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A Libyan Charm Offensive

To the shores of Tripoli with the son of Qaddafi

Michael C. Moynihan
February 22, 2010

Tripoli, Libya—Perhaps I overestimated the bien-pensant British understanding of “modernity.” When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and (this is the ultra bit) a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods and noise-canceling headphones.

Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover. Sinister men in baggy uniforms, all puffing Marlboros, shout at each other and disappear with my passport. I later find out this bit of theater was required because I possess a passport stamp from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After some discussion, my personal government apparatchik informs the entire staff of Libyan customs that, on orders from high, this particular learned elder of Zion can be allowed through.

It’s not entirely clear why I am in Libya, although it would have been rude to refuse a trip funded by the generous and, according to their hired help, deeply misunderstood comrades of the Qaddafi Foundation. At the behest of Saif al-Qaddafi—Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s slick, London-educated son and dauphin—our group of journalists is being shuttled to the country in an effort to demonstrate a new Libyan openness and, it is implied, a future rather different from the past. Personally, I’m more interested in sneaking a glimpse at the world’s only Islamo-socialist personality cult.

The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

It doubtless keeps Qaddafi pere awake at night that had he tamped down the rhetorical goofiness and sartorial excess (and maybe a terrorist bombing or two) his country could have been like Castro’s Cuba or Sandinista Nicaragua in the eyes of the West. In the 1970s, Libya promoted itself to European revolutionary tourists and gringo sugarcane harvesters in Havana as a socialist alternative with a moderate religious component. The regime took part in all sorts of radical-chic nastiness too: bombing a German disco full of American soldiers, talking nonsense about collectivizing the Sahara, and providing the Provisional IRA with the weapons needed to kill wayward Catholics.

After the Qaddafi coup of 1969, The Nation head-faked in Libya’s direction, telling its readers in 1970 that “it is indeed apparent to even the most casual visitor that no form of racism exists in Libya,” including anti-Semitism. How a casual visitor determines the total eradication of racism in a foreign country was left unsaid. In 1981 another Nation writer stressed that “most of the country’s 3 million people…have enjoyed a rising standard of living since Qaddafi came to power and continue to support the government.” How an outsider determines a dictatorship’s level of popular support was, again, left to the imagination.

But even to those governed by the elastic moral standards of that era, Qaddafi and his aviator sunglasses never managed to become an icon. Forty years after the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was established, you’re not likely to find college students underlining passages in the Green Book, Qaddafi’s famously nutty exegesis on something called “third international theory.” Sure, there were brief flirtations with both the extreme right and the extreme left in England, with the neo-fascist National Front attempting to enlist Libya’s financial support (and getting a pallet of Green Books for its trouble) and the pro-Soviet miners union leader Arthur Scargill actually succeeding in securing both moral and financial support from the Qaddafi regime. But all in all, Libya chic never caught on.

At an empty gift shop in Tripoli (which, oddly, displays a Norwegian flag behind the seldom-used cash register), I pick up an English-language copy of Qaddafi’s book, hoping to gain some insight into the ideology that for 40 years has suspended this country in time. The Green Book is Hitlerian in both its breadth of subject and its impenetrable prose style. Qaddafi expounds on whatever pops into his mind, from the evils of private property to the art of wrestling, from abolishing the wage system to the universal right to own a Soviet car. Passages like this one, anatomizing black African culture, may have alienated potential Western adherents: “Their backward social traditions are responsible for the absence of restrictions in marriage leading to an unchecked and high birth rate. This is at a time when other races are diminishing in number as a result of the practice of birth control and other restrictions in the laws of marriage, as well as a preoccupation with work; this is in contrast to the black people whose lassitude is due to living in constantly hot climate [sic].”

The Colonel’s Private Junkyard

Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.

Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides sucking the economic life out of Tripoli, Qaddafi determined that the capital city, once a playground for Italian and British colonizers, must also be denuded of fun. Alcohol, which for years helped people forget they lived in Libya, is prohibited. Nonalcoholic beer is available in our hotel (a five-star, though it appears to have been graded on a curve), but only to placate (or taunt) the few Western visitors who pass through. The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.

No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all. Inside the DVD shop, the Hollywood film Fat Albert is available for a few dollars—popular, presumably, because the title character, like most Libyans, lives in a junk yard.

