Dressed in military uniform with a revolver strapped around his belt, the flamboyant young man wanted to come across as an “Arab Che Guevara”. The Arabs assembled in Egypt were busily trying to hammer out a solution to a bloody showdown in Amman between King Hussein and the Palestinians, known as Black September.
Gaddafi, a protege of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser who was ostensibly committed to Arab nationalism, was furious with Hussein. In words that seem strangely appropriate today, Gaddafi barked, “We are faced with a madman like Hussein who wants to kill his own people. We must send someone to seize him, handcuff him, stop him from doing what he is doing, and take him off to a mental asylum!”
King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a wise old man, gently said, “I don’t think you should call an Arab king a madman who should be taken to an asylum.” Gaddafi snapped back: “But he is mad! All his family is mad! It’s a matter of record!” Gaddafi was making reference to Hussein’s father King Talal who abdicated in 1951 because he was mentally unfit to rule Jordan.
The wise Faisal remarked: “Well, perhaps all of us are mad.” Nasser intervened, “Sometimes when you see what is going on in the Arab world, your majesty, I think this may be so. I suggest we appoint a psychiatrist to examine us regularly and find one which ones are crazy.”
Days later, Nasser was dead – but apparently Gaddafi dodged the mental check-ups. Had a psychiatrist examined him in 1970, he probably would have declared him mentally unfit to rule Libya. Young and still very insecure, Gaddafi resorted to outrageous behavior and loud publicity stunts, probably to cover for his tremendous internal weakness and complexities, especially when compared to older, wiser and better established Arab leaders.
He lacked the charm of Nasser, the nationalistic credentials of Tunisia’s Habib Bourgeiba, the brains of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, or the wisdom of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal. Eager to prove himself equal to all the rest, he entered an ill-fated union with Egypt and Syria in 1972, which never saw light, followed by another failed attempt at union with Tunisia in 1974, which quickly turned into animosity.
When both attempts failed, Gaddafi took off his military uniform and began to dress in outrageous Peacock colors, certain that if his policies failed to attract world media, then his colorful costumes, and assortment of 40 women bodyguards (ostensibly all virgins) certainly would.
He then opened his country to every resistance movement across the planet, provided it was seriously involved “in fighting Western imperialism”. In 1975, he authored his ridiculous philosophical work, The Green Book, copying from Nasser’s own book, The Philosophy of Revolution and the works of other revolutionaries like Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. Chairman Mao’s book came out over the years 1964-1976, while Gaddafi’s was released in three volumes between 1975 and 1979.
When it was clear that his people were not going to take The Green Book seriously, seeing it as a compilation of rubbish, he imposed the book on schools, universities, bookstores, TV, radio, and every foreign visitor coming to see him in Tripoli, translating it into several languages. He did not stop there, taking up green as the official color of Libya.
Gaddafi then decided to “adopt” the Palestinian cause, lavishly dishing out money to then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. When Arafat refused to track down and assassinate Gaddafi’s opponents outside of Libya, Gaddafi immediately turned against him, expelling the Palestinians from Libya, closing down their offices, and halting his subsidies.
Another forced exodus of 30,000 followed in 1995, and he threatened to extradite “up to one million” Palestinians, regardless of what their fate would be, to punish Arafat for signing Oslo with the Israelis. The fact that he was persecuting the Palestinians – the sacred cow of Arab nationalism – did not really matter to Gaddafi; and nor did the fact that he was repeating what King Hussein had done to them in 1970. He continued to insist that his welfare state was committed, in rank-and-file, to the Palestinians.
For the past 41 years, Gaddafi has tried to fill the oversized shoes of Nasser, who died one year after the Libyan colonel came to power. He saw Anwar al-Sadat’s 1979 peace with Israel as a god-sent opportunity to become godfather of Arab nationalism, but was outsmarted by Syria’s Assad, who picked up the mantle after Nasser.
Realizing that the Arab neighborhood was not his cup of tea, he began supporting liberation movements and rebels in West Africa, notably Sierra Leone and Liberia, declaring that Libya was more African than it was Arab. In the 1980s, Gaddafi graced the world stage as a firm opponent of US president Ronald Reagan, who personally dubbed him the “mad dog of the Middle East”.
By March 1982, the US had declared a ban on import of Libyan oil, and the export of US technology to Libya. In April 1986, the US intercepted messages from the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin suggesting Libyan involvement in bombing of La Belle, a now famous Berlin discotheque.
Reagan ordered a massive bombing of Libyan cities in response, which led to the killing of hundreds of civilians, including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter Hanna. Gaddafi fired two Scud missiles at the US Coast Guard stationed next to an Italian island, both of which landed in the sea, with no casualties.
His relations with Britain also suffered when a British policewoman was shot outside the Libyan Embassy in London while monitoring anti-Gaddafi demonstrations. As a result, Gaddafi’s relations with London were suspended for an entire decade, and restored after Tony Blair visited him in Tripoli in 2004.
Probably Gaddafi’s most infamous act was the Lockerbie Bombing of 1988, bringing down Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, killing 270 innocent passengers. International sanctions were imposed over Libya throughout the 1990s, and were only lifted when Gaddafi decided to come clean, shortly after the toppling of his friend and comrade, Saddam Hussein.
In August, 2003 Gaddafi wrote to the United Nations formally accepting responsibility for Lockerbie, paying compensation of up to US$2.7 billion for the families of victims. World leaders flocked to Libya in reward, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy paying him a visit in July 2007, followed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in August 2008, and UN secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in September.
For four decades, ordinary Arabs dealt with Gaddafi as a sad reality that they just had to live with – given that they could not change. Gaddafi has worked with four Saudi kings, three Syrian and three Egyptian presidents, and five Arab League secretary generals. He has survived eight US presidents, several of whom served for two terms, and five French ones.
He would often gloat that he is the “king of kings in North Africa” and “dean of Arab kings and presidents”. Arab leaders were never too fond of him, because of his eccentric behavior, humoring him early into his regime, because he was a protege of Nasser.
Gaddafi learned, at the young age of 27, that he could do just about anything he pleased in the Arab world – and get away with it. Nothing stuck to Gaddafi, no scandal from eccentric behavior, no guilt because of bloodshed, and embarrassment because of poor leadership.
That all explains why the “king of kings” did not even blink when mowing down protesters in Benghazi and Tripoli over the past week, whipping up a death toll of nearly 300 Libyan citizens. He hired African tribes to kill his own countrymen, fired at the unarmed demonstrators from airplanes, contaminated the waters of Benghazi, and cut off fuel to prevent opponents from commuting between Libyan cities. It was Gaddafi being Gaddafi, right until the apparent end.
The outrageous Gaddafi, who likes to be called “Brother Muammar”, has made it clear, through his son Seif al-Islam, that he will not step down, because if he does, “Western imperialism” will return to Libya. He will fight until the last man, and woman, and insists on staying in power until curtain fall.
Seif al-Islam’s speech was one ripped right out of his father’s dictionary, reeking of violence, brute force, and dictatorship. Probably learning from the Tunisia and Egypt scenarios, he will refuse to flee like Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or resign like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
“Big Brother Muammar” will either be toppled when and if the angry Libyan street storms his palaces in Tripoli, or if he is arrested by a military coup. Suicide perhaps, would be easier for him, than surrender.