Of the three dictators who have thus far been toppled by the populist uprisings known as the Arab Spring, the cruellest, strangest and most depraved was Moammar Gadhafi of Libya.
He ruled the country for 42 years, after seizing power in a 1969 coup. It was not enough for Gadhafi to lead Libya; he tried to remake it. Gadhafi wrote a manifesto, his “Green Book,” dealing with subjects from the economy to horsemanship, but all fall under the principle of “jamahiriya”—a made-up word that roughly translates as “the state of the masses.”
In reality, though, the masses had no say over how they were governed. Gadhafi’s rule was total and arbitrary. He banned alcohol and private property. He closed tea shops because unemployed men hanging around in them made Libyans appear lazy. The only constant was fear. East Germans helped him set up the secret police. They built networks of informants, arrested dissidents, tortured and hanged them. Even Libyans abroad were not safe. Eleven protesters, plus British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, were gunned down outside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984.
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Gadhafi also supported a diverse mix of international terrorists and thugs, from the IRA to the Italian Red Brigades to Abu Nidal. He praised the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He hosted Liberian warlord Charles Taylor’s mercenaries.
Libya’s own acts of terror included the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub and, most infamously, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. These acts eventually led to sanctions, and economic and political isolation. But Gadhafi was welcomed back into polite diplomatic company in 2003, after renouncing terrorism, admitting to an active nuclear and chemical weapons program and inviting international inspectors in to oversee its dismantling.
Western leaders soon came calling. Canadian prime minister Paul Martin visited Gadhafi in 2004 and described him as “philosophical.” British prime minister Tony Blair stopped by, as did U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The Lockerbie bombing, it seems, was but an unpleasant memory. “When countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction, the United States is prepared to respond,” Rice said on her way to Tripoli in 2008.
Blair continued his relationship with Gadhafi even after leaving office, while Gadhafi kept an album of photographs of Rice that was later found in one of his compounds.
This all feels so dirty now, with images of mass graves and a warehouse full of the charred bones of Gadhafi’s murdered opponents fresh in our minds. But the rapprochement was presented as something of a victory at the time. Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in Iraq, it was said by supporters of that war, focused Gadhafi’s mind. A nuclear weapons program was discovered and destroyed—just not in Iraq.
Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was useful to get Gadhafi out of the business of developing nuclear bombs. It was also lucrative. Libyans are impoverished, but the country brims with oil. Gadhafi began co-operating with Western intelligence agencies against radical Islamists. Documents discovered by Human Rights Watch in an abandoned Libyan government building this September reveal the close ties between Gadhafi’s spies, the CIA and Britain’s MI6.
“I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq,” wrote Mark Allen, head of MI6’s counterterrorism unit, in a March 2004 letter to Libyan intelligence chief Musa Kusa. “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years. I am so glad.”
Sadiq, whose real name is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was captured by the CIA in Bangkok and forcibly rendered—with British help, it would appear from Allen’s letter—back to Libya, where he was jailed and says he was tortured. He’s now military commander of the National Transitional Council that runs Libya—thanks, in part, to a bombing campaign carried out on its behalf by the United States, Britain and Canada.
Given the West’s involvement with Gadhafi’s regime, the speed with which it threw its might behind regime opponents was both hypocritical and redemptive. Gadhafi won’t have another opportunity to rehabilitate himself. His body has been buried in the desert, after it was displayed for days in a freezer while Libyans filed past to photograph it with their cellphones.
Libya’s new government, meanwhile, must build a country where most people can’t remember a time when Gadhafi did not control their lives. Abubaker Karmos, Libya’s chargé d’affaires, told Maclean’s: “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”