Gaddafi: despot but no caricature

Some 20 years ago, during another Ramadan, as international sanctions were imposed on Libya in relation to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, Libyan folk poets lined up on state TV to sing the praises of Muammar Gaddafi’s leadership. The first line, always the same, hailed him using tribal imagery, as the leader who had three million Libyans behind him. It was borrowed from the first line of another poem composed to hail him after the US bombed Tripoli in 1986. (Three million was the guesstimated population total at the time.)

I was then living in Bani Walid, some 170 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, home to many poets, base of the renowned Warfalla tribes. Over supper with an elderly sheikh, I asked him what he made of the poets. He dismissed them drily as mercenaries (actually, he called them lawyers) and added: “The day after he’s deposed, they will line up to say he was a Jew”. In other words – taking into account the anti-Semitic baggage in this context – an alien, a treacherous enemy to be expelled.

Sheikh Bahri passed away some years ago. But I think the customary hard glint in his eyes would have softened with amused irony to see that his hyperbole had practically come to pass. Even before Col Gaddafi was formally deposed, Libyans rising up against him were increasingly citing “evidence” that he was, really, a Jew, perhaps even an agent planted by Israel to control and destroy Libya.

The evidence is flimsy, in the sense that even if the testimony of an Israeli elderly woman, originally from Libya, were true – that Col Gaddafi has a Jewish convert among his grandparents – all it would establish is that, by Jewish calculations, Col Gaddafi could be counted as Jewish. However, by Arab tribal reckonings of descent (in which descent through males is what counts) he would still be unimpeachably a full member of the Gadadfa tribe.

The claim that Col Gaddafi is a Jew needs to be taken seriously in one sense. It is a measure of how thoroughly many Libyans have come to reject him and his rule. It expresses far more than political rejection. It displays an inability to see how the man and his reign could be comprehended in nationalist terms. Only describing him as an alien, as an utter imposition on Libyans and their lives, makes sense.

The form of this explanation, which absolves anyone of the need to explain his 42-year reign other than by pure coercion, is to be found in another version among certain Western observers. The standard account of Col Gaddafi as a rambling schizophrenic, cut off from reality, who alternated between buffoonery and murderous cunning, bolstered by oil wealth, also absolves anyone from trying to find reason in the career. Apparently, there was only madness to the method.

However, even as the political order Col Gaddafi attempted to build collapses and disappears with him, it is important to do better than that. Those of us who want to understand the nature of the modern world – of which Col Gaddafi and his Libya were a full part – and Libyans who want to come to terms with the horrors of his reign need to have a more nuanced understanding of what made it possible.

Flamboyance and ruthlessness were aspects of his political persona from the very beginning, in 1969. Who else would take out full-page adverts in the New York Times, back in 1971, urging readers to convert to Islam, given that it was the most rational religion? Who else (apart from Yasser Arafat) would turn up for an Arab summit – just after Gamal Abdul Nasser’s death – in military uniform and a gun in his holster?

He was sniggered at by more sophisticated Arabs and seen as an upstart. But his rhetoric, with a certain kind of revolutionary fervour that combined an insistence on domestic Arab reforms as well as mobilisation against the threat of the great enemy, Israel, was not alien. It was well known, and felt, in many cafes and among many radio audiences in the Arab world.

And, in this case, it went beyond rhetoric too. It is the 1973 oil-price hike by Opec that is remembered, traumatically, by the US and Europe. However, a year earlier, the new Libyan Administration had anticipated the strategic use of the oil weapon in its remarkable renegotiations of Libya’s contracts with oil companies.

None of these things can be made sense of by thinking of Col Gaddafi either as cardboard cut-out monster who hated Libya or a cheap operetta despot. It may – just about – pass as a portrait of the tyrant in his last years, with his country suffering from severe underfunding of its educational, health and economic infrastructure. But it would be an anachronistic understanding of the early and middle years, which attracted, in various and varying ways, many idealistic Libyans keen to build up their country.

Let us pay our profound respects to Libyan hopes for real liberation today. However, to rejoice at the cost of caricaturising the recent Libyan past would be to risk not understanding what made tyranny possible.

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