Now even Mad Dog Gaddafi faces a Day of Rage

Published in The Mail on Sunday (February 15th, 2011)

I was sitting in a smart address in the middle of Tripoli, drinking coffee and discussing the momentous events in Egypt, when my host leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. ‘You want to know why it is so important to us?’ she asked. ‘Because the fear has gone out of our hearts. It’s been inside all of us for more than 40 years, but now it’s gone. I can’t tell you how that feels.’

Such is the sense of euphoria sweeping across North Africa. Two long-serving autocrats ousted after uprisings that few would have dreamed possible in a region deformed by repression. First Tunisia, then Egypt. And now even in Libya, long held in the iron grip of Muammar Gaddafi, people are daring to hope the long years of brutality, corruption and decay might be coming to an end.

In the cafes and cake shops, I found people glued to televisions as they watched the dramatic unfurling of another uprising in a neighbouring state.Behind the closed doors of their homes, they discussed whether the winds of change might blow through their own country.

Now dissidents have declared their own ‘day of rage’ this week, hoping to spark another of these extraordinary revolts.

For 41 years, Libyans have endured the quixotic antics of their self-styled Great Leader, the longest-serving African or Arab ruler.

First he turned their country into an international pariah by waging wars, blowing up passenger planes and arming terrorists. Then he came in from the cold as poster boy for the war on terror, abandoning his quest for weapons of mass destruction and opening up the country for tourism and trade.

Who can predict what happens next? On the surface, little has changed. Visitors are greeted by revolutionary slogans at Tripoli airport, and propaganda posters of Gaddafi in heroic poses festoon the streets. Driving into the city you pass the endless green walls of an intimidating army base with machine guns sticking out of squat concrete towers. It is said to be Gaddafi’s home, covering four-and-a-half square miles.

What about his famous tent in the desert, I asked one contact? He snorted in derision: ‘That’s just public relations.’

Cranes bristle over new buildings, a snazzy Marriott hotel symbolising the oil boom. The capital’s roads were choked with cars – petrol costs less than water here – and the medina’s crammed with shoppers, many buying gifts for children since the festival marking the birthday of the Prophet comes this week. But the mood is far from festive.

As soon as protesters appeared in Tunisia, Gaddafi flooded the streets with his feared secret police, the one arm of the state that works with brutal efficiency.

I passed checkpoints on roads in the east of the country, while football matches have been cancelled to prevent large crowds from gathering, and there are rumours of arrests among reformists in the army.

Despite this, bloggers are calling for Libya’s ‘Day of Rage’ this Thursday in an attempt to replicate the Egyptian uprising. Messages have been placed on Facebook and videos posted on YouTube with hip-hop soundtracks and pictures of Gaddafi’s unpopular sons surrounded by alcohol and Western women. Leading opposition groups have given support.

The date for the protest is highly symbolic. It’s the fifth anniversary of the death of a teenager, shot by a policeman as he climbed a flagpole during peaceful protests over the controversial publication of Danish cartoons of Mohammed.

The killing sparked rioting in the second city of Benghazi that left 20 dead and 150 injured. One witness told me that for two days there was no government in the city until peace was negotiated.

Arriving in Benghazi, I stayed at a hotel just down the road from the sports stadium where Gaddafi used to order executions in his ‘mad dog’ days. The city, usually seen as an opposition stronghold, felt much less tense than Tripoli. A local activist said the clampdown was tighter in the centre of power to protect the regime.

‘People have been calling us and saying we need you to do something. We are relying on you to start things.’

I had entered the country on a tourist visa, ostensibly to visit the spectacular classical heritage. Although tourists are welcome these days, it is a guarded welcome. Special tourist police track your movements, while groups bigger than three must take a goon in tow.

My own guide was charming and a font of wisdom about Libya’s rich history. But assuming he was linked to the police, I avoided discussion of politics and spent much of my time feigning illness, or ducking out to early-morning interviews. Each began with thick coffee and ended with a warning to take care.

Despite this, as I walked round Tripoli’s elegant Italianate streets, I came across locals openly contemptuous of the regime.

Newspapers report on the upheavals over the border and there is only desultory blocking of a few opposition websites. Even in the cafes bordering Green Square, created to rival Moscow’s Red Square, televisions were tuned to Al Jazeera.

So will the Jasmine revolution sweep into Libya?

There is no doubt those seeking reform have been inspired by the downfall of Mubarak. ‘Egypt is the centre of the world for us,’ said one. ‘What happens there has a tendency to happen here. They had a king, we had a king; they had a coup, we had a coup; they had a kleptocracy, we had a kleptocracy; they had an uprising . . .’ He did not need to finish his sentence.

Although neighbours, the two countries are very different. Egypt has intense poverty and 80 million people crammed into a land just over half the size of Libya, where there are only 6.5 million people and some of the world’s best oil has funded higher living standards and kept food prices down. This combination of black gold and vast distances makes it easier to quash dissent.

But Gaddafi has squandered his oil wealth. At least one third of young men are jobless and while the schools and hospitals might be free under his strange brand of socialism, they are widely perceived as dreadful.

And at the heart of a web of corruption and nepotism lies the first family. The Wikileaks cables revealed Gaddafi’s reliance on a blonde Ukrainian nurse and refusal to climb more than 35 steps.

More seriously, they underlined how his family has creamed billions from the economy with fingers in every business from oil to plastic surgery. The family has also provided ‘enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera’, in the words on one US diplomat.

And the plot would involve everything from lavish parties with Beyonce in the Caribbean to arms-smuggling, wife-beating and driving a Porsche the wrong way down the Champs-Élysées while drunk.

Many reformists, however, still expect their leader to cling on. One put the chance of an Egyptian-style uprising at just 20 per cent. It is easy for us to dismiss Gaddafi as a buffoon, with those crazy costumes and female bodyguards, but he is a wily old fox, which is why he has held power for so long, even crushing a jihadist revolt.

As elsewhere in the region, Gaddafi wants to establish a dynasty. One of the favoured sons, a graduate of the London School of Economics, has loudly championed reform, while the other is the sinister national security adviser. Waiting in the wings are senior figures in the security forces who will want to hold on to their corrupt ways and tribal rivalries.

It is a combustible legacy. And this, as much as the security clampdown, is why even some of Gaddafi’s doughtiest opponents believe Libya might not join the wave of revolutions.

A source who has spent years pushing for reform told me his biggest worry was not that Gaddafi stays but what happens when he goes. ‘I fear that when he dies we will dissolve into another Somalia.’

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