In December 2004, then-Canadian prime minister Paul Martin visited Moammar Gadhafi in the oversized Disney World-style tent the Libyan dictator used to entertain guests, and declared him to be a “philosophical man with a sense of history.”
Martin was angling to land a billion-dollar contract for the Montreal firm SNC-Lavalin, which perhaps discouraged him from more accurately describing Gadhafi as malicious, cruel and almost certainly insane. But then, Gadhafi’s idiosyncrasies have always been more interesting to those outside the country than details about how he ruled Libya. Journalists accompanying Martin in 2004 got a lot of mileage out of two camels mating outside the tent while Martin and Gadhafi chatted inside. So did Martin—he included the anecdote in his 2008 autobiography, Hell or High Water.
Gadhafi, the man who is now fighting to hang on to power, and who has unleashed a wave of brutality against his own people, has long been a seemingly endless source of similar colour. There is his insistence on setting up that climate-controlled tent in foreign capitals; his all-female bodyguard unit; his strange fashion sense; the Ukrainian nurse with whom he travels—”a voluptuous blond” according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. All this distracts from decades of international terrorism, skulduggery and crushing repression at home.
Gadhafi has at one time or another backed many of the most odious men in Africa and the Near East, including Uganda’s tyrant Idi Amin and former Liberian president Charles Taylor, whose rebel army of mercenaries was trained in Libyan camps. In the 1970s, he threw himself behind a burgeoning strain of Arab supremacism and dreamed of a united Arab belt across the African Sahel, the wide swath of land that spans Africa south of the Sahara Desert. He founded an “Islamic Legion,” set up more training camps, and provided money and weapons to various Arab and Islamist groups, including in Sudan. The “Arab Gathering” that eventually spawned the genocidal janjaweed in Darfur grew out of this movement.
When pan-Arabism didn’t translate into personal power for Gadhafi, his interest in it waned. He’s lately switched his focus to Africa and has used Libya’s considerable oil wealth to buy influence with governments across the continent. Among the foreign mercenaries he has dispatched to massacre Libyans protesting his rule are black Africans who face being lynched should they fall into the hands of anti-Gadhafi protesters. There are also reports of white gunmen, possibly Russians or East Europeans, who have been paid to kill for Gadhafi.
Internationally, Gadhafi’s regime is blamed for a 1986 nightclub bombing in West Berlin, and for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died. In 2003, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations formally accepted “responsibility for the actions of its officials” in relation to the bombing, which began the end of Libya’s international isolation—a process that was further aided by Gadhafi’s admission that Libya had a nuclear weapons program and his abandonment of same. Grip and grins with various Western politicians, including Paul Martin, soon followed.
But if Gadhafi made some efforts to soften his image among international leaders who might invest in the country, his actions at home remained unrelentingly thuggish. There are no political parties or genuinely independent media. There are national and regional congresses, which in theory provide a forum for grassroots political participation. But Tim Niblock, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, describes them as a transparent facade. “It doesn’t really stand for much,” he says. “I’ve attended some of these people’s congress meetings. You can have certain kinds of complaints, like you can’t buy jam at the supermarket, but big issues cannot be discussed there.” Any decision of substance is still made by Gadhafi—who insists he doesn’t really run the country but only guides its ongoing revolution.
His logic might be entertaining were he not in control of six million people. A ruling clown is amusing only when you are not among the ruled, and when the buffoonery doesn’t mask an iron fist. The fist has always been there in Libya. A 1996 prison massacre—to cite one example—left more than 1,000 dead. “The Libyan people do not deserve this type of life. They deserve better,” a Libyan named Ameen told the BBC. “I have many friends and they are suffering. Such an oil-rich country, the people should live comfortably and have freedom of expression, movement, good family life.”
Now the Libyan people have decided to do something about it. Inspired by successful uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, they too have taken to the streets. The difference so far has been the government’s response. There is no restraint in Libya. Gadhafi’s son, Saif, warned of rivers of blood, and pledged to fight “until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet.”
International media are barred from Libya, and phone and Internet access is restricted. But eyewitness reports are getting out through social media and cellphone videos, and in the past few days some journalists have crossed into the country from Egypt. The picture that emerges is one of bloodshed and carnage. Hundreds have been shot dead. Simply to leave the house is to risk death. Foreign mercenaries are among the security forces gunning down civilians. Warplanes and helicopters have also been used. Two pilots refused orders to fire on their fellow citizens and defected, with their jet fighters, to Malta.
Such a ruthless response appears to have backfired. As Maclean’s went to press, protesters controlled Benghazi, Libya’s second city, and much of the eastern part of the country. Army units are defecting everywhere, as are government officials and representatives abroad. The justice minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abdel-Jelil, and the interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younis, have both resigned in protest.
Libyan diplomats at the United Nations (where Libya sits on the Human Rights Council) have turned against the regime. Led by deputy ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, they described Gadhafi as a tyrant and accused him of genocide. They called for a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the import of more mercenaries and urged the army to “organize themselves and move on Tripoli and cut the snake’s head.”
Libya’s senior diplomat in the United States, Ali Aujali, also quit after 40 years of service. “I can’t really end my career representing a government which is killing its own people in a very savage way,” he said, later adding: “I resign from serving the current dictatorship regime, but I will never resign from serving our people until their voices reach the whole world, until their goals are achieved.”
