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Robert Halfon MP: My father thinks he shook hands with Colonel Gaddafi

By Robert Halfon MP

I have a special interest in wishing to see the back of Colonel Gaddafi. My late grandfather, Renato Halfon, was a member of a small but thriving community of Italian Tripolitanian Jews who lived in Libya when Gaddafi came to power in the 1960s.

Gaddafi's henchmen seized all Jewish businesses and homes and my father, along with thousands of other Italian Jews, many from families who had settled in Tripoli hundreds of years earlier, was forced to flee the country penniless.

He had seen the writing on wall and sent my dad, Clement, then 15 years old, to school in the UK shortly before Gaddafi's coup against King Idris. My grandad followed him a few years later. When anyone asked him why he chose Britain he would say: 'I sold clothes to the British army in the War - they are the only country that paid on time.'

King Idris was installed as monarch of Libya in 1951 by the British in the aftermath of the Second World War when it gained independence from Italy and the old colonial name of Tripolitania disappeared. A religious Moslem, in the traditional sense, Idris was regarded as a good man, came from Cyrenica in the East of Libya and which borders with Egypt, and was from the respected Sandusi clan.

Both my grandad and dad remembered him fondly.  King Idris was benign, not corrupt and cared about his countrymen. But he had one major flaw: he was weak and ineffectual. He reigned but did not rule.

Wealth was concentrated in the hands of the elite.  After the British went, so did the money.  Whilst not starving, the population became poorer.  Arab nationalism was also in abeyance, with Nasser strutting his stuff in Egypt.  And although the Libyans were fairly politically passive, conditions became incredibly easy for someone like Gaddafi to come to power. The term ‘Liberator’ began to be used across Libya.

It seems incongruous now, but my father remembers Gaddafi rapidly becoming a notorious and popular figure.  Before the military coup, Gaddafi used to walk down the famous Italian street in Tripoli: Corso Vittorio Emanuele (now known as Jadat Istiklal), shaking hands with passers-by (including my Dad), wearing a broad, serene smile and speaking loudly.

Gaddafi was articulate.  He nurtured dreams of Pan-Arabism.  He talked of a merger with Tunisia, and even Egypt. Given the King’s weakness, it was relatively easy for this charismatic military officer to take power in 1969.  Idris was out of the country - in Turkey, and Gaddafi took power with ease - in just a few hours, encountering little resistance.

Although there was a huge US airbase, the Wheelus Airfield - just twenty kilometres from Tripoli, the Americans did nothing to stop the coup, leading many Libyans to think that the US thought that Gaddafi would be sympathetic to Western interests.

Although Gaddafi himself came from the tribe in the Sirte Region, his was not an important tribe.  But he had the intelligence to realise that the tribes were essential if he was to rule over the country. Crucially, he understood the importance of the clans, and the influential tribes such as the Abedat to the South of the Coastal Towns. This perhaps is why he has survived over recent weeks, as the tribes are still financially in his debt.

The Colonel bought the loyalty of the tribes with petrodollars. Millions were given to the chieftains of the various powerful clans ensuring that their support would buttress him in power.  It is important to note that the Tribes were not prevalent in the main cities of Benghazi or Tripoli, but around the internal territory.

However, Gaddafi’s success rapidly saw him metamorphose from a popular strong man into a megalomaniac. He ruthlessly crushed any internal opponents and counter coups attempts.  As his dreams of pan-Arabism failed he turned inwards to his own idiosyncratic version of Socialism, through his Little Green Book.

He became more sinister when his ambitions turned to foreign affairs. For Gaddafi, this meant supporting terrorist movements, notably the IRA and Palestinian extremists. And, as we now know, he organised and gave the order for  the Lockerbie massacre and other terrorist outrages.

So what was it that made Gaddafi change tack in his approach to the West: to send his son Saif to fete British universities like the LSE and to hob nob with British politicians like Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson and many others?

There are two reasons: first ideological. A few years ago, Gaddafi stated “we no longer need the bomb or the bullet. Allah is doing our work for us”.  He came to believe that Islamism was succeeding in the West. In a reverse kind of hearts and mind policy, he decided the best way to strengthen Islam was to plough millions of dollars into Western institutions.  The LSE represented a perfect opportunity.  In a strange way, it was similar to what he had done in Libya in bribing the various tribes with petrodollars.

The second reason is one which is common to most dictators. The craving for approval.  Why is it that even in the most totalitarian of countries, there are usually elections, albeit with a 99% support level for the Leader?  Because they want to look as though they are loved and respected.

Gaddafi’s moves into the British Universities had the same origin - a desire for acceptance; proof that the Great Leader of Libya was as adored around the world as he was in his own land.  It was also very cost effective:  the millions given to the LSE et al were peanuts compared to the billions of dollars that the Gaddafis have salted away in various bank accounts.

Don’t forget that Gaddafi and Co think the country belongs to them, so pillaging money from the Libyan people is seen as perfectly just - and a normal state of affairs. My grandfather would have been deeply shocked at the British establishment’s appeasement of Gaddafi, the release of the Lockerbie bomber al Megrahi and the LSE blood money.

In a strange quirk of history, it seems that my family is never able to get away from the Gaddafis.  I learned recently that Lord Mandelson's friend Saif Gaddafi, the man who set about buying the Gaddafi's way into the British establishment, bought a house near Hampstead. I recognised the address immediately. It was the street where I had lived as a child.

My grandad lost all his material possessions when he was forced to leave Libya. But at least he was able to get away and rebuild his life here - unlike the Libyan people who have been oppressed for over forty years.  Hopefully, their suffering is coming to an end.

I look forward to visiting Libya when Gaddafi is gone and retracing my Grandad's footsteps.


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