Corrective Studies

But we are not here to investigate how Libyans entertain themselves or to talk to the hoi polloi about Islamic socialism. Soon after arriving, along with three other journalists and one academic, we are racing in a convoy of black Mercedes Benzes, hazard lights on, horns blasting (and never met with a counter-honk), to meet the first group of terrorists recently released from Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. All are former members of the Al Qaeda farm team known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

Since 2003, when Libya abandoned its weapons of mass destruction program and the West subsequently lifted economic sanctions on the country, the Qaddafi government has made a concerted effort to reintegrate itself into the world community. Its program of “rehabilitating” LIFG prisoners and supposedly turning them against Al Qaeda is the latest tactic in an expansive and expensive public relations campaign to rebrand a country whose name was long a synonym for international terrorism.

The Qaddafi Foundation chose our interview subjects from 88 low- and mid-level LIFG members who were released in October after signing a document called “Corrective Studies,” blasting Al Qaeda’s tactics and renouncing violence against noncombatants. “Jihad has ethics and morals because it is for God,” the 400-plus-page document states. “That means it is forbidden to kill women, children, elderly people, priests, messengers, traders and the like. Betrayal is prohibited and it is vital to keep promises and treat prisoners of war in a good way. Standing by those ethics is what distinguishes Muslims’ jihad from the wars of other nations.” 

As the former inmates answer questions about their stints in Afghanistan and prison, a ubiquitous representative of the security service scribbles notes. Between this silent intimidation and the string of incompetent translators, it is difficult to divine what inspired so many fanatics to jointly repent their sins. The focus sharpens slightly when I ask each man the length of his sentence. They all answer matter-of-factly that they were sentenced to death. Most were accused of crimes such as possession of false documents, membership in a banned organization, and, as one former fighter tells us, having the “wrong ideas.”

All admit to receiving a certain level of weapons training but say they graduated to nonviolent roles in the media and propaganda departments of the LIFG, with many working from a base in London after being provided political asylum by the British government. (They told the English authorities they’d be killed if they returned to Libya, then went on to produce Al Qaeda newsletters while under the British government’s “umbrella of protection.”) If they are to be believed, few ever pulled a trigger in anger. With every conversation, they sound more and more like the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps of Al Qaeda. After years in prison, hashing out the details of their release, their answers display a striking similarity, leading an exasperated questioner to instigate exchanges like this: 

Q: Yes, you were a member of the mujahedeen that once distributed Katyusha rockets in Afghanistan, you spent your vacation time with Osama bin Laden in Sudan, but which one of you guys chopped off the heads of infidels? 

A: Nobody. 

Q: Ever killed anyone? 

A: Not that I am aware of, but I suppose it’s possible. I launched mortar rounds at the enemy in Afghanistan. 

In a fundamentalist version of the Battle of New Orleans, our hapless jihadis all explain that they came to fight the Soviets in 1990 or later. None was aware that by the time they arrived, the Soviet Union had collapsed and its troops had disengaged. As one former LIFG fighter explains, such developments were not discussed in the Libyan media.

After hours of formulaic answers, plummeting blood sugar, and a grumbling stomach, I sink deeper into the cushions, extending my legs toward the center of the room. Another journalist leans over and chides me for exposing the soles of my feet to the former Al Qaeda member, fearing that I might offend him. “In Arab culture,” he says, “that is considered disrespectful.” It is wise, I decide, to not offend our host, even if he has never killed an infidel. An hour later, the same reporter is now ignoring his own advice, the bottoms of his feet pointing directly at the ex-terrorist, doubtless in an attempt to stop the man from talking. 

Visiting the Middle East or the African Maghreb, you are constantly reminded that while the much-touted moderate Islamists may not want to destroy the New York skyline, they are still insane. Several reformed LIFG fighters inform me that “American Muslims would fight America if it invaded Libya.” Osama bin Laden was once a reasonable guy, one tells me, corrupted by his relationship with the Egyptian fundamentalist Ayman al-Zawahari. And although America might have provided support to Muslims in the past, this doesn’t matter because it was for our own self-interest, not because we realize that Islam is the one true faith.

One charming, amusing, and polite former stooge for Al Qaeda now operates in the same capacity for the Libyan government, claiming he saw the light and converted from Islamism to Qaddafism. When I ask about press freedom, he confidently informs the group that there is no restriction on speech in Libya and there even exist a number of privately run newspapers.

