Even to Libyans familiar with Muammar Gaddafi’s oratory style, his speech last night surprised many of those watching. While the logic was classic Gaddafi, the tone was one none of us had heard before. The man was livid. Gaddafi had managed to keep his cool even when the US bombed Tripoli in April 1986 and destroyed his home at the Bab al-Aziziya barracks. But on 22 February, speaking to a nation that had finally called his bluff on the power of the people, he was clearly and visibly distressed.
His speech vacillated between angry threats, sarcasm, wounded pride, delusions of grandeur and back again. A carefully scripted intervention by an assistant allowed Gaddafi to fall back on familiar eccentricity – the broadcast had apparently been briefly interrupted and the nation had missed a few lines of poetry Gaddafi had read, so he reread them. Libya was burning and Gaddafi was entertaining the people with poetry. Nero, anyone?
While the world focused on his fantastic colourful outfits and hairstyles, his quaint tent dwellings, his fly swatters, his Brother Leader title, his female bodyguards and his theories on the Arabic roots of foreign words, Libyans became masters at deciphering Gaddafi’s many speeches over the years and recognising the dangerous implications they held for the country and its people. The most dreaded were the celebratory speeches he gave on 1 September every year to commemorate the 1969 revolution that toppled Libya’s King Idris and brought Gaddafi to power. In 1975, Gaddafi published the first volume of his infamous Green Book, the disastrous roadmap for madcap Islamic socialism, which gave the world slogans such as “partners not wage workers” and “the house belongs to he who lives in it”. In 1977, Gaddafi announced the dawn of the “Jamahiriya”, a country for the people, by the people, theoretically placing power in the hands of the people through the institution of the General People’s Congress.
In reality, Gaddafi had the first and final say on any decisions taken there. The imposition of US sanctions on Libya in 1986 was a golden opportunity for Gaddafi to put the country under complete lockdown. Development and infrastructure? Sorry, did the people not realise that this was not possible due to US sanctions? Healthcare and medicine? Sorry, sanctions. Food and clothes? Sorry, sanctions. Heck, even washing detergent? Sorry, sanctions. Instead, Gaddafi called on Libyans, in a particularly “entertaining” speech, to eat dates and eschew chocolate. Chocolate would not bring the Libyans to their knees, he ranted. So in those years of scarcity, children learnt what a banana looked like in their school books. The citizens of Libya, home to the largest oil reserves in Africa, were reduced to near beggars.
And so Libyans trudged through nearly 42 years of arbitrary and destructive policies, ever mindful of the vigilant eye of Gaddafi’s brutal security apparatus. People who were even faintly critical disappeared. Opposition figures were hunted down worldwide and assassinated – the stray dogs of Libya, as the regime referred to them. Siblings informed on each other. University students were forced to watch the execution of their fellow students on campus. People were questioned if they were out of the country for long. Frequent worshippers at mosques were picked up and “rehabilitated”. Wounded soldiers returning from the Chad war were thrown from airplanes over Libya’s vast desert to conceal the extent of losses suffered by the Libyan army. Thousands of political prisoners were exterminated in the infamous Abu Salim massacre in 1996.
Following the ousting of Saddam in 2003, Gaddafi was quick to recognise that a shift was necessary on the international front if he was to avoid a similar fate and keep his grip on the country’s resources and wealth. He renounced terrorism, paid $2.7bn in compensation to the families of the Lockerbie bombing, set up a $1.5bn fund to compensate the victims of Libya’s bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986 and a French UTA airliner in 1989, and dismantled his programme for weapons of mass destruction. His turnaround was welcomed by the west and, one by one, western leaders made their way to Gaddafi’s tent in the desert and came away with business deals worth billions of dollars.
Internally, however, Gaddafi held his ground. His speech to the nation last night was a culmination of decades of similar speeches promising Libyans doom and gloom, in the guise of development policies, economic plans, social welfare strategies and popular democracy theories. However, Libyans no longer had to decipher his words – they were loud and clear. The king of kings was going to destroy Libya before he would give up his and his family’s control over the country.
For Libyans, their course of action is clear, despite his ominous threats. Gaddafi must go, as confirmed by the stream of abdications of his former allies and men and the flurry of calls by Libya’s tribes and people to stand firm in their struggle to overthrow him. Having ignored the rights of the Libyan people all these years, the west has yet to react decisively to the bloodshed perpetrated by Gaddafi. They might still be debating who will best serve their interests but this is not about their interests – it is about supporting the heroic people of Libya in their struggle for liberation.