The Gadaffi I Knew
"What's going on, what's happening," a wounded, dazed Muammar Gadaffi reportedly asked just before he was murdered in Sirte, Libya.
The “Brother Leader” had once asked me something similar. A year after the US sought to assassinate him by dropping a 2,000lb bomb on his bedroom at Tripoli’s Baba al-Azizya barracks, Gadaffi took me by the hand, guided me out of his trademark Bedouin tent and around the ruins of his private quarters. He showed me the bed on which his two-year old adopted daughter had been killed.
With a plaintive look, he asked me, “Why, Mr. Eric, why are the western powers trying to kill me?” The answer, I told him, was punishment for shaming his brother Arab leaders into raising the price of oil and his support for all sorts of violent “anti-colonial” movements from the IRA, Basque ETA, killer Abu Nidal, to Ireland’s IRA and Nelson Mandela.
Yet he kept asking the same question when we returned to his tent while talking far into the night about subjects from Palestine to the Italian tailors he loved. Right to his ugly death, I believe he never really understood why so many were trying to kill him.
And this was still the younger Gadaffi whose idol was Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser with whom he shared the dream of uniting all the Arabs and throwing off western neo-colonial rule. Like Nasser, Gadaffi was bitterly disappointed and turned his dismay and rage against fellow Arab leaders, who saw him as an embarrassment, lunatic, and menace.
In the end, the French Air Force destroyed the convoy in which he was fleeing Sirte. He was seriously wounded, then lynched by an angry mob.
Competing groups of western-backed technocrats and former regime members will now vie for power with militant Islamists and hard men from Benghazi. The British, French, and Italians, all former colonial masters of North Africa’s coast, will likely offer troops for “training.” Businessmen from Europe, the US and Canada are already pouring into Libya, a new sandy version of Alaska’s Klondike gold rush.
What will happen to Gadaffi’s reserves of tens of billions of dollars remains to be seen. Except a flood of fraudulent emails from Nigeria, “I am Col. Gafaffi’s former finance minister and need you help to move $15 million out of Libya.”
Other mysteries remain. Where is Abdullah Senoussi, Gadaffi’s brother-in-law and intelligence chief? I dined with this charming, intelligent man in Tripoli. He holds the answers to the mysteries of the 1980’s sabotage of a French UTA and Pan Am airliners. Was Libya really behind these crimes, or was it framed? The French and Americans will want access to Libyan intelligence files and Mr. Senoussi.
If Gadaffi was indeed behind the aircraft bombings, as most of the world believes, then he deserves not one bit of sympathy from us. If not, then we should at least acknowledge him for building modern Libya.
When I first came to Libya in 1975, it was little more than a fuel and rest stop on the road between Alexandria and Tunis. Only united in 1951, Libya barely existed at the time. Its doddering king, Idris, was a British puppet. The US has its largest overseas air base in Libya.
Gadaffi, for all his crazy antics, daffy outfits, spasmodic cruelty and nutty “Green Revolution,” managed to unite Libya, providing it with housing, hospitals, roads, a thriving oil industry and the trappings of modern civilization. But he also wasted billions on his madcap Great Manmade River that brought ancient artesian water from the Sahara to the coast.
Unfortunately for Libyans, if Gadaffi had employed good economic sense instead of his crackpot “Arab socialism,” Libya today would probably be a well-run powerhouse like Qatar and the UAE.
Instead, Gadaffi squandered untold billions promoting anti-colonial revolutions, and trying to make himself the chief of black Africa. But his money did not buy friends.
Going from humble Bedouin to ruler was too much, too fast. Gadaffi was not crazy, but for sure the oddest person I have met. But he was also sly as a fox and truly charismatic.
I still can’t figure out whether Gadaffi was really hearing voices that guided him, or just having adolescent fun scandalizing the world.
© 2011 Eric Margolis