend, ‘THE GREAT MAN-RIVER BUILDER’.

The portrait commemorates Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River Project, one of the largest feats of engineering in the world. I picked it up from a Tripoli hotel in 1991, the year Gaddafi inaugurated a project described by the Financial Times as ‘a monument to vanity’. The hotel manager who gave it to me thought I was bonkers. Like many Libyans who have had to put up with decades of grinding repression under the world’s most psychotic dandy, he probably thought of the Colonel less as Brother Leader or Great Man-River Builder than as Big Bastard, a term I used to hear muttered sotto voce during visits to Tripoli.

Although it is still far too early to digest the lasting consequences of the Arab awakening in north Africa and the Middle East, the outburst of mass political participation may spell an end to the ability of one man to rule — and wreck — his country unchecked. Whatever else the north African revolutions achieve, they have put an end to dynastic succession in Egypt and Libya. In Cairo the protestors have kiboshed Hosni Mubarak’s plans to transfer power to his son Gamal. In Tripoli, it is safe to say the colonel will not be handing the reins to his son and expected heir, the congenital liar Saif al-Islam.

In 2002, I interviewed the gangster dauphin for the Speccie while he was staying at the Royal Suite — where else for the son of a socialist revolutionary? — at Claridge’s. It was part of the rehabilitating Libya tour, during which Gaddafi Jnr expressed a sudden and unexpected passion for democracy. ‘I’m very enthusiastic to see Libya as an oasis of democracy, a society that respects the environment and human rights and so on, and is a model in the region,’ he said without smirking. Democracy was ‘policy number one’.

He was furious when asked about succeeding his father. It was ‘an unthinkable idea, and you shouldn’t even mention it’. Saif was even more furious when Boris Johnson, the then editor, headlined the article ‘Son of Mad Dog’, reducing Saif’s London PR man to a gibbering wreck.

With Saif al-Islam’s exit from the fray, Libyans will be spared the rule of a man who has been living up to his name — Sword of Islam — in recent days. Like the 14th-century Tatar conqueror Tamerlane, another Sword of Islam, he and his minions have proved only too adept at butchering fellow Muslims. The citizens of Benghazi, currently held by the Libyan opposition, are quite right to fear the Gaddafis’ wrath. As The Spectator goes to press, Mad Dog’s troops have retaken Gharyan and Sabratha in the country’s northwest and Brega in the east. Though their days may be numbered, though the world is watching, the Gaddafis’ revenge will be bloody and uncompromising.

It has always suited Gaddafi Snr to be seen internationally as a clown. For much of his 41-year reign, he was the Mussolini to Saddam Hussein’s Hitler, the one a colourful fool, the other evil incarnate, a deception that conveniently hid the Libyan state’s darker side. In truth, no one should be surprised at Saif al-Islam’s threat to ‘fight to the last bullet’ – anyone who dreams of opposing Gaddafi can only be a drug-crazed youth, rat or cockroach. Behind the swaying palm trees of Tripoli’s Green Square, the exquisite Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna and the lucrative oil deals that drove British foreign policy to rehabilitate the regime, Gaddafi’s Libya has always been a brutal police state.

Such was its raison d’être from the outset. On 1 September 1969, the Revolutionary Command Council warned Libyans that any attempt to resist the new order would be ‘crushed ruthlessly and decisively’. That is the path Gaddafi has always taken to deal with dissent, an approach typified by the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996, in which 1,200 prisoners were killed in cold blood, their bodies reportedly fork-lifted into refrigerated trucks and driven away. Libya denies the atrocity.

To its intense discomfort, the West is suddenly learning that stability in the Middle East isn’t so stable, after all. For years, dictators like the Al Saud family and Mubarak have ruled quite happily in their own interests and those of the West with a catastrophic disregard for their own people. Others, like Assad, Gaddafi and latterly Saddam, after he had helped tie revolutionary Iran down for a decade, have proved as hostile to their own people as the West. Arab governance, once the envy of the world when the Abbasid caliphate headquartered in Baghdad created the most sophisticated civilisation on earth, has shrivelled into an oxymoron.

Now that the veneer of stability has come unstuck, the Arab world faces a period of distinct uncertainty, to the discomfort of global markets. Gaddafi, after 41 years, will leave a country in political ruins and turmoil. Mubarak almost single-handedly destroyed the Egyptian economy during a reign of 29 years and further political turbulence surely awaits. Cracks are appearing in King Abdullah’s Jordan, a stalwart ally of the West. Yemenis understandably want to get shot of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who leads one of the world’s most venal regimes (31 years). In Syria, 22 February marked the 40th anniversary of the Assad family’s hold on power. In Saudi Arabia, land of the odious Al Sauds, 87-year-old King Abdullah has offered a pre-emptive $36 billion bribe — common currency in this part of the world — to buy off dissent.

Western policymakers may discover that it would be better for everyone in the long term if they stopped fretting about their stakes in the region for a minute, and started paying more attention to the interests of ordinary people, rather than the regimes, of north Africa and the Middle East.