A glimse into the sordid career of the Arab world's maddest dictator

Dina Ezzat , Monday 22 Aug 2011

A historic turn of events sees Tripoli fall and the Arab world's most eccentric dictator approaching his final hour. Ahram Online takes a brief glance back on a sordid life story

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi may or may not re-emerge following his dramatic fall on the evening of Sunday 21 August at the hands of NATO-supported rebels. His fate might be an exile in neighbouring Algeria or in one of the many African states whose rulers were always subject to his financial largesse. However, one thing is certain: Libya is free from a brutal dictator who was totally merciless in the extent of the torture and abuse he was willing to mete out to the Libyan people during the course of his 41 years in power.

The fall of Gaddafi, predicted time and time again since the beginning of the uprising in mid-February, means that the scenario of dividing Libya into two countries – one to be ruled by Gaddafi and the other by the rebels – is now off the table, pending the expansion of the Transitional National Council to include representatives of all Libyan tribes, including Gaddafi’s. 

Since Sunday night, reports have suggested that the Libyan leader’s influential and effective co-ruler Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi is being held prisoner by the rebels. But, apart from the question of the fate of Gaddafi and his family, the end of an oppressive dictatorship, led by a man who ironically declined to be called president, insisting that the Libyans rule themselves, leaves other questions unanswered. 

One obvious question concerns the future role of NATO forces in post Gaddafi Libya. For instance, would there be foreign ground troops in this oil-rich North African country?

Another question pertains to the influence that radical Islamist groups, with a tangible presence in Libya, might play in the future of the conflict-torn country. Tripoli’s stability will prove to be crucial in the regional context. Its two in-transition neighbours, Cairo and Tunis, are also dealing with Islamist groups trying to widen their niches.   

There is also the obvious question related to the transitional phase of a country made stateless by its ruler: a country with no real government, no parliament and no institutions. The past few months have been deadly. What is to be done when the leading figures of the Gaddafi regime and those of the opposition have been literally exterminated by the fallen dictator?

The fall of the Libyan dictator came on the eve of the annual anniversary of the September First Revolution (Al-Fatih of September) that brought him to power in 1969 after the ouster of King Idris I. At the time, Gaddafi was only 27-years old.

During his early years of rule, Gaddafi, who was a member of a revolutionary group that was inspired by the July 1952 Revolution of Egypt, associated himself with the pan-Arab cause of the beloved former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who passed away in September 1970. It only took him a few more years to gradually, but surely, turn into a full-fledged dictator – the longest surviving of all Arab rulers, to the point that he called himself "the dean of Arab leaders."

And when Gaddafi was frustrated with the limited Arab support that he received during his years of confrontation with the West following the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, he turned to Africa, titling himself "Africa's King of Kings"; this in a continent with hardly any monarchies.

But the fall-out between Gaddafi and the West was neither thorough nor permanent. And not long after the showdown of Lockerbie, the Libyan ruler took a sequence of steps to re-court the West, including a whimsical decision to give up on chemical weapons arsenal and the limited steps towards building a nuclear capability that he had invested so much to launch. He soon reached an agreement with none other than the US to dismantle this arsenal and to handover all the materials, weapons and related equipment.

Other steps kept coming round until the whole Lockerbie file was sorted out with a huge financial compensation that Gaddafi paid off to allow for a series of visits by top Western officials who solicited good relations with Gaddafi in return for  investment opportunities in Libya and contracts for their respective countries' oil companies.

And while Gaddafi was busy spending Libya's oil revenues to eliminate opposition in his country and incite it in other countries, the Libyan people, numbering around 8 million, were made to submit to a low standard of living, wholly incongrous with the wealth of their country.

Libyans had to look on with anger as their eccentric leader moved around with his notorious tent escorted by his female bodyguards and accompanied by giraffes and goats. His sons’ lavish life styles were also duly noted.

Moreover, Libyans had to accustom themselves to one of the many, recently defeated succession scenarios in the Arab world, as Seif Al-Islam, who is only a little less eccentric than his father, was being groomed to follow in the aged Libyan leader’s footsteps.

Indeed, only a few days after the eruption of Libyan public anger, inspired by the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, Seif Al-Islam came out on Libyan state TV to assure that hundreds of thousands would be killed in order to protect Gaddafi’s regime. And it was only one day before the Libyan capital Tripoli, the leader’s last bastion, was taken by the rebels that a clearly shaken and maybe drugged Seif Al-Islam was promising resistance in a tone that recalled the phone call of Said Al-Sahhaf hours before Baghdad fell to US forces in 2003, marking the end, albeit an occupation-based one, of one of the Arab world's most brutal dictators, Saddam Hussein.

Today, Gaddafi is living his self-fulfilled prophecy: a prophecy which he related to Arab leaders in their 2007 summit. According to the Libyan leader, the slaying of Saddam Hussein in December 2006, three years after the occupation of Iraq, boded the beginning of similar destinies for other Arab leaders.

Zein Al-Abdine Ben Ali, the president of Tunisia for over two decades and one of Gaddafi's closest Arab counter-parts, was the first to topple in mid-January; in Egypt Hosni Mubarak followed about a month later and today Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad is still holding on in the face of growing public anger while the semi-ousted president of Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh, is in Saudi Arabia promising to regain his rule despite the on-going public furore.

The most worrying figure today is perhaps Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, Algerian President, who is rumoured to have offered Gaddafi asylum, after having facilitated the transport of legions of African mercenaries into Libya. With the fall of the regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, Bouteflika is left standing all alone in North Africa save for his other neighbour and enemy, Morocco -- a monarchy undergoing humble and slow reforms -- and Mauritania, a republic that also demands further reforms.

Algeria was not immune to social protests and fears of a replay of the bloody 1990s, which witnessed confrontations between the brutally radical Islamists and the army, is starting to recede.   

Today, the fall of Gaddafi has left Algeria’s fate an open-ended question: will the social riots there reignite or Libya’s sudden change of fortune prompt the iron rule of the military to pursue a restructuring of the regime in place.

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