Daniel Kawczynski is Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham and chairman of the all-party Libya group in the House of Commons. Here he gives a taste of some of the themes he has covered in his new biography of Colonel Gaddafi, Seeking Gaddafi, which is published next week. Click here to buy it via Amazon.
I have long been interested in the Arab world and its strategic and trade importance to Britain. And in the long, often turbulent, history of Arab-British relations, the figure of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi stands out a mile. A flamboyant, charismatic and inscrutable statesman, Gaddafi has ensured that his small country, with a population today of six million, has punched above its weight in international politics.
Famous throughout the world, Gaddafi has given Libya a remarkably high profile, though few there will remember him as a wise or a beneficent ruler. The West has often dealt closely and, sometimes, violently with regimes it has understood poorly. Isolating the dictators of the world can be counter-productive and the argument goes that by exchanging ideas, technology, and cultural insights, we can help to encourage change for the better. Yet the fate of those who suffer under regimes like Gaddafi’s – from vanished journalists and dissidents to British victims of the Libyan-sponsored IRA - must not be forgotten in the course of our dealings.
In writing about Gaddafi I wanted to get to the truth behind the almost mythical figure of the man, and to expose some of the great dilemmas of the improving Anglo-Libyan relationship, a relationship representative of the problems that British foreign policy faces in the 21st Century.
Gaddafi and clothes
There can be few world leaders whose wardrobes warrant a fashion spread in Vanity Fair. Any article on Gaddafi is obliged to begin with a carefully constructed description of the clothes he is wearing. From flowing peach and purple silk robes to meet the Portuguese Prime Minister in April 2000; a long shirt emblazoned with photographs of African heroes to meet President Mubarak of Egypt in August 2005; an aviation-themed leather and fur ensemble for a visit to Versailles in 2007, to a blinding white suit covered by an Arab bisht for the 2009 G8 summit, Gaddafi’s outfits are becoming increasingly bizarre in the twilight years of his reign, and many have commented on the thick layers of make-up he wears, and also on the carefully judged height of his shoes.
In official photos, Western politicians who shake his hand just barely smile, standing as far back as possible, looking as though they feel slightly ill, in the hope this will satisfy Gaddafi while fending off tabloid attack at home. It is hard to judge whether the look of slight queasiness is down to the policies of Gaddafi’s regime or to the glaring tastelessness of the outfit he has chosen that day.
Gaddafi and official state visits
Gaddafi visits are also characterised by displays of the leader’s excessive fondness for luxury and his characteristic belligerence. His hosts scramble to find suitable locations to set up the obligatory Bedouin tent for receiving dignitaries and, often, to find fodder and shelter for the camels Gaddafi has in the past had flown in to accompany him. In 2007, the French found the leader and his 400-strong entourage a spot to pitch his heated tent next door to the Elysée Palace. Foot bridges over the Seine were closed to allow the leader to take a cruise in peace, accompanied by his famous all-women bodyguard, while tourists were herded out of the Louvre to allow the leader to visit in solitude.
At home in Libya, on the other hand, the visitor will, without exception, be delayed in Tripoli, shuffled onto an unexpected and uncomfortable flight into the wilderness, and driven out to meet the leader in a tent in the desert, thus emphasising Gaddafi’s authentic Bedouin nature and his power to inconvenience visiting luminaries as he so pleases. The length of the delay and the extent of the inconvenience is dished out in direct proportion to the visitor’s level of importance.
Yasser Arafat famously described Gaddafi as ‘the soldier of revolutionary phrases’. This bon mot nicely captures the Colonel’s taste for speech-making. In September 2009, given his first ever chance to address the United Nations, he spoke for an hour and forty minutes, having been given a 15-minute slot. During the speech he tore up the UN Charter, speculated that swine 'flu was a biological weapon, and offered his thoughts on the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1988, at a summit of African and EU leaders in Cairo, Gaddafi surprised those present, many of whom were lobbying hard on his behalf for Libya’s restoration to international acceptability, by declaiming:
"We do not love conflicts. You love conflicts. You have bullfights. Capitalists have changed eggs and honey into shampoo. You use cocoa fat as cream for your hair. This is misuse of God’s blessings."
