Wednesday, May 25, 2011

from ally to war criminal: gaddafi's decline in british eyes

Above: the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair visits Libya for the second time, in 2007

Gaddafi’s image in Britain: from ally to bloody oppressor of his own people
Susannah Tarbush
[an Arabic version appeared in Al-Hayat 25 May 2011]

In the seven years after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi renounced his weapons of mass destruction in December 2003, Britain did more than any other country to “bring Libya in from the cold”. Britain also helped groom his son Saif al-Islam, whom it saw as a reformer, as the probable successor to his father.

Now there are grave doubts over whether Britain was wise to develop such a close relationship with Gaddafi and his son. Since mid-February Gaddafi has changed rapidly in British government eyes from a valued ally in the fight against international terrorism, and a rewarding trading partner, to a liability who uses extreme violence against his own people and who has lost his legitimacy to rule. And Saif’s supposed reforming instincts have proved very shallow, with his bloodthirsty speeches and threats rivalling those of his father.

On 16 May the International Criminal Court requested warrants for the arrest of Gaddafi father and son, and for Gaddafi’s head of intelligence Abdullah Senoussi in connection with illegal attacks on Libyan civilians and possible crimes against humanity.

The current view of Gaddafi is reminiscent of the mid-1980s when then US President Ronald Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East”. When the former British ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia Sir Andrew Green was recently asked by the BBC why Britain was not being as tough on Syria as it is on Libya, Green dismissed Libya as “a strip of desert run by a madman”.

The new relationship between Libya and Britain went back to March 2004 when the then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair travelled to Libya and shook hands with Gaddafi in his tent. The meeting was controversial given Libya’s past involvement in terrorism, but Blair said: “It does not mean forgetting the pain of the past but it does mean recognising it's time to move on.” At the same time Anglo-Dutch Shell signed a deal worth more than half a billion pounds Sterling for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

When Blair met Gaddafi for a second time [pictured] in May 2007 the two men publicly embraced. BP signed a gas exploration deal, worth some 900 million US dollars. Business was always a key part of the new British-Libyan relationship. Trade increased steadily, to £1.5 billion in 2009.

Britain exported arms to Libya, but in February cancelled export licences for items such as tear gas and ammunition that could be used for internal repression One might ask why Britain was exporting such items to an oppressive regime like Libya in the first place, and a committee of British MPs was recently highly critical of such sales to Libya and some other Arab regimes.

Blair continued his relationship with Gaddafi and Saif after he ceased to be prime minister. He was appointed as a highly-paid consultant to international financial institutions including J P Morgan which has important interests in Libya. Blair visited Libya regularly, and was for example there in July last year for secret talks, just days after he denied Saif’s claim in a British newspaper that Blair was an adviser to the Libyan Investment Authority. Saif described Blair as a close family friend.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that succeeded Labour in May 2010 was keen to develop relations with Libya further. But the eruption of the Arab Spring first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, began to change the British attitude towards Gaddafi. When Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam violently suppressed demonstrations, and Gaddafi threatened to mercilessly hunt down his enemies in Benghazi, Britain spearheaded moves to get UN Security Council resolution 1973 approved allowing for a no-fly zone and necessary measures to protect the civilian population.

Britain still faces unanswered questions about its past relationship with Libya, including on the Scottish Executive’s decision to release in August 2009 Libyan Abdel Basset Ali Mohammed al Megrahi from jail. He was the only person to be found guilty of the Pan Am flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, on 21 December 2008 which killed 270 people, for which he had been sentenced to life imprisonment in Scotland.

The former Labour government of Gordon Brown insisted that it had been solely the decision of the Scottish government to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds as he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and doctors had given him only three months to live. Megrahi returned to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli, with Saif al-Islam greeting him at the airport. Megrahi is still alive, nearly two years later, and allegations about his release continue to appear.

Libyan former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebel’s National Transitional Council, claimed that he has proof Gaddafi ordered the Lockerbie bombing, and that Megrahi had threatened to disclose all he knew about Lockerbie if Gaddafi did not obtain his release.

Then there is the unsolved murder of 24-year-old policewoman Yvonne Fletcher. She was killed on 17 April 1984 by a shot fired from the Libyan people’s Bureau (Embassy) in St James’s Square [pictured: memorial to Yvonne Fletcher in the square] where she was guarding an anti-Gaddafi demonstration. Britain severed relations with Libya, and they were not re-established for 15 years. Britain had also accused Libya of supplying arms and explosives to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Saif al-Islam’s close links with the London School of Economics (LSE) have proved a major embarrassment for the institution. Afer Saif obtained a PhD in 2008 from LSE he donated £1.5 million Sterling to the institution. The director of the LSE Sir Howard Davies [pictured] resigned in March over “errors of judgement” in the relations of the LSE, and himself, with Libya. Doubts have been raised over the quality of Saif’s thesis, and there are claims that at least some of it was plagiarised and that a public relations firm helped to write it.

Saif became remarkably well connected with the powerful and wealthy in Britain and elsewhere. He and his father spent millions on public relations companies since 2004 to improve their image. Now, their image is at its worst.

