A deal struck with tyranny

Published in The Daily Telegraph (February 21st, 2011)

As I stood on a hilltop overlooking al-Bayda less than a fortnight ago, the prosperity of the city was plain to see. It was fringed with new blocks of flats, cranes bristled on the skyline and the copper dome of the former king’s palace, now a university, glistened in the winter sun.

Once, this busy city in the east of Libya was the home of King Idris. More recently, it benefited as the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi’s second wife, Safiya, a nurse who treated him after he suffered severe injuries in a car accident. Rumour has it the despot fell for her after she rejected a bribe to poison him. Now she is at the heart of the corruption that so blights this oil-rich nation, with much of the money ending up in her home town. So when the ”day of rage” erupted here last week, with protesters burning municipal buildings and ripping down a ludicrous statue of the Green Book [Gaddafi’s political testament], it was clear that Gaddafi was facing a genuine threat to his 41-year rule.

Today, al-Bayda is described as looking like a war zone, with blood on the streets, smoke rising from buildings and the authorities thought to have lost control. In nearby Benghazi, where I chatted to traders and dissidents over coffee, there are reports of massacres with hundreds of bodies turning up at hospitals and morgues. Young men are throwing home-made bombs against soldiers using heavy-calibre weapons, while airport runways are sabotaged to prevent the arrival of more troops.

”The military is shooting at all the protesters with live bullets, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes,” said a woman doctor in Benghazi yesterday. ”There was an eight-year-old boy who died from a gunshot to the head – what did he do to deserve this?” Similar horror stories are emerging from other towns and cities.

This is the most remarkable – and terrifying – moment in an astonishing few weeks in which the young people of north Africa have risen up and demanded the right to join the modern world. Libyans, inspired by events over the borders in Tunisia and Egypt, have summoned up the courage to confront their ”Great Leader”. It feels reminiscent of events in Romania after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the much-feared Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled.

There is only one certainty amid the bloodshed: Gaddafi will do whatever he can to protect his own skin. This is, after all, the longest-serving ruler in Africa, a clever political operator who hatched plans to topple his monarch while at college and, after military training in Britain, led a successful revolution at the age of 27. Since then he has murdered political opponents, crushed a jihadist rebellion, funded global terrorism and waged wars on his neighbours.

To get a measure of the man, look beyond those comical costumes and crazy speeches. One blogger told yesterday how soon after Libya became embroiled in a civil war in Chad, Gaddafi told some high school pupils they were going on a field trip. Having sent buses to their schools, he gave them guns and sent them to the front line. Later, he ordered his military to execute people mutilated in battle to ensure that they were not seen by Libyan citizens on the streets.

Such tales ensure that Libya is a much-misunderstood nation in the West. Libyans are a cultured people and many openly despise their quixotic ruler. As I wandered past a bronze statue of Gaddafi on a horse in a Tripoli museum a few years ago, a local whispered sarcastically in my ear: ”Another Caesar, just for us.”

They are furious at the way his self-styled revolution has destroyed their education system, ruined the health services and encouraged a culture of rampant corruption centred on his family, friends and members of his tribe. Oil wealth has raised living standards but youth unemployment is rife, while jobs and business deals depend on connections; falling out of favour with the pampered elite can destroy a career.

When I returned to the country to talk to dissidents in Benghazi and Tripoli in the wake of the Egyptian turmoil, it was obvious that Gaddafi felt threatened. He had flooded the streets with his secret police – the one part of the state that works with fearsome efficiency – and summoned journalists and activists to personally warn them against fomenting trouble. There were checkpoints on the roads and the mood was tense.

It struck me as curious that the clampdown was less intense in Benghazi. The ”day of rage”, after all, was timed to coincide with riots that broke out there exactly five years ago, leaving 20 dead, 150 injured and the city in chaos. An activist explained that this was because a nervous Gaddafi had concentrated his forces in the capital to impose a stranglehold on his centre of power.

Clearly, at the last moment Gaddafi had doubts about his approach. I was told he flew at least three planeloads of troops – possibly mercenaries from other African countries – into Benghazi as the uprising began last week. It was not enough to prevent the unrest, but may have contributed to the savagery of the response. ”We have reached the point of no return in these parts of the country,” said one opposition leader yesterday. ”Too much blood has been spilt.”

So what will happen next? The key remains Tripoli, home to nearly half the people in this huge, sparsely populated nation. Already, the revolt is creeping closer, with bloody clashes in Mesreta, just 130 miles from the capital. There were reports last night of thousands marching in Az Zawiyah, 30 miles west, and even in Tripoli there have been small demonstrations in working-class suburbs. ”The sun will soon shine here, too,” one activist told me last night, talking in code lest the secret police were listening.

Ultimately, this is a gruesome test of strength between protesters desperate for change and a regime desperate to cling on to power. There were rumours yesterday that some members of the revolutionary council are not prepared to see thousands slain. But unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the generals sided with the protesters, the army has little strength in Libya. Gaddafi has never trusted it, so there have been repeated purges and the remaining skeleton is headed by his sons.

Those brave souls confronting their dictator in Libya are also mounting a challenge to our own foreign policy. It is just seven years since Tony Blair flew to Tripoli and shook hands on a deal that looks grubbier by the day, bringing Gaddafi in from the cold in return for his renouncing his weapons of mass destruction programme. This led to the lifting of sanctions, compensation over the Lockerbie bombing and Western oil companies gaining access to Libyan oil fields. But there is growing fury in Washington over the haste with which Britain handed over a mass murderer in the rush to get access to those lucrative fields.

Even worse, this deal looks like a tragic re-run of the Cold War mistakes, in which the West propped up loathsome despots in return for their support against Moscow. After Gaddafi joined our side in the so-called war on terror, we sold one of the most repressive rulers in the world tear gas, crowd control weapons and sniper rifles. So in that fight to impose democracy in the Arab world, we have ended up providing the very tools that are being used so viciously to resist the fight for civil rights there.

As we watch with horror the events unfurling in Libya, this is a lesson that should never be forgotten. Foreign policy needs to be founded on long-term values and goals, not on cynical horse-trading with blood-stained dictators.

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