Gaddafy still larger than Libyan life 40 years on

(photo by openDemocracy)

Libyans have started six days of celebrations with a massive showpiece event marking 40 years since Muammar Gaddafy came to power. Libya celebrate Revolution Day on 1 September, the anniversary of Gaddafy’s bloodless coup against western-backed leader King Idris and this year’s event was the biggest yet. Most African leaders and several from other parts of the world came to Tripoli to fete the continent’s longest lasting leader. Most European and American leaders stayed away in protest of Libya’s over-exuberant celebration of the freeing of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi did come calling last week to sign a friendship pact and discuss illegal immigration. Gaddafy has no official title (the head of government since 2006 is al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi) but no one is in doubt who runs the country. The former “mad dog of the Middle East” as President Reagan dubbed him, is enjoying a renaissance of respectability.

The 67-year-old “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” remains unpredictable. He surrounds himself with female bodyguards, is happy to break wind noisily during interviews and stormed out of a summit of Arab leaders in Qatar this year declaring himself “the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of all Muslims”.

The rant shows Gaddafy’s joy of grandiloquent names. The official name of his country is the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Jamahiriya means “state of the masses” and in theory, the country is governed by the populace through local councils. In practice Libya is an authoritarian state. Despite socialist rhetoric Gaddafy treats Libyans as subjects rather than citizens. Libyan scholar Dirk Vandewalle said the regime has shown “a remarkable continuity with the monarchy that preceded it”. Gaddafy has no tolerance with opposition as the death of two high profile Libyan prisoners (one associated with Al Qaeda, the other a political dissident) earlier this year showed.

Without an institutionalised state and meaningful political participation, Libya relies on powerful coalitions and patronage systems. Oil provides 95 percent of export earnings and a quarter of GDP. Libyan oil and gas licensing rounds draw high international interest but little wealth flows to ordinary people. Yet even opponents of his regime such as The Economist admit that literacy is universal, life expectancy is up 20 years and infant mortality has fallen to a 10th of the level it was 40 years ago.

The world desperately wants access to Libya’s $46b annual oil industry. After secret talks that began in 1999, the Libyans handed over the two men accused of the Lockerbie Bombing and paid compensation to the victims. Libya then offered to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and open their facilities to inspection (it was the possible presence of WMDs, and not the country’s poor human-rights record and lack of democracy that bothered the Bush administration).

In 2004, the US finally rolled back sanctions helping the country attract more foreign investment. Gaddafy did his bit by criticising countries not taking part in Bush/Cheney’s War on Terror. “It is not logical, reasonable or productive to entrust this task to the US alone,” he said. “It requires international cooperation and joint action on the world level.” Gaddafy was motivated by self-interest. He has long been a target of Islamic extremists and Libya has its own dangerous (and illegal) Islamist political movement.

There is little danger of Gaddafy losing power any time soon. He is grooming his seven sons to follow him in creating a new North African dynasty. Youngest son Hannibal crossed the Alps to Switzerland where his arrest last year for beating up his servants prompted a grovelling apology from the Swiss President. Another son, Saadi, preferred to play football in Italy’s elite Serie A competition before being hobbled by a drugs scandal. The most prominent son is Saif al-Islam Gaddafy who officially retired from politics last year but still widely seen as successor. Libyan TV still shows his embrace of the returning al-Megrahi on high rotation. The captive media knows which way the sirocco is blowing across Libyan politics.

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