February 14, 2010

Seeking Gadaffi by Daniel Kawczynski

The Sunday Times review by Stephen Robinson

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his coming to power at the Green Square in Tripoli September 1, 2009 If you have the good fortune not to be a Libyan, it is tempting to laugh at all the camp, insane excesses of the man who grabbed power in a military coup in 1969, and has clung on ever since through barbarism and canniness. For there is something superficially arresting about what Daniel Kawczynski terms the “corrupt grandiosity” of Colonel Gadaffi’s rule. These include his absurd revolutionary outfits, platform heels (he is touchy about his height), risibly dyed hair, and overseas travels with glamorous female guards who dress in foxy paramilitary gear and thigh-high boots. But the absurd posturing conceals a much shrewder figure who switches his ideological rhetoric to suit changed international circumstances, who has used terrorist proxies to undermine rivals and raise his international standing, and who has deployed terror within Libya with a cynical effectiveness.

The only truthful aspect of the official Gadaffi story that is drummed into the minds of his subject population is that he was born into a family of Bedouin goatherds, members of a minor clan whose name translates as “spitters of blood”, which might explain what was to follow. He picked the traditional African route to political power, the army, having come under the influence of Nasser’s anti-colonial ideology as a young man. He was handsome in his youth, with a certain charisma.

At the age of only 27, he and a group of fellow army officers struck against the hapless and hopeless King Idris. The coup was relatively bloodless as the monarchy quickly disintegrated, but brutal purges and public hangings were soon to mock the western and Arab governments that recognised his power grab. As Kawczynski grudgingly concedes, Gadaffi’s capacity to cause mayhem by funding international terrorism means that Libya (a country of just 6m) punches above its weight. This brings him some prestige at home, and this kudos, along with Libya’s vast oil wealth, and the weakness of the civil and political institutions inherited from Idris, explains why his domestic enemies have failed to topple him.He funded and gave sanctuary to several factions within the broader Palestinian cause, often it seemed to spite his rivals rather than to advance Arab interests. He was an early backer of Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal — both kept luxury apartments in Libya in the 1970s and 1980s. Money and equipment were also directed towards ETA, the Italian Red Brigades, Action Directe, Baader-Meinhof, and, of course, the IRA. Gerry Adams was so impressed by his credentials that he set up a Revolutionary Council modelled on the Libyan version. When Gadaffi bores of a terrorist cause, though, he drops the group and, as in the case of the Lockerbie bombing, frequently pays compensation to its victims, tacitly — but not formally — conceding “general responsibility”.

Internal oppression through ¬violence has been his consistent hallmark. In 1996, prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli took guards hostage in protest at the disgusting conditions. The rebellion was put down relatively peacefully, and the prisoners were ordered to muster in the prison yard, reportedly by Gadaffi’s brother-in-law. For the next four hours, guards posted on the rooftop shot at them until some 1,200 were dead. After years of denial of the massacre, relatives have since received compensation.
Journalists, Islamic scholars and internal dissidents are routinely killed. One journalist, Daif al-Ghazal, was abducted in 2005, and when his body was recovered, most of his fingers had been cut off. When the publicity for that murder proved embarrassing, Gadaffi had three Revolutionary Guards held responsible executed.

The Gadaffi who emerges in this study is not really a ideological zealot; indeed he does not seem to believe in anything much beyond entrenching his power and rewarding his family. Immediately after taking control, he replaced Libya’s legal code with Sharia law, but later realising the threat from Islamic fundamentalism to his own power, replaced that with the incoherent political credo laid down in the Green Book. This created a new form of state, jamahiriya, supposedly based on direct consultation of the people, but in reality establishing a vast network of informers.

Gadaffi’s essential canniness is evident in how he has changed his tune since September 2001, fearing he would go the way of Saddam Hussein. Now he describes radical Islam as “more dangerous than Aids”; last year he wrote an article in the New York Times on the importance of being nice to Jews. He is on first-name terms with Tony and Cherie. For Gadaffi, international terrorism has served its purpose.

Kawczynski is a 6ft 8in tall Tory MP of recent Polish descent who views Britain’s emerging relationship with Libya with a detached bemusement. As chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libya, he argues that it is perfectly reasonable that the British government should cut deals that allow firms such as BP to share the vast oil wealth that Gadaffi withholds from his subjects.

This is a lightly written and well-researched account of Gadaffi’s life, though dependent largely on secondary sources. Kawczynski failed in his efforts to meet his subject, an obvious flaw in a book called Seeking Gadaffi. But it offers an intelligent analysis of Britain’s relations with Tripoli, even if Kawczynski seems as conflicted as many of the Lockerbie families as to Gadaffi’s culpability in the Lockerbie attack, pointing out that Iran also had good reason to order the bombing.

But he is surely right to be enraged by successive governments’ refusal to order a proper public inquiry; and he finds it shameful that London has normalised relations with Libya without ensuring that the killer of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher is sent for trial here. He is disgusted, too, that the government has not pursued justice and compensation for the victims of the IRA bombs made with Semtex provided by Libya.

In the 1980s, western governments made the mistake of ¬demonising Gadaffi as “mad” and “evil”, which missed the point and only encouraged him. Kawczynski argues persuasively that Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Libya, though richly deserved, probably cemented his rule to this day. Now Gadaffi’s regime is sanctified by western governments who tolerate his domestic oppression in exchange for his rhetorical attacks on Al-Qaeda, a force that threatens him much more than the West.

When he dies, Libya will almost certainly lapse into chaos. His sons who might succeed him are, if anything, worse and more absurd than he is. There is the brutal playboy Hannibal, who triggered a huge diplomatic breach with Switzerland by beating up a member of his entourage there. Then there is the preposterous London-based Saif, the British university-educated “intellectual”, painter of kitsch watercolours and close friend of Lord Mandelson. It is bad enough that Libyans have to tolerate this dismal dynasty of vainglorious freaks; it is surely worse that we encourage them and call them our friends.