In the 42 years since Gaddafi came to in power, his image has dominated the political scene in his country, and perceptions of him abroad. The Western media seemed to have an obsession with his Green Book, his unpredictability and in the changes of his often colourful and flamboyant costumes. Attention was paid to his female body guards and his fondness for taking his tent with him when on official visits abroad. There were further claims about his bizarre lifestyle in material published by Wikileaks late last year, including a report that Gaddafi was constantly accompanied by “a voluptuous blonde Ukrainian nurse”.

There were also his strange surreal rambling short stories. The importance that Gaddafi attached to his short stories was reflected on Libya’s holding several international symposia on the stories. And yet Gaddafi had a long record of oppressing writers in Libya.

The fascination with Gaddafi’s image led in September 2006 to the staging of a rock opera musical “Gaddafi: A Living Myth” in central London at the Coliseum Theatre, the home of English National Opera. Music was played both by the band the Asian Dub Foundation and by the English National Opera orchestra, and Gaddafi was played by the well-known actor Ramon Tikaram [pictured above]. The reviews in the press were mostly terrible.

Gaddafi’s image has continued to cause amusement even during the uprising. TIME magazine recently published recently a lavishly illustrated photo-essay under the title “Gaddafi Fashion: The Emperor has some Crazy Clothes.”

Gaddafi’s bloodthirsty speeches have led to a profusion of mocking videos on YouTube, mixing excerpts from the speeches to a background of songs by Western stars. The most famous is the song Zenga Zenga (ie Alley by Alley), with Gaddafi shaking his fist as he threatens in a speech to hunt down the opposition in Benghazi “house by house, alley by alley”.

Before the Libyan revolution erupted, it was Gaddafi and Saif who dominated British media coverage of Libya. But since mid-February many other Libyan voices have been heard on TV, in the printed media and on the internet and social media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. And whatever the course of the revolution, these voices are not going to be silenced in the future.

It is true that there are doubts among much of the British public over NATO action and where it is leading, and what military actions are permissible under UN resolution 1973. Even though there was sympathy over the humanitarian crisis, and a widespread recognition of the urgent need to protect civilians under threat from Gaddafi, there is a fear of Britain getting into a prolonged Iraq or Afghanistan type of military commitment in Libya.

Some radicals, such as the veteran Tariq Ali, are adamantly against the NATO action seeing it in terms of imperialist action aimed at gaining power over Libya and its oil and gas resources. And even some of those who are broadly in sympathy with the aims of the revolution argue that it is up to the Libyans to mount their own revolution, without outside intervention.

There is however a feeling among many others that the intervention in Libya is different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stop the War protests over military action in Libya have attracted far fewer supporters than the mass protests before and during the invasion of Iraq.

Many visitors to Benghazi have expressed admiration for what they have found in the city, with its flowering of civil society, newspapers, radio stations and music and the arts.

One BBC correspondent reported from Benghazi: “It is easy to get carried away with the infectious enthusiasm of the place”. Chris McGreal of the Guardian newspaper, who has covered many uprisings and revolutions over the past quarter of a century wrote that “few revolutions have been more inspiring” than the Libyan revolution.

The British Muslim journalist Yvonne Ridley initially spoke at public meetings against the NATO action in Libya. There was astonishment at the end of April when she visited Benghazi and dramatically changed her mind. “I was wrong to oppose military intervention in Libya - wrong, wrong, wrong” she wrote. She said the West must give the rebels “all the help and support they need to accomplish the removal of Gaddafi until it is time for NATO to go in a dignified exit.”

The seven- year building of a close British-Libyan relationship begun by Tony Blair was galling for many Libyans in Britain in view of Libya’s bloody record and its continuing suppression of human rights. Some Libyans say they were embarrassed to be represented by a man many regard as a psychopath. It is now common to hear Libyans say “I used to feel ashamed to say I was Libyan: now I feel proud.”

One victim of past Libyan violence was Libyan Ali Abuzeid who was stabbed to death in his grocer’s shop in Westbourne Grove in central London in 1995. Abuzeid had at one time been active in the Libyan opposition, and Libyan agents are blamed for his murder.

Ali’s daughter Huda Abuzeid, a TV producer in the UK, told Reuters in March: that for years Libya was seen through the filter of Gaddafi, “this inarticulate, uneducated, eccentric man”. She added that people “forgot that Libya is the country of Omar al Moukhtar, a country of smart, educated professionals, artists and intellectuals, brave people in all walks of life. Gaddafi has completely destroyed that dignified image of courage."

She said: "I am angry at the British government for ignoring the fact that Gaddafi is a terrorist, a war criminal, a murderer and for not letting justice prevail. Now the Libyan people are paying the price for this rapprochement."

The story of the Fergiani family shows the contribution certain Libyans have quietly made to British cultural life. Mohammed Fergiani was a businessman who had a publishing company and bookshop in Tripoli but moved to London in the 1970s because of disagreements with the Gaddafi regime. In London he established the publishing company Darf Publishers.

