State of Confusion: Alison Pargeter on visiting Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya

Alison Pargeter

Alison Pargeter

Alison Pargeter’s new book Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi tells the entire story of Qaddafi’s regime, the details of its downfall, and what Libya’s future may hold in store. In this frank and insightful article, Pargeter describes her surreal visits to Qaddafi’s Libya, her own experiences of its repressive regime, and the historic uprising that followed.

Article by Alison Pargeter

I will never forget my first visit to Libya. It was 2000 and Britain had just re-established diplomatic relations with Tripoli. I always knew that the country – long branded as an ‘international pariah’ – wasn’t going to be like other places. But nothing prepared me for the utterly bizarre world that was Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya. From the giant garish portraits of the Leader that loomed out of the dilapidated concrete buildings, to the moustachioed shifty looking security men skulking on street corners, to the street markets that seemed to sell little other than piles of foreign processed cheese, to the large-eyed gazelles and garlanded thrones on offer as photo backdrops in the middle of the giant car park that was Tripoli’s main square, I felt as though I had been catapulted back into an Arabised take on the 1970s.

The more I explored, the stranger things got. In street after street – most which were not named – every shutter and every doorway was painted the exact same shade of regulation green. There was no advertising to be seen. Instead, the city’s buildings, billboards and trees were adorned with white banners carrying hand painted revolutionary slogans, such as ‘Committees Everywhere!’ or ‘In need, freedom is latent’. Many of these little ‘pearls of wisdom’ were taken from the Colonel’s famous Green Book – his treatise laying out his political, economic and social vision – and were generally as unfathomable as the text itself. Then there were the giant billboards immortalising scenes from Qaddafi’s early life, such as when, as a schoolboy, he stood up to the overbearing English Inspector, Mr Johnson, and accused him of being “an agent of imperialism.” Here, it seemed, the Cold War had not ended.

State supermarket, with slogans taken from the Green Book on the walls (August 1981)

State supermarket, with slogans taken from the Green Book on the walls (August 1981)

To add to the sense of the surreal, Tripoli exuded an overwhelming sense of introspection. Not only was foreign media banned, the only television on offer was the state broadcasting channels which, when they weren’t following the Colonel around, aired endless footage depicting idealised images of Bedouin life, a reference to Qaddafi’s own desert roots. The official newspapers weren’t much better. As a bookseller in one of the city’s near empty bookshops explained to me, he didn’t stock them because, “It’s not worth it.” This opinion was shared by one senior Libyan official I interviewed on a subsequent visit who joked that he never bothered to read the national press.

That Libya felt cut off from the world was hardly surprising. The country was just emerging from almost a decade of international sanctions imposed in 1992 on account of Qaddafi’s refusal to hand over the two Lockerbie suspects for trial. Although the embargo did not include oil exports, the ban on international air travel and the general dilapidation that had occurred thanks to the prohibition of importing certain equipment made the country feel as though it was in a time warp.

But the isolation wasn’t just about the sanctions. It was all tied up with Qaddafi’s grand plan, part of his vision to create the perfect society untainted by foreign ideas. Indeed, for almost four decades, Qaddafi forced the Libyans to live under what must go down as one of the strangest political experiments in history. Based upon his personal philosophy that was loosely grounded in Arab nationalism, Socialism and Islam, Qaddafi created a unique state, his Jamahriyah (State of the Masses). In theory at least, this system was the ultimate in people power, a state where the masses ruled themselves and where no one was exploited for profit.

Qaddafi poses in yellow robes (1984)

Qaddafi poses in yellow robes (1984)

It was also a system in which Qaddafi wasn’t even officially head of state, insisting instead that he was nothing more than ‘Leader of the Revolution’ or more simply, ‘Brother Leader’. This lack of an official capacity had its uses. It meant that when things were going wrong, Qaddafi could always blame his officials, or more often than not the people themselves, for whatever calamity had befallen the country. The Colonel regularly admonished the masses for failing to implement his ideas properly. More importantly, however, not being head of state reflected Qaddafi’s belief that he was a revolutionary, a thinker, an intellectual of world class calibre who was far above the mundane business of ruling. Qaddafi once went as far as to declare that his Green Book was the “new gospel” of the modern age.

