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The Gaddaf Al-Dam Files: Soup and Green Tea with Sadat - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Left photograph shows late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (R) walking with his cousin and aide Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam (shown in center picture). On the right, Gaddafi (C) walks with former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (R) in Cairo, Egypt in the early 1970s. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Left photograph shows late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (R) walking with his cousin and aide Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam in a field (shown in center picture). On the right, Gaddafi (C) walks with former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (R) in Cairo, Egypt in the early 1970s. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—As one of Muammar Gaddafi’s closest aides, Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam—also Gaddafi’s cousin—was often sent by the late dictator to put out fires abroad caused by Gaddafi’s own, often idiosyncratic, foreign policies.

However, on one occasion in 1977, Gaddaf Al-Dam jumped the gun, paying a visit to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s rural home without Gaddafi’s permission. At the time, tensions had escalated between Libya and Egypt to such an extent that Egyptian armored divisions were deployed along the western border with Libya, ready to preempt what Cairo expected would be an imminent Libyan attack on its territory. Minor skirmishes between the two sides had already taken place on the border, and tempers on both sides had become dangerously frayed.

Gaddaf Al-Dam tells Asharq Al-Awsat the origins of the dispute dated back three years earlier, during the initial UN-brokered negotiations between Egypt and Israel following the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The talks took place in Egypt, with Gaddaf Al-Dam present among the delegation from Libya, at the time part of a tripartite Arab alliance with Egypt and Syria seeking to take back Arab lands gained by Israel during the disastrous Six-Day War of 1967.

During the discussions, the Libyan delegation sided with Saad El-Din El-Shazly, then chief-of-staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces and the mastermind behind the plan to cross Israel’s seemingly impregnable Bar Lev Line. Shazly and Sadat had become increasingly at odds, with the general wanting the fighting to continue and for Arab forces to go further into Israeli territory; Gaddafi agreed. Sadat, however, perhaps desperate to consolidate what gains had already been reaped from the war and wary of the ripples it was causing in Washington and Moscow, opposed the idea. Shazly quickly resigned during the talks, leaving the Libyans in a sticky situation.

“The Libyan position [during the discussions] was closer to Shazly’s. We sided with him . . . because he was a military man and therefore the one with the best understanding of the military situation on the ground,” Gaddaf Al-Dam says. “We were against stopping the war, and against the negotiations . . . [with Israel]. We thought that if there must be negotiations then they should be on enemy [Israeli] territory, and not Egypt’s.”

Shortly after the talks, Gaddaf Al-Dam says, “a vicious Egyptian media campaign” was launched against Libya. Then, after three years of relations becoming increasingly sour, things came to a head with an inevitable confrontation between Sadat, the veteran Egyptian soldier and statesman, and Gaddafi, the young upstart from Sirte (he was a mere 31 years old at the time).

The Egyptians, Gaddaf Al-Dam says, were convinced Gaddafi was planning a land invasion of Egypt and air strikes on the High Dam in Aswan. But Gaddaf Al-Dam says Libya had a different view.

“I believe there was a plan to move the Egyptian army from the east to the west [of the country] because the space was limited and the army began to pose a danger even to Cairo itself. So it was necessary to find an excuse to move it [the army] to the Western Desert [bordering Libya], and Egypt contrived this problem [as the excuse]; and that was the story here.”

At the time, many in Egypt were of the opinion that Gaddafi was moving his own troops to the Egyptian border to put pressure on Sadat not to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but Gaddaf Al-Dam believes it was Sadat who began the hostilities, and that the reports of the Libyan attacks were fabricated.

“A part of it [the dispute] could have been linked to the misleading information that was being passed on to president Sadat in order to destroy what remained of the Egyptian army by embroiling it in a war with Libya. I [think] the Americans and the West were giving false information saying Muammar [Gaddafi] was planning to destroy the High Dam and wanted to fight or invade Egypt, and the like.”

But Gaddaf Al-Dam insists Gaddafi had no such intentions, especially in light of his fondness for Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom Gaddafi idolized. “Muammar was a man of unity and an [Arab] patriot. He could never have attacked the army or the High Dam that were [both] built by Abdel Nasser.”

Once hostilities began, Gaddaf Al-Dam was in the middle of his military studies in Britain. He was quickly asked to return to Libya. