Libya is a nation of extremes.
"I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay still and brilliant beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of eveything".The narrator above, exiled from Libya in Hisham Matar's 2006 novel 'In The Country Of Men', surmises the twin reality of Libya, on one hand a bright, luminous, prosperous North African country, and on the other a place of shade, of darkness, where 30 years of Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi's Jamahiriya regime have forced dissidents abroad, or vanished them, rarely granting any mercy to their opponents.
Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa and, possessing an abundancy of oil, the richest of the Northern region. It has the potential, according to Anthony Giddens, a former director of the LSE, to become the Norway of North Africa, prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. That such a statement could be made by a respected academic and not treated with derision demonstrates that much has changed in Libya in recent years, and indeed it has.
The country has accepted (partial) responsibility for Lockerbie, it has renounced its rusting nuclear weapons programme, and Gaddafi, that most virulent of anti-Westerners, has even travelled as far as Brussels to preach from his 'little green book'. Accordingly, the world has reacted with cautious - and not so cautious - optimism. The US, Libya's most violent detractor, has reopened diplomatic ties and removed Libya from its list of states which sponsor terrorism. Gaddafi has intimated that it is time to open up economic freedoms in a state where private property was once all but outlawed. Libya is slowly re-entering the international community. According to Wikipedia,
"Since 2003 the country has made efforts to normalize its ties with the European Union and the United States and has even coined the catchphrase, 'The Libya Model', an example intended to show the world what can be achieved through negotiation rather than force when there is goodwill on both sides".Tripoli, a gorgeous jewel on the Meditteranean, and even the Saharan desterts of the South, are now, once more, a viable tourist destination, and anyone who makes the trip will find stunning architecture, dazzling sun and a population keen to stress that they are 'not bad people'. Joanna O'Connor, writing for the Observer, notes that:
"Something very odd is happening. This is the fourth shop in Tripoli's old town my friend Andie and I have walked into, clutching our hot little wad of money, and so far we've failed to spend a single penny. It started in the market, when the man on the fruit stall wouldn't let us pay for a bag of dates. Then, in the patissierie, the boy with the eyelashes as long as a camel's shyly insisted that we take two pieces of baklava. And now Walid is fastening the beads around my neck and inviting us to have a cappuccino with him in his tiny Aladdin's cave of a shop in the copper souk.But Gaddafi has always been characterised - in the West - as just that; bad. And although he retains broad support from a people who describe him simply as 'The Leader', he shows no sign of allowing political reform to accompany his new-found enthusiasm for globalisation. Nor has his contempt for democracy softened: "In Libya there is no dictatorship, no injustice; there is no conflict over power," he insisted on Al-Jazeera recently:
This wouldn't happen in Marrakesh, I think to myself. But this is not Morocco, this is Libya, where tourists are still rare enough to be seen as a source of mild curiosity rather than wallets on legs. Against the deafening clang of hammers on metal from the surrounding workshops, Walid says something I am to hear several times during my stay here: 'Your gift to us is that you visit us and you go home and tell people that Libya is not a bad place. We are not bad people'".
"People feel they have power in their hands. In the west, power is money, not democracy. Is it democracy, when half the people don't want you to remain president?"
Giddens was present on that occasion, and gave Gaddafi's argument short-shrift:
"I have no time for that argument and said so. It is just not true that multiparty democracy doesn't have a popular mandate in Western countries. More than 95% of people in such societies agree that they want to live in such a democracy. In Libya, what is a nice idea in principle — self-rule through a plethora of peoples' committees — works out quite differently in practice. Gaddafi steps into the vacuum left by the absence of effective mechanisms of government, and the result is a de facto dictatorship."Indeed it is, and yet Gaddafi's enthusiasm for his unique 'state of the masses', Jamahiriya, is undimmed - presumably because it affords him absolute power. In the meantime his wider philosophy, beyond his concept of a 'direct democracy' of local councils (and no political parties) is impossible to pin down. The Little Green Book has influenced no other state, and Gaddafi himelf has veered from one popular philosophy to another, at one time or other being an advocate of Socialism, Arab-nationalism, Pan-Africanism, Islamism and now Globalisation. He offers no coherent narrative, in other words.
And yet he finds himself suddenly in demand. In fairness, Gaddafi's reputation in Africa has never quite tallied with his demagogue status in the west. He is increasingly seen as an elder Statesman of African politics, winning praise from the likes of Nelson Mandela (indeed, one of Mandela's grandchildren was baptized "Gaddafi"), and lauded for his continent-wide aid contribution and willingness to absorb Sub-Saharan Africans into the Libyan job market.
He remains an enigma - a talisman of sorts in Africa, a tyrant in his own country, a bogeyman to the west, suddenly a friend and ally, a simple man who lives an austere life, and now, perhaps, a man ready to lead a country which boasts the highest recorded temperature in history, out of the darkness and into the light. Some people are optimistic, and some believe he will never change.
This post was originally published on Hii Dunia on the 22nd March 2007. In my next post on Libya, I'll look at the prospects for reform and consider how genuine they are. And question just what the implications of cuddling up to Africa's most eccentric father-figure really are.