The Fergiani family opened three of the best-loved independent bookshops in London – Queen’s Park Books, West End Lane Books and England’s Lane Books. The bookshops are very much part of their local communities, and host numerous book signings and other events.

Mohammed Fergiani died on 9 January, in his late eighties, and Ghassan took his body back to Libya for burial. He greatly regrets that his father did not live long enough to witness what is happening in Libya. ”I wish he was alive to see this day,” he says. [pictured: Queen's Park Books]

Major contributions in the literary field have come from the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, a long time resident of the UK. He is currently much sought after for media interviews, and for his own eloquent contributions to newspapers.

In 1990 Matar’s dissident father Jaballa, a former Libyan diplomat, was kidnapped in Cairo by the Libyan regime with the help of Egyptian intelligence, and taken to prison in Libya. His fate is still unknown.

Matar draws on his experiences in his fiction. His first novel “In the Country of Men” was published by the Penguin imprint Viking in 2006. It is set in 1979 and exposes the brutality of Gaddafi’s rule as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. The novel was shortlisted for Britain’s most important fiction prize, the Man Booker and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

The first-person narrator of Matar’s recently-published second novel “Anatomy of a Disappearance” is a young Arab living in exile in Egypt with his politically dissident father. His father is kidnapped in Switzerland by agents from the regime of his native country, and the boy grows to manhood without knowing what has become of his father.

Libyan writers are currently receiving more international attention than ever before. Matar and three other Libyan writers based in Britain - Ghazi Gheblawi, Giuma Bukleb and Mohamed Mesrati - were panellists at a seminar at the London Book Fair in April, entitled ‘The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction’. The seminar attracted much interest given what is happening in Libya. The panellists described the difficulties writers in Libya have faced over the past four decades including imprisonment, censorship, raids on bookshops and other attempts at silencing.

Giuma Bukleb was jailed for 10 years from the late 1970s when he and other young writers were rounded up by the regime. He said what is happening in Libya today is “a dream come true: I never expected in my life that I am going to see this happen in Libya, because of what I know of Gaddafi and the regime.”

Bukleb added: “Thank God I lived to the day when I see these things happening in Libya, and see the man who really suffocated our lives now with his back to the wall, and when I see Libyans now coming out, reclaiming their country, reclaiming their identity, reclaiming their independence, reclaiming themselves.”

The seminar was chaired by the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, editor of Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature. The latest issue of Banipal, published just as the uprising was beginning, confidentially includes Banipal’s first-ever special feature on Libyan fiction, covering 135 pages and showcasing the work of 17 Libyan writers.

In the question and answer session of the seminar at the writers were asked about the tendency of Western media to treat Gaddafi as an almost comic figure, and about Gaddafi’s own short stories, published when there was no real freedom in Libya for writers.

Gheblawi [pictured] said that the focus of American and British newspapers on Gaddafi’s bizarre and eccentric behaviour “more or less made a joke out of it – but nobody’s joking now I think after seeing what’s happening. This behaviour is part of the act; the guy is trying to make himself as clownish as possible to make people think he is like that.” But the media’s concentration on Gaddafi’s behaviour “made the ordinary lives of Libyans obscure and lost in oblivion”.

Mohammed Misrati [pictured] said people laughed at Gaddafi’s speeches when the revolution started and at the remixes on YouTube, “but at the same time people are being killed in Misrata.” He noted that some big Arab literary names had said of Gaddafi’s short stories “look at him, he tells a story like a father would tell his child.” Misrati added:” Well come on, go and see Misrata children and how they listen to their fathers.”

Hisham Matar noted that dictators like to write books. “Saddam of course, and Stalin wrote some hideous books. We forget that the project of dictatorship is itself a project of narrative, it is a project of imposing one story to obliterate the other stories.”

The writers were asked by a member of the audience why Libyan writers orient themselves towards the Arab world rather than African. Language and culture are obvious factors. Matar added: “One of the ways that Gaddafi tried to extend his dictatorial project on his people is by trying to subvert their identity, to narrow it, to say actually no, you are not really Arab you are Africans. Whereas before that Libyans I feel had a much more interesting identity - as African, and Arab, and Mediterranean and lots of things that made the sense of the self much more complex. If Libyans come across as seeming deliberately to want to affiliate themselves to Arabs it doesn’t say how they feel about Africa - it is more what it says about how they feel about the narrative that Gaddadfi is trying to impose on them."

The UK-based filmmaker and journalist Mohammad Makhlouf [pictured below] left Libya in 1975 after criticising the regime. He settled in London, and was an active oppositionist to the Gaddafi regime. After the uprising began he returned to Benghazi for the first time in 36 years for an emotional reunion with his mother and siblings, and to make a his first visit his father’s grave. A film crew from the British TV channel ITV travelled with him and the resulting film, “Gaddafi and Me”, was screened in the ITV Tonight series. At the beginning of the film, before leaving for Benghazi Makhlouf says: “I’m not scared. If I die in my homeland, that’s a dream come true.”

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