Yet in reality, Qaddafi created one of the most personalised and authoritarian regimes anywhere in the Middle East. His Jamahiriyah was always little more than a façade behind which he, with the support of a bunch of cronies, many of them his old school friends, pulled all the strings. Libyan society became faceless as he moulded the entire country around himself and his whims. So great became the cult of personality that for many years officials could only be called by their job titles and football players only referred to by the number on their shirts. Anyone who dared to challenge was simply liquidated. As Qaddafi once declared, the revolution “is a moving train. Whoever stands in its way will be crushed.”

Not content to confine his ambitions to Libya, Qaddafi also tried to export his revolutionary Jamahiriyah abroad. With his hare-brained schemes he dragged Libya through countless foreign policy misadventures, wreaking havoc as he went, from Africa, to Europe to Latin America. His insistence on being the champion of anti-imperialism also put him on a collision course with the West. The result was disaster. By the 1990s Libya found itself isolated, under embargo and struggling to survive. As the domestic pressures mounted, Qaddafi realised that he needed to rehabilitate the country and that to do so he had to put pride to one side and rebuild his relations with the West. The road to normalisation was long and difficult, but culminated in the 2003 announcement that Libya was to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programmes, something that opened the way for the restoration of relations with the United States.

Tony Blair meets with Qaddafi

Tony Blair meets with Qaddafi at ‘The Place’, a tent outisde Tripoli (2004). Despite meeting to sign a gas contract and discuss diplomatic relations, Qaddafi bares the soles of his feet to Blair, a sign of disrespect that would have been recognised by Libyans.

Many hoped that Libya’s reintegration into the international community would result in some sort of opening up on the domestic front, that the Colonel would finally see sense and abandon his anachronistic ideology to bring the country more in line with international norms. Yet while Libya flirted with reform, mainly through the figure of Qaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, the fundamentals, it seemed, were immoveable. All the time that the Colonel was around, his chaos-inducing Jamahiriyah was here to stay.

Indeed, from my visits to the country after 2003, it was clear that while Libya might sport some shiny new five star hotels that could accommodate the returning western diplomats and oil executives, and while the regime might be engaging in some showy stunts such as its releasing of thousands of Islamist extremist prisoners under a well-publicised de-radicalisation initiative, the essentials had not changed. Despite the country’s enormous oil wealth, most Libyans were still struggling to make ends meet. Almost every Libyan I knew had at least two jobs and many were left feeling humiliated by a regime whose pockets were stuffed full of money yet that seemed not to care.

In fact, for many Libyans an already dire situation was getting worse: the country’s money was not only being siphoned off by corrupt officials, but a new cleptocracy had emerged consisting of Qaddafi’s children and their friends who were carving the place up among themselves. As the international media was heralding Libya’s return to the fold, ordinary Libyans were becoming more frustrated than ever. This included Mohamed, the young graduate working as a receptionist in my hotel, who begged me as I checked out after one trip, ‘Please, write the truth, tell them what it is really like here.’ I determined to do so.

But as it turned out, events overtook me. Midway through writing the book, Libyans broke the fear that had gripped them for decades. Inspired by events in neighbouring Tunisia, in February 2011 Libyans rose up against the Qaddafi regime and joined the Arab Spring. Unlike in Tunisia, the revolution was to be long and bloody, but by October 2011 Qaddafi was dead and his regime shattered.

Court square in Benghazi

Court square in Benghazi (April 2011) the central place for gatherings and demonstrations. The walls are draped with pictures of casualties.

For all the jubilation that has accompanied liberation, the post-Qaddafi era is proving tough. This is hardly surprising. The trials of building a new Libya are a bitter reflection of what forty years of ‘Qaddafism’ has left in its wake. The extreme and often senseless policies of a man driven by his own obsessions, of a man preoccupied more by self-aggrandising schemes than by state-building, and of a man with little real comprehension of the world beyond his immediate experience, have all contributed to making Libya’s transition a challenge of gargantuan proportions. I sincerely hope that Libya will pull itself through this crisis in one piece. But I know one thing: it is going to be a long haul.

Libya by Alison Pargeter

Libya by Alison Pargeter

Alison Pargeter is an analyst and writer specializing in North Africa and the Middle East. She has held academic positions at the University of Cambridge and Kings College, London, and is a senior associate at Menas Associates, an international research consultancy. She is the author of The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe and The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition.

Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi is available now from Yale University Press

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