Gaddafi has long pushed for a ‘United States of Africa’, replete with its own euro-style single currency called the ‘Afro’ and an African Union passport. His 2009 chairmanship of the African Union should have been an opportunity to promote these aims. However, at a July meeting, Gaddafi annoyed delegates by personally delivering an astonishing 25 per cent of all the speeches. Jacob Zuma, now President of South Africa, observed that Gaddafi ‘forgets that there is lunchtime and he forgets that people have to sleep’. Not surprisingly, many members said they felt that the chair was pushing the ‘United States of Africa’ too hard.
Gaddafi and Women
During a state visit to Italy in June last year, Gaddafi requested a meeting with 700 Italian women. Curious women from Italian politics, culture, industry, the law and even reality television welcomed this unusual invitation and were somewhat bemused when Gaddafi gave them a long lecture touching on topics such as working women in Libya and the emancipated attitudes of Libyan men. Exhibiting a characteristically idiosyncratic take on the issues, he decried the fact that in some Arab countries women must apply to the government for permission to drive cars. Really, he said, this was a not a matter for state involvement, when women’s husbands and brothers could as easily grant the permission. The reaction of the Italian women granted such insights into the purportedly feminist jamahiriyya seemed in general to be confusion, mixed with mild annoyance.
One member of the audience felt there was a conflict between Gaddafi’s position as a champion of women’s rights and his treatment of his famous all-women legion of bodyguards, who surrounded him on the stage as he delivered his speech. ‘I am curious to see, to understand his point of view,’ commented Maria Gabriella from Rome, ‘but with all these women working for him as semi slaves it seems a bit of a contradiction to call himself a liberator of women’.
As long ago as 1979 with his introduction of compulsory female military service, Gaddafi had taken a decision to use to use visibly liberated women soldiers as a symbol of just how progressive and egalitarian his revolution was going to be. In the end, it was not so much Libya’s women soldiers that embodied Libyan womanhood to the world, but the Colonel’s all-female personal bodyguard. In February 1981, Gaddafi founded the al-rahibat al-thawriyat or ‘Revolutionary Nuns’. These women were to devote themselves wholly to nation and revolution, supposedly forgoing marriage and children. Since then, they have served as the leader’s trusted, faithful and visually pleasing phalanx of personal security guards.
While many Libyans deeply resented the new institution, decrying it as un-Islamic, the bodyguard have served Gaddafi well. Dressed in blue camouflage, all with long hair, enormous guns and high leather boots, they act both to protect him and to ensure he makes the front pages of the newspapers on all of his foreign visits. Few journalists’ dispatches are filed without commentary on outfits, make-up, nail polish and the wearing of high-heels, but the guards have also proved themselves highly capable. In 1998, for instance, one of them was reported to have taken a bullet for Gaddafi on a visit to Athens, and on another occasion they allegedly acquitted themselves well against belligerent Nigerian police. However, whilst a revolutionary, Gaddafi is still a product of a conservative, Arab society, and it shows. Women are notably absent from the ranks of Libya’s governing elite.
Gaddafi and Terrorism
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Libya, with her flowing oil money, acted as sponsor to a variety of terrorist organisations. Libyan money funded some of the worst acts of terrorism in late 20th Century Europe with support going to ETA in Spain, the Italian Red Brigade, France’s Action Directe, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, and the IRA in Britain. Indeed, Gaddafi was thought to be a personal friend of Carlos the Jackal, who was rumoured to have a permanent suite in a seaside hotel nearby.
Gaddafi also took very seriously his friendships with other dictators, Ceauşescu of Romania, President Marcos of the Philippines, and Idi Amin of Uganda. Amin’s own brutal regime ended in 1979 when Tanzania’s President Nyerere sent an army to overthrow the dictator, with the blessing of most of the world. Amin had very few friends left, but the faithful Gaddafi airlifted around 2,000 Libyan troops to Kampala. As they arrived, it became clear that the Ugandan army had disintegrated and fled; only the unfortunate Libyan soldiers remained to be roundly humiliated. Four hundred were killed and the rest rounded up and sent back to Libya. In 1998 Cuba’s Fidel Castro was privileged to be able to place the ‘Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights’ on his mantelpiece.
