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Qadafi's "Backwardness"

The Declaration: The so-called "leader" declared, "matter-of-factly" last Summer, to National Geographic's Andrew Cockburn, who met with him in the city of Al-Bayda, that: "We are a backward country". Qadafi continued: "People don't understand that we are damaging the land, damaging the environment" (See pp. # 14-15 of the November 2000 issue of NG). I am not very sure this issue will be sold in Libya's black markets among computers, tomatoes and cucumbers! The "green self-appointed leader", who constantly gripes that he does not rule the "Ozma" or "Great Jamahiriyah" had talked (in the past 12 hours prior to the NG interview) with three African presidents and the Italian foreign minister, worked on plans for a summit conference, and given a stern lengthy lecture to the city fathers of Al-Bayda regarding unchecked development in the picturesque Jabal Akhdar around the city which was built by former king Idris. The "leader" does not rule indeed!

Amazing Grace! This declaration appears to be simple and sinister at the same time. For those who are not familiar with what is going on in Libya, they would blame the Libyan people for such backwardness. Meanwhile, those who are too familiar with disastrous Qadafi's policies during his long rule would start in concert singing "amazing grace!". Unfortunately, Mr. Cockburn failed to ask the "thinker-leader" about a plausible explanation to this dilemma of Libyan "backwardness" or about his human right abuses in addition to the sorry state of the environment during his reign.

How long should he stay? Undoubtedly, Qadafi's longevity has deeply frustrated those searching for a more viable democratic and humane replacement. Such longevity inevitably raise the question of why he has not yet fallen, after decades of war, chaos, crisis, sanctions and ruin. (A nice combination for progress and development!). The answer is not pleasant at all. Qadafi has kept his iron grip on power, despite repeatedly claiming otherwise, because of his ruthless personality, his foes' blunders, and his lethal mastery of tribal authority in Libya. One must not forget his so-called revolutionary committees, his security establishments, his use and abuse of the battered military, and of course his own family cliques. In short, the leader is one of the major causes, if not the only one behind the "backwardness" he is unashamedly ascribing to his own people and country.

Survival at any price: Through his huge propaganda machine, the ruthless "leader" presents himself as a philosopher, thinker and a brilliant strategist. But his strategies have actually led to one disaster after the other. In his 31-year rule, he has managed to embroil Libya in chaos and drag it to the brink of economic, social, political and military catastrophe. However, if Qadafi is a pathetic theorist and strategist, he is also a smart tactician, a talent that has allowed him to escape, often unscathed, from mistakes of sheer stupidity again and again. His horrible strategies are based upon incredible arrogance and self-delusion; his tactics are built on brutal and primitive Machiavellianism. Whenever his grand designs get him into trouble, his domestic maneuvering gets him out of the hole he himself has dug! For, although, the green dusty "leader" is notorious for his blunders and miscalculations, he is indeed a "monster", instead of master, at capitalizing on his enemies' missteps. His astonishing ability to take advantage of his foes' mistakes goes a long way toward explaining his survival, even in extreme crisis. Consider how he has nullified the influence of the opposition to destabilize his regime. Bickering and constantly squabbling, the leadership of the opposition was badly fragmented and deeply vulnerable to manipulation. So fractious and feeble an opposition, that Qadafi used its outside presence and support to tarnish its image and brand it as treasonous "stray dogs", beholden to foreign masters bent on the destruction of the whole country. He has been cutely aware of how dangerous and fatal the existence of even so little a domestic or outside opposition to his own survival.

Sanctions or no sanctions: Or consider how he has successfully diverted responsibility for the misery of UN sanctions away from himself and his ill-fated policies and onto the United States, which he blames for all of Libya's and Arab hardships. In fact, the prolongation of the UN embargo has ironically strengthened Qadafi rather than weakening his hold on power. The seemingly permanent "emergency" situation allowed him to reinforce his repressive machine. Furthermore, to many suffering Libyans, the sanctions failure to oust the regime only helped to prove the conspiracy theory: the American imperialists are to keep Arabs (and lately Africans) down, and were out to punish every one indiscriminately.

Backwardness: a natural state or humanly made! Another key to Qadafi's survival for all these years, and perhaps even many more to come, lies in the fact that he has systematically ruined the Libyan state, erased constitutional arrangements from civic life and effectively destroyed any traces of civil society. This lopsided situation has made Libyans depend on him and on his small Mafia of loyalists more than ever. Furthermore, the country's bountiful oil revenues and its small population are actually important national assets that give the "unthinking leader" strategic depth, ample breathing room, and a large margin for error. Qadafi's long tenure at the helm taught him how to survive and even thrive in such an intentionally-made weak and "backward" system. He understands the need to remain constantly alert, adapt to changing circumstances, preempt opponents, and above all expertly maneuver between different tribal factions. The absolute-ruler-for-life applies this ingenious rule of chaos to the Libyan populace at large, but also within the key self tailored "institutions" of power he has fashioned such as: the so-called revolutionary committees, popular committees, army, police, security apparatus and even his own family and close allies. In this culture of fear and repression, he is only too aware that these bases of support are double-edged sword that can slash his foes or be turned against his throat when he happens to look the other way.

What about the future? Most observers of Libyan affairs argue that there can be no change for the better until the green monster disappears from the scene. That may be true, but it leaves some hard questions unanswered. How might Qadafi fall? Can an outside power, or powers, decide the fate of his regime? Is it the fight of the Libyan people alone? And would his successor be an improvement? Any attempt to seriously answer these puzzles must account for the fact that the aging "leader" has turned political and personal survival into an art. No matter how costly his survival to the whole Libyan nation may be. He has held on to power longer than any other rulers of modern or ancient Libya outlasting emperors, fascists and kings. His own brutal personality, parochial world-view, a carefully cultivated set of control mechanisms, the mistakes and double messages of his Western adversaries, the weaknesses and sheer ignorance of Libyan opposition forces - all have helped him holds on, and all are still at work. It is rather depressing to report that his most likely successors at this point - whether through inheritance or coup - are his kids, whom he has been slowly grooming for the occasion. But such a change would do the "sleepy" Libyan people little good, since his offspring are likely to be as thuggish and brutal as their father. Some observers even argue that the chances of the desperate Libyan people in replacing their overlord with some more responsible and less dangerous autocrat are none existent or slim at best.

Get up and stand up: This is hardly a soothing or inspiring prospect, but more realistic than many would wish it to be. The good news is the tyrant is getting old and tired. And the other good news is that the Libyan people, namely their slumbering elites, must awaken and break free from the shackles of the personality cult, oppression and exploitation. They must, like other civilized and deserving people, struggle and make the necessary sacrifices in order to get rid of this imposed-from-above "backwardness" and march head high toward democracy, freedom, human rights, progress, development and happiness. The road to these noble goals is long and arduous. The "backward green leader" must be nudged out of the way.

Abdelrahim Saleh

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