The Iranian Ambassador leaned over and whispered: “Don’t write it down.” He furiously waved his hand from side to side. I looked at him with a certain measure of confusion, as I’d been told that my primary responsibility was to take notes at this tremendously important meeting and then provide a summary for the senior ambassador. My boss. Nevertheless, the Iranian ambassador insisted, “They always talk nonsense. Nobody cares.”
He was describing the Libyan delegation.
It was the summer of 2002 at the United Nations. I was spending a few months as an intern for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the second-largest intergovernmental body in the world–the largest being of course the UN. Before we get carried away by Glenn Beck’s fear of a global caliphate, consider that the OIC is the representative of Muslim majority nations around the world, and most people have probably never heard of it. It has of late become a more active and effective body, but I am speaking of years past.
The occasion in question was a meeting of the “Islamic Group,” an informal assembly of all OIC member nations’ ambassadors to the United Nations. The meeting had been called by Pakistan, as over that summer tensions with India had escalated and there were fears of a conflict between the two nuclear powers. In the interest of Islamic solidarity, which is usually only honored in the breach, the Pakistani government had hoped to bring fellow Muslim states to its side. After Pakistan’s delegate made his presentation, the floor was opened to comments.
The Iranian Ambassador was correct. Consider that sufficient introduction: the ambassador of Iran was made to seem sane, reasonable, and logical before the outpouring that the Libyan delegation accomplished. It seems this is not only a characteristic of Libya’s tyrannical leader, Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who furthermore picks representatives for his regime best able to mimic his clownish rambling, absurdity, irrelevance, and stupidity. I have always felt terribly bad for Libyans, who must not only be represented nationally and internationally by a dictator, but by probably the craziest of them all.
Qaddafi is protected by an all-female force of bodyguards. He seems to be unusually attached to a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse. He holds records for longest (and, sadly, least-organized) speeches. In a recent address to the nation, he accused protesters of being “cockroaches,” drug addicts, foreign spies, and Islamic radicals. He did so while sitting in a golf cart, holding a giant white umbrella, and complaining that he would join his people if not for the rain just then. Ask yourself, really: Who seems more like a drug addict? (In his most recent address to the United Nations, Qaddafi managed to speak for well over an hour, and included a rambling aside on J.F.K.’s assassination.)
But back to the United Nations.
The representative from the Libyan delegation spoke for nearly an hour about the so-called crisis of 1948, when India and Pakistan had been partitioned. In fact he was confusing the subcontinent for mandatory Palestine, as India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. He railed on and on about British imperialism, and the nefarious designs of the English monarchy upon South Asia—you can’t make this stuff up—and concluded by suggesting that India and Pakistan, which were apparently on the verge of nuclear war, form a common currency and become one country.
In the third and thus far bloodiest of the revolts sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, giant Libya, a nation the size of Alaska with fewer people than New York City (6.3 million), is savaged by violence. The country is split in two, though some army units continue to pummel peaceful protesters while foreign mercenaries fire live ammunition at anyone who moves. In the chaos, which began in mid-February, the rebellious east has liberated itself from Qaddafi’s authority, centered in the west (in Tripoli, in fact, of the “shores of Tripoli” fame).
It is quite possible that if Qaddafi is able to crush all dissent in the western half of the country, he will turn his army and his brutality onto the liberated east. Libya has had a tragic history, but her people are amazingly brave, and to stand up against such a horrifically violent and deluded man is no small measure of their character. He, and his delusional son Seif al-Islam (“Sword of Islam”), have vowed to fight to the last drop of blood, apparently indicating that they will kill every Libyan in order to rule Libya. Nor, sadly, is this too far removed from much of Libya’s history.
In the last century, Libya had been colonized by the Italians, who managed to kill, starve, exile, or otherwise subjugate huge percentages of her population. That process began in 1911, when Italy seized Libya from the Ottoman Empire, despite the best efforts of Ottoman troops, which included a young Mustafa Kemal, the future Ataturk. Italian occupation, and all its violence, lasted through World War II. After a brief rule by a monarchy, a young army officer overthrew the king and established a radical revolutionary state in 1969. This would be some kind of socialist and Third-Worldist bastion of freedom, or so the rhetoric went.
It is perhaps not too horrific to imagine that, if America were Libya, we would still be ruled by Richard Nixon. What exactly Qaddafi wants out of his country is unclear. It is not just money, power, and vanity. In a sane world, he would be classified insane, and some kind of universal health care would provide for his comfort in a mental hospital. He has refused any official title, going by “Brother Leader” and “Guide of the Revolution” and other such vacuous and pretentious false humilities; in his decades in power, he’s been busy producing a new flag (the only monochromatic flag in the world), writing an incoherent work of philosophy (the Green book, green like the flag), and producing a new kind of state. It is, officially, the Great Socialist Libyan Arab State of the Masses, which is supposedly ruled by local councils and has no hierarchical leadership. A perfect democracy.
In reality, Libya is among the most autocratic and brutal of the Middle Eastern and North African states, and Qaddafi has revealed himself to be as cruel as Saddam Hussein. He has used his Air Force and his Navy against his own people. Libyan diplomatic delegations, to their credit, are everywhere turning on Brother Leader, and members of the Air Force and Navy have defected rather than use force. But we don’t really know what is happening on the ground, and it’s hard to see, absent any kind of foreign intervention, where this is going to go. It seems like Qaddafi is losing his grip on the country, and it is not implausible to imagine that some of the tribes allied to him might turn on him and his family. But what would come in their place?
The tragedy of a dictatorship is not only the lives lost, the freedom squandered, the daily humiliations, and the regular brutalities. For dictators so eviscerate their countries that, even after they are gone, it’s hard for people to pick up the pieces and move forward. I am hopeful in seeing the old Libyan flag, the banner of the pre-Qaddafi monarchy (rooted in the Sufi orders that led the resistance to Italian rule), flying in the East and over some Libyan embassies across the world.
That means there’s a memory there, and a dream of a nation, prevented from developing, cut off in its youth by a madman who pitches tents and refuses hotels; that memory can inspire unity in the absence of national institutions and opposition parties. For the Libyan people often offered resistance to colonization in endlessly courageous ways, and turned to their culture and religion for direction even in the ugliest of times. I am hopeful that the same young, suffocated Libyans who saw in Tunisia and Egypt a way forward can see in these neighbors a way to build a society that puts to rest a 41-year-old nightmare.