Gaddafi and the Miners' Strike
By late 1984, with Gaddafi at the height of his reign as the West’s public enemy number one, Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM, was desperate for funds to continue the miners’ strike in Britain. Someone suggested he try Libya, so Roger Windsor, the NUM chief executive, was duly sent to Tripoli. Windsor was eventually able to meet Gaddafi, and departed Libya with the promise of cash in the region of £160,000. However, the visit was the subject of considerable publicity in Libya, and Windsor was shown on television kissing Gaddafi on both cheeks, an image that was not to play well back in Britain.
The NUM’s involvement with Gaddafi was revealed in Sunday Times in October 1984, and was embarrassing in the extreme, especially the revelation that Scargill had disguised himself as ‘Mr Smith’ in order to travel to Paris to meet a Libyan the paper termed ‘Gaddafi’s bagman’.
Gaddafi and Football
For many years in Libya spectator sports were outlawed. In a strange exercise of logic, Gaddafi felt professional sportsmen stole the benefits of physical exercise from their fans, labelling sporting clubs ‘rapacious social instruments, not unlike the dictatorial political instruments which monopolise power to the exclusion of the people’. Fans were ‘a multitude of fools… practising lethargy’. Football clubs were only allowed after Gaddafi’s son, Saadi, personally requested his father relax these restrictions.
Since then, Saadi has gone on to become a long-serving member of the Libyan national team, although, his abilities have often been questioned. National Libyan team coach, Franco Scoglio, who was eventually dismissed for putting Saadi on the bench once too often, remarked of him:
‘As a footballer he’s useless. With him in the squad we were losing. When he left, we won’.
Similarly, it’s claimed that during his career with Libyan team, al-Ittihad, the opposition would turn and run away rather than tackle Gaddafi’s son. However, Gaddafi junior went on to for several prestigious Serie A clubs in Italy, signing for Perugia in 2003, going to Udinese in 2005-06 and then to Sampdoria in 2006-07. In all, he took to the field twice during his entire Italian career, and rumours circulated that Italian clubs were keen to profit from Libyan sponsorship. Indeed, Italian football has certainly profited from the Gaddafi connection. In 2002, at Saadi’s prompting, his father bought a £14 million stake in Juventus.
In the Pakistani city of Lahore, the stadium which hosts international cricket matches is named after Colonel Gaddafi, in gratitude for the aid he sent to West Pakistan in its 1971 civil war with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Gaddafi’s firmly entrenched place in the popular culture of cricket-obsessed South Asia suggests the extent of his involvement in the continent.
Gaddafi and shopping
In the late 1970s, Gaddafi banned shops, wages and rent, all of which, in his view, perpetuated the exploitation of the masses. Not surprisingly, the people had not felt themselves particularly exploited by the availability of consumer goods, and were distressed to find themselves forced into under-stocked government supermarkets, even if the first one had been personally opened by Yasser Arafat. A flourishing black market developed, and Libyans also travelled often to Tunisia to buy up as much as they could. It was an odd plight – living in a rich country, with plentiful income, there was so little available to buy that in the worst times people even struggled to feed their families properly.
Gaddafi later decreed that, ‘a person living in another person’s house in return for rent, or even without rent, is not a free person’, and so, tenants should seize ownership of their rented homes. Overnight, thousands of Libyans who had invested in property found their security taken from under them. In May 1980, Gaddafi declared all currency denominations other than the one dinar note to be invalid, causing a stampede to deposit soon-to-be obsolete currency in the nation’s banks.
The following year, private bank accounts were banned, and thousands watched their life’s savings melt away. The trauma of this was immense, and many fled, taking exile in the West. With them went education, vital skills and invaluable experience. By 1981, it is thought that there were between fifty and one hundred thousand Libyans living abroad.
More recently, the changeable leader has made moves to abolish most of the institutions of government. He has decreed an end to education and health departments, with Libya’s oil money to be paid directly to the people, people to allow them to take care of their own needs. He told the nation:
"Each one of you, prepare to take his portion of the wealth and spend it as you wish. As long as money is administered by a government body, there would be theft and corruption."
Libyans now face the prospect of the meagre state infrastructure that does exist being dismantled, leaving them with cash in hand, but a chaotic and ungoverned set of hospitals and schools to spend it on. As yet, little progress has been made on the dismantling of government, and it is to be hoped that this continues to be the case.