By Shafiq Morton
My visit to Libya in the late 1990’s was as Kafka-esque as the life and times of its then Brother Leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. It was in the era of the Lockerbie bombing sanctions, and getting to Libya was no camel ride.
I’d been invited to attend a media conference in a country that had no independent media, no opposition leader alive within its borders and no freedom of speech. But that was only the beginning.
Libyan airspace was closed, so we’d been forced to fly to Frankfurt. From there we had to catch a connecting flight to Malta, and from Malta we’d landed on a Tunisian airfield somewhere near the Libyan border. From Tunisia we would travel by bus to Tripoli.
In the early hours of the morning surly Tunisian customs officers confiscated the books of Dr Hassan al-Makki, a Sudanese scholar, who was a member of our delegation. As South Africans we were treated with deference, but it still took us hours to get through the border.
In 1997 Gaddafi had already been in power for more than 20 years. The Brother Leader, as he was known, was an omnipresent, if not sinister shadow. He’d always just appeared somewhere, or was about to arrive somewhere. Of course, we never saw him – except on television in a costume.
As guests we were lavished with Arab hospitality. My memories of Libya are of a warm and generous people. Libya, home of historic Carthage, is historically a small Berber nation to which Islam came in the 7th century and until the 19th century, had a thriving Arab Jewish community.
But in spite of the minders who followed our every move, I could clearly see that this nation of 6 million people had been bullied by the whims of a dictator; by a man whose eccentricities were no joke to those affected by them.
For after coming to power in 1969, after a coup led by a group of fellow officers, the 27 year-old Gaddafi had cemented his position as most dictators do, by currying favour with his family (from the desert town of Sabha), or by buying largesse with the oil money.
Like Gamal Nasser of Egypt, the Libyan officers had been fired up by pan-Arab nationalism. Their toppling of the dissolute, ineffective and corrupt King Idris, who had plundered the oil revenues at the expense of his poverty-stricken subjects, was generally supported by the population.
In his early years Gaddafi did flirt with Nasserite Arab nationalism, but it was a failure. After that he turned towards the concept of a United African States, something never taken seriously by any African leader, or the African Union, of which Libya was chairman in 2009.
While in Libya I was given a copy of his famous “Green Book”, and another one entitled “The Third Universal Theory”, both a curious mix of Islam and Socialism.
Its downfall – apart from trying to square off Islam into a round hole – was that it deemed political parties, and hence opposition to the regime, as a hindrance to society. To question the Libyan Revolution was regarded an act of treason.
One of Gaddafi’s many public personas (and there were indeed many) was of a revolutionary imam concerned for the wellbeing of Muslim society. Although he had no religious credentials, he would lead his people in prayer, and address gatherings in places such as Nigeria with Sani Abacha.
His sermons and speeches (I have a copy of his African tour in the 1990’s) are eloquent enough on first reading, but after examination reveal themselves as populist ramblings mixed with Gaddafian homily against the very west that he embraced after 9/11.
He even completed the biggest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa in Kampala, Uganda, after Idi Amin – the deadly buffoon of East Africa – had been forced into exile.
During the Reagan era he had feasted on American vitriol to avert attention from his domestic problems – especially after the US bombed his compound. He also became a benefactor of international revolution. South Africa’s Azanian People’s Liberation Army, for example, was trained in Libya.
The Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988, allegedly in retaliation to US aggression against Libya, saw Gaddafi facing extensive international sanction. However, he was still humoured because of his oil.
And even as recently as 2008, Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi bowed down before the grandson of Shaikh Umar Mukhtar – Libya’s most famous resistance fighter – winking that reparations for Italy’s colonial misadventures were a small price to pay for the oil, and less Libyan migrants.
Italy, of course, has been a major player in the destiny of Libya, a colonial cobbling of disparate North African tribal regions. Called Cyrenaica and Tripolitania on old European maps, these two eastern and western provinces had always been separate Ottoman prefectures.
Benghazi, the chief city of Cyrenaica in the east, has always been a centre of dissent against colonial rule, and more recently, Gaddafi. Shaikh Umar Mukhtar, who fought the Italians with dignity and honour, is its most famous son.
From 1928-31 Italian forces reduced the civilian population of Cyrenaica from 225,000 to 142,000, and slaughtered more than two-thirds of Bedouin livestock from the air.
Therefore, Gaddafi launching aerial attacks on his own people is a lesson learnt from history, as are his mercenaries shooting at civilians from Toyota Land Cruisers.
My experience of Libya is that one should never judge a people by its leaders. Whilst Libya is a tribal society, it is not tribal in the mediaeval sense. Any such Orientalism would be misguided.
The truth is that like the Egyptians and Tunisians, Libyan aspirations are jobs, opportunity and political freedom. That is why the men of Sabratha were prepared to fight Gaddafi loyalists with ancient swords, weapons last used by their grandfathers.
Whether Gaddafi ever addresses the nation again from the ramparts of the Red Castle in Tripoli’s Green Square is not the point. His rhetorical gobbledegook would be funny if his threats weren’t real, and if over 1,000 of his fellow countrymen had not died at his hands with over 5,000 injured.
He is a man crazy enough to burn the house down before he leaves, and all our prayers should be that he is never allowed to do so. The people of Libya deserve better.
– Shafiq Morton is a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station. He was South African Vodacom Community Journalist of the Year in 2008 and was recently voted amongst the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategies Study Centre headed by Prof John Esposito of Georgetown University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.