The moment the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor flew out of Libya and away from the charges they had been responsible for over 400 children being infected with HIV virus, Muammar al Qaddafi had completed his public transition from bad guy to good guy. It had been a long-term project of the Libyan leader, but everyone from the European Union to the French, the British and Italians are taking credit for the evolution of the new Libya. They are also closing military and construction deals worth billions of euros.
The press has been heralding the change in Libya’s demeanor ever since the country announced it would give up its programs for chemical and nuclear weapon development. The invasion of Iraq was deemed as shaking the Libyan leader into recognition the same could happen to him. After the bombing of Tripoli in 1986, however, Qaddafi always had been petrified of an American invasion.
Colonel Qaddafi has held he never really understood why he was considered a pariah by the West. After all, he would say to all who would listen, he had overthrown a monarch (King Idris in 1969), and then installed an exceptionally broad form of representational government to “give guidance” to his leadership.
Qaddafi’s theme has been that his was a new form of “democracy” appropriate to the Arab world. Unfortunately for Qaddafi, most of his brethren among the Arab leaders at best patronized him. He wanted to be a great unifying Arab leader, but as time wore on, he was tolerated but never followed.
Qaddafi tried everything he could to bring attention to himself and his support for Arab nationalism. He distributed large sums of money to Arab and African “independence” movements and entertained radical and revolutionary figures from around the world. Condemning American and British “imperialism” became his stock in trade.
After the Camp David Agreements he broke with Egypt on the basis of Sadat’s choice to make peace with Israel. Qaddafi heralded Moscow as Libya’s “true friend” and armed his country with Soviet weapons and equipment, even while disdaining its ideology. Seeking to solidify his international credentials, he arranged to funnel arms to the IRA.
Qaddafi has been impossible for most non-Arabs to read. One moment he would act as a typical revolutionary leader with regional ambitions and an interest in developing international alliances. In a seeming wink of an eye the desert Arab turned army officer and coup leader could revert to his Saharan origins and self-perceived role as Islamic guide — the modern and ancient Arab in one. This is his view of himself. It’s quite self-serving, of course, but nonetheless it has been effective in retaining control of his country — even if less successful as an international force.
It hasn’t been generally recognized, but Qaddafi has been trying since just after the downing of Pan Am 103 to reform his relations with the West. It was as if he realized he had been hoisted by his own horrific petard — which in fact he had. His venture into direct participation in international terrorism had been a disaster. Along with the resulting opprobrium from the West, he received little applause from his Arab brothers and, worst of all, indifference everywhere else.
Qaddafi was left with the sycophants and leeches that passed as self-proclaimed revolutionaries and conveniently termed, if totally obscure, “freedom fighters.” Muammar Qaddafi doesn’t think of himself as a “B-movie” star, and he doesn’t want others to do so. He literally came out of the desert as a young handsome leading man and now in his wrinkled senior years more than ever craves acceptance as a bona fide “A-lister.”
Qaddafi still runs the affairs of the Libyan state through a score or more of top political associates from the early decades of his reign. This insider group over the years has swirled about Qaddafi in changing roles. Ministries are exchanged and relative positions on the political ladder are altered accordingly. The truth is that Qaddafi during the nearly forty years of his power has developed a cadre of competent, if slavish, aides, some with considerable international experience. And for the most part he has been able to keep them under his thumb.
The sons of Qaddafi have begun to become a political factor in the nation’s affairs. Saif al Islam al Qaddafi took a high profile role in the release of the Bulgarian medical team. Mutasim-Billah al Qaddafi after some early conflict has moved from his post as an army lieutenant colonel to the key position of national security adviser. Papa is said to keep an eye on his brood of several sons for self-protection as much as determining his heir.
Problems internally have come from Libya’s radical Islamists, who deeply resent Qaddafi’s secular governance. Among the economic and international political reasons for Qaddafi’s persistent efforts to repair his stature with the West was his realization that the Arab street was moving away from the Nasser model of Arab socialism to the Wahabist ideology of Osama bin Laden.
Qaddafi has long been searching for a soft landing for his turbulent career. He has been responsible directly and indirectly for many deaths for political purpose and for others in which innocent victims were destroyed. Always conscious of his image, he is seeking now to remake the West’s perception of him. It’s a rehabilitation program that he hopes still will enable him to star as “Qaddafi of Arabia.”
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