In Ottawa, protesters demonstrated outside the Libyan Embassy. The newly arrived ambassador, Abdulrahman Abututa, has not publicly picked a side and may not even be in Canada. Phone calls to the embassy on Tuesday were not answered.
Gadhafi, meanwhile, initially vanished as his regime crumbled around him. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, he appeared briefly on Libyan state television, which had until then been broadcasting a ballet. Holding an umbrella and wearing a cap with dangling earflaps, he muttered a few short sentences from the passenger seat of a car to refute rumours that he had fled the country. “I am satisfied, because I was speaking in front of the youth in Green Square tonight, but the rain came, praise to God it bears well,” he said. “I want to clarify for them that I am in Tripoli not in Venezuela. Do not believe these channels. They are dogs. Goodbye.”
Later that day, Gadhafi re-emerged on state television and spoke for more than an hour. To describe his speech as rambling would be generous and verging on inaccurate. Most people, encountering someone making a similar scene on a street corner, would cross the street or throw the man a few quarters. He said protesters were on drugs. He called them cockroaches and mice. He blamed them for tarnishing Libya’s otherwise sterling image. He urged other Libyans to chase them down and arrest them. He said they deserved death. He threatened to “cleanse Libya house by house” if the protesters don’t surrender.
Gadhafi also took time to call his close friend, beleaguered Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and told him everything in Libya was fine.
THERE IS little evidence protesters are prepared to surrender.
“This is it for Gadhafi,” says J. Scott Carpenter, a Keston family fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says Gadhafi’s willingness to bomb Libyan civilians shows the regime will do whatever it can to stay in power. “But that fear barrier has somehow been broken down, so it doesn’t seem that raw force is being able to control things.”
Prior to the current uprising, Carpenter didn’t think a revolt in Libya would be successful. “The population is small, and the ability to use force against it is really high,” he says. “There is no international media. The Internet is very rudimentary and can be cut at any time. There is poor internal communication. So how would this spread? There would just be no check on the level of violence he could use against people. I just didn’t think it was going to be possible.”
But the last two months have changed what is possible in the Middle East. Two dictators are gone, including the region’s once pre-eminent strongman, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Others are teetering. No one knows who may be the next to fall.
And each revolution gives momentum to the next. Following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Ayat, a Libyan-Canadian student in Manitoba, along with a friend in Britain, began organizing Libyans online through Facebook and Twitter, where their “Libyan Youth Movement” account now has more than 14,000 followers. They immediately got in touch with activists in both countries. “We said, ‘Listen, we support you, and we want you to support us when it gets under way,’ ” says Ayat, who asked that her family name not be published. “They’ve been keeping us on top of things in terms of what to expect when your country is in uproar.
“I’m only 23, so most of my life has been just like I want to go and change something. And this is the chance we’ve had. I think that’s why it’s grown so much around the world, because it’s a shared feeling, especially with the youth of Libyans abroad.”
What comes next in Libya is unclear and difficult to forecast. “He can’t survive for long after this,” says Tim Niblock of the University of Exeter. “But in the meantime, it could be quite a tense affair.”
Much depends on the army and security forces, and their ability and willingness to defend Gadhafi’s regime. The worst-case scenario involves sustained bloodshed, with Gadhafi’s supporters and hired guns facing off against opposition forces, possibly even dividing the country for a time in the process. But it’s far from certain that Gadhafi could even muster that kind of firepower given how quickly he’s lost control of half the country.
His fall, if it is inevitable, would leave unanswered questions about Libya’s future. The country is large and sparsely populated. Tribal loyalties run deep and will likely play a role in how power is divided after Gadhafi. There are fears, says Niblock, that the eastern part of the country, which has always been most hostile to Gadhafi, may separate—though there is little evidence among the opposition controlling that part of the country that this is what they want.
Gadhafi raised the spectre of radical Islam in his speech, claiming his opponents wanted “chaos and beards and turbans.” Islamists were active in Libya during the 1990s, and several fought in Afghanistan. According to Niblock, however, the country is not a natural home for extreme Islamism. Libya’s religious traditions draw from the Sufi strain of Islam, which tends to be spiritual and moderate.
The lack of civil society may frustrate any political transition, say Niblock and Carpenter, noting the absence of independent unions and non-governmental organizations that might provide the framework for political organization. “There’s no organized opposition,” says Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In some other Arab countries, a country like Egypt specifically, you could see the underpinnings of building a democratic system at least partially there. Maybe everything’s not perfect the way you’d like it, but there’s a lot to work with there. That isn’t the case in Libya, so if change comes to Libya it’s highly unpredictable.”
Should Gadhafi dig in and fight on, there are limited ways the outside world can shape events in Libya. The transit of mercenaries into the country can and should be shut down. Gadhafi bent to financial and political pressure six years ago, when he wanted to end Libya’s international isolation. But it seems clear he now values his continued power far more than the well-being of his country. Sanctions and the like may no longer make a difference. Military intervention, says Dunne, is unlikely. “I can’t imagine the United States doing that unilaterally,” she says. “To do it internationally is always a possibility, but I think in situations where that happens, unfortunately, that takes a while.”
In the meantime, journalists who have crossed the border with Egypt into areas of Libya under the opposition’s control report it is peaceful and orderly—even if those supposedly tasked with staffing the frontier are in too celebratory a mood to bother checking passports.
Opposition activists now refer to the eastern half of the country as “Free Libya.” An army general who has defected to the opposition says his men will defend it with their lives.