Libya’s official name is the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. There is no such word as "jamahiriya" in Arabic. It is a corruption of the word “jumhuriya” meaning “republic” and can be roughly translated as a "the masses’ state.” Muammar Gaddafi invented the word himself as a symbol of a supposedly unique Libyan system of governance. Eccentricity combined with populism and cruelty was his signature style. This year on September 1, Gaddafi planned to celebrate the forty-second anniversary since he overthrew King Idris while His Majesty was vacationing in Turkey and imposed his dictatorship on the Libyans. Now, apparently, there will be no celebration.
The moment Gaddafi called his own people “drugged cockroaches” and vowed to soldier on until death, he de facto became Libya’s ex-leader. Moreover, he forfeited many potential places for asylum where even on Tuesday morning he could still have sought refuge. The tragic question is how much more blood should be spilled before he leaves the stage.
A few months ago this seemed unthinkable. The eccentric colonel always took care to provide basic necessities in food and fuel to the 6.5 million population and, frankly, even more than basics for the upper strata of the society. Oil and gas never lacked in Libya, not even during the most difficult period of international sanctions against Tripoli. The money supply varied but it never ran the risk of running out completely.
In 2003, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the US-led international coalition, Gaddafi decided that he did not want to follow the Iraqi dictator into political oblivion. Once a generous patron to terrorists of all hues, the Libyan leader became a respectable politician. He closed his nuclear program that always worried the West and opened his arms to embrace the international oil and gas companies. The United States, Britain, Italy, Russia and other countries competed for access to Gaddafi and his sons for the sake of lucrative contracts.
For a time I worked in one of the American oil companies myself. I remember a Libyan colleague who lectured me with an air of superiority: "We are the most important country in the Arab world. Foreigners are lining up to be allowed in." He hinted at his good connections at the very top of the Libyan power pyramid. I wonder what he thinks now looking out his window. His skills may not be in such a great demand any more.
Events in Libya are at least as instructive (if not more) as those in Tunisia or Egypt. Come to think of it, Tunisia boasts a French tradition of education, secularism and civic courts. Egypt is undoubtedly the heart of the Arab world, a country with a pride in its history and a certain tradition of parliamentary democracy. But Libya ... Honestly, no one ever thought it to be important in the general scheme of things in the Arab world, including the Arabs themselves. Newspapers and TV stations the world over are frantically looking for experts on Libya, of whom there are so few. What we face is a rapid transformation of the Arab world which will have global repercussions.
All are at a loss – UN, NATO, EU, Washington, Moscow, Brussels, and even Rome where Silvio Berlusconi was Gaddafi’s most important international advocate.
The weakness of the Western, Russian and other leaders, who until recently groveled in front of the mad colonel in hope of getting more contracts for their national companies, is in full view. If only NATO imposed a “no fly” zone over Libya to ground Gaddafi’s Air Force, which strafes protesters with gunfire! If only Russia blocked its arms shipments to Gaddafi – symbolic as this would have been! Many Arabs would have welcomed such steps. They would have served as belated proof that the Western world and those who aspire to be on par with it are serious about values, not only about interests. But for this you have to have leaders tailored to a different size and made from different material, the kind Reagan, Gorbachev, Kohl and John Paul II were made of.
Still Gaddafi is on his way out and this cannot be bad.
I remember how twenty-five years ago a translator friend, who served in Libya, remarked: "You know, Kostya, if a name of a state contains the words "great," "people’s," or “democratic," it means, in my experience, that this state is neither great, nor democratic. It is usually just a second rate dictatorship.”
Looking at the TV footage of a madman spouting venom from the Bab al-Aziziya barracks in Tripoli, I could not get these words out of my mind.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.