“Can one of these independent newspapers print a banner headline tomorrow demanding, ‘Qaddafi Must Go’?” I ask.

“Why would they want to do that?” he replies.

Such answers go a long way toward explaining why Libya ranks 156 out of 175 in Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index.

Libyans Make Bad Soviets 

Libya’s recent opening may be governed by realpolitik and a desire for more economic contact with the West, but it’s still better than nothing. There is plenty of reason to question the motives of former LIFG fighters—the fact that they were sentenced to death gives them a compelling incentive to assist the government’s anti–Al Qaeda program—but the Libyan government has provided tangible evidence that it is prepared to come in from the cold, according to many involved in the delicate diplomacy between Qaddafi and the West.

The power brokers in Tripoli love the word dialogue; everyone from members of the Qaddafi Foundation to former terrorists say they are interested in talking with their onetime enemies. This is a rather significant change. It is worth recalling that in 1986 a well-aimed American bomb destroyed Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound, missing the “Brother Leader” by a matter of minutes and killing his 15-month-old stepdaughter. These days, his adult children are spotted traveling in the United States and partying in European nightclubs. Their father recently made his long-awaited debut at the United Nations, treating the assembled to a 90-minute speech denouncing Jack Ruby, the “Israeli” murderer of Lee Harvey Oswald, and declaring the swine flu a capitalist conspiracy.

As is frequently the case with totalitarians, this is also a one-way dialogue, requiring that all other parties accept the preconditions of the conversation. While Saif Qaddafi has gingerly and incompletely acknowledged some of the past outrages perpetrated by his father’s regime, most other representatives of the Libyan government seem to be sticking to the script. A translator at a government office I visited, who without irony identifies himself as Libya’s former secretary general of human rights, exclaims, “We have always been against terrorism.” How do you dialogue with people who are so evasive, so untethered to reality? 

The successes of Saif Qaddafi’s outreach to the West are obscured by the low-level sovietism you encounter around every corner in Libya. Like Saddam’s ruling clique, the Qaddafists don’t bother to make any of it believable. If there is an election, the ruling party will inevitably receive 100 percent of the ballots cast. When the LIFG prisoners were asked to renounce Al Qaeda, the result, one official insists to our group, was “100 percent having been convinced.” The Libyans are not masters of public relations—a fact underlined by their failure to remove from the wall of one government office we visited a photo of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, better known as the Lockerbie bomber.

Trust, but Verify

Puffing on a cigarette, the gatekeeper at the business class lounge at Tripoli Airport—as grubby as the all-access lounge, but with free coffee and cakes—tells me my flight to London has been delayed by an hour. When it becomes clear that the wireless router taped to the wall isn’t routing anything, I return to his messy metal desk and ask if, in the meantime, he might tell me if there was some special Libyan way of checking email. “No,” he sighed. “Internet also delayed.” 

Everything in this country is delayed or nonfunctioning, from the telephone in my hotel room to the 40-year-old political system. Libya doesn’t even have a functioning postal service—which might explain why the U.S. Postal Service charges almost $300 to ship a 10-pound package to the country. It will likely be easier to undo Libya’s fractured relationship with the West than it will be to undo four decades of domestic failure.

Boarding a British Airways flight out of Tripoli, a Libyan-American who spent the last 40 years in Chicago spots my passport and asks what on earth I am doing in the country. I tell him of my temporary association with the Qaddafi Foundation, then ask if he believes Libya truly desires to rejoin the world community. “Well, since 2005 I have been coming back,” he says. “A decade ago, it would have been impossible.”

But does he trust this new Qaddafism-with-a-human-face? “I’ve been out of Libya for a majority of my life, and I miss my country,” he replies. “What other choice do I have but to believe?”

For the rest of us, it’s too early to believe that any of these gestures are genuine. The record is contradictory, the evidence still scant; to be optimistic, you must assume both that Saif Qaddafi will be the heir to the revolution and that he’ll keep his promises to liberalize the country’s economic and political systems. Perhaps the next generation of Qaddafis will loosen their chokehold on power in exchange for a seat at the adult table of international politics. But for the long-suffering Libyans, the rehabilitation of former Al-Qaeda associates, the abandonment of its nascent nuclear program, and the release of the Lockerbie bomber have brought them no closer to the representative democracy Qaddafi promised 40 years ago. 

Michael C. Moynihan (mmoynihan@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Michael C. Moynihan is Senior Editor, Reason Magazine


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