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Being Muammar Gaddafi

Being Muammar Gaddafi

It's easy to dismiss Libya's dictator as a mad eccentric, but you don't stay in power for four decades without considerable political savvy.

Muammar Gaddafi has displayed an incredible talent for survival, even reinvention, throughout a dictatorial career that dates back to 1969, when the eternal colonel ousted Libya's monarchy and took power for himself. He launched a successful coup d'etat simply because he thought he could run things better. He was just twenty-seven years old at the time, an age at which most people are getting kind of bored with their first post-collegiate office jobs.

Libya is in chaos. Armed forces are standing down, diplomats are resigning and mercenaries from Chad and Niger are doing Gaddafi's dirty work while antigovernment protestors await his last stand. Gaddafi said during a rambling address to the nation the other day that he plans to fight to the last drop of blood and that he has the money to do so. He swore that he would die like a martyr, a point with which his own former justice minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abd al-Jali-who now sides with the rebels-seems to agree. "If Tripoli falls, he will kill himself," Mr. Jalil told the New York Times. "Or the people close to him-maybe one of his sons-will kill him."

A recent column in Time raised the possibility that Gaddafi would destroy Libya's oil pipelines and actively cultivate the Somalification of his own country, just so that antigovernment protesters might change their minds and ask him to stick around. The author of the piece, former CIA agent Robert Baer, cited an anonymous Libya-based source for insight into Gaddafi's thinking.

Lacking well-placed sources in Libya myself, I rely on Twitter and Gaddafi's own eccentricities as sensationalized in the Western media. I also occasionally consult a long-time Gaddafi aficionado and former colleague in Istanbul who edits publications about the "emerging markets" of the Middle East and North Africa while maintaining an ironic distance from the neo-colonial proceedings. Recently I emailed my contact for comment, asking for a big-picture take on what makes Muammar Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi.

A REPLY CAME: "Hmmm. That's a rich vein to mine, sir. Gaddafi's been so many different things over the years—revolutionary, Pan-Arabist, Pan-Africanist, jester, dictator, terrorist, left-wing icon, pop culture villain. He's the kind of character you could quite simply never make up." If today Gaddafi stands alone before a patchwork nation of one hundred tribes—not to mention Al Jazeera's global audience—perhaps that's because he's always been a singular figure.

"Where to start even? There's the ridiculous outfits-he has an almost Liberace-like sense of the theatrical when it comes to costume design. Epaulets everywhere on his military outfits, flowing African robes (a particularly choice example being when he was crowned 'Africa's King of Kings' upon assuming presidency of the AU back in 2008), etc, etc.

"Then there's the spectacle: pitching tents in central Rome, the fiery speeches at the UN, the all-female bodyguards, trying to convert models in Italy to Islam, the antics of his kids, the bunga-bunga.

And yet, behind it all, there's also the clear intellect, when he felt like showing it. His remarkably reasonable NYT op-ed on Isratine a few years back is a fine example."

During the early months of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 Gaddafi got ahead of the curve and agreed to bring an end to Libya's WMD program. But years in charge of a pariah state clearly took their toll: "He looks like he's been seriously tying one on for the past four decades. Back in the day...he could really kick back and enjoy bunga-bunga-ing with his Ukrainian nurses or whatever."

WHEN WRITING ABOUT Gaddafi's last stand, it's tempting to pen an obituary to the "craziest" dictator besides Kim Jong Il. But there's an important proviso: you don't run a country like Libya for decades without being a highly effective person.

It stands to reason that some of what we think we know about Gaddafi is bullshit: anti-Gaddafi propaganda, perhaps, left over from the eighties, when the Libyans were sponsoring terrorist groups and making unprecedented claims to maritime territory in the Mediterranean under the UN Common Law of the Sea to keep US warships at bay. 

Now we're told that  Gaddafi personally authorized the Lockerbie bombing, as if that were news. Gaddafi had his war against the US, his war with Reagan. The "Mad Dog of the Middle East," they called him. The US did indeed kill one of Gaddafi's sons. But as with all dictators, there's the public persona—the performance artist—and the individual. As William T. Vollman has said, at least Hitler was kind to his secretary.

In one little-known episode, Gaddafi played an inadvertent role in sparking Turkey's late-nineties "post-modern coup" through sheer optics. Turkey's prime minister had traveled to Libya and was photographed with Gaddafi. The predictable Bedouin spectacle sent the wrong message, and soon enough the Turkish military rolled into the streets. It was guilt by association; Ali Carkoglu, a politics professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul, told me that Turkey's public supported the coup because they "did not like that a heavily sweating leader in a tie would be sitting on the ground in a tent having an awkward conversation with Muammar al-Gaddafi."

Now Gaddafi is losing vast swathes of territory to antigovenment protestors and blaming the mounting death toll-an Italian minister put the figure at more than a thousand-on drug addicts, rats, the foreign media, Al Jazeera, the usual suspects; a predictable litany from a leader who, despite his eccentricities, has always been predictable. He used classic family- and tribal-based "coup-proofing" tactics for decades, and he was never too dissimilar from Saddam. Gaddafi's son had pet tigers; so too did Saddam's. Gaddafi's son ran Libya's Olympic Committee; so too did Saddam's.

"Gaddafi is the same as the other Arab dictators. He ensured there was no viable person to take over other than his son," said Mona Eltahawy, a Middle East observer, and it appeared for years that the designated heir apparent was LSE PhD Seif al-Islam. "It's almost impossible to imagine who would come after him...We have to ensure it does not become a Gaddafi after Gaddafi after Gaddafi."

Still, something tells me Gaddafi will live in infamy in ways that other Arab dictators may not, regardless of how it all ends. He is just too unique; he once saw himself as the second coming of Che Guevara, after all. We may see another Libya—protesters are reportedly flying Libyan flags that predate the regime—but there will never be another Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Iraqi Kurdistan: The Middle East's Next Uprising?
—Cairo: A Memoir
—Obama's Irrelevance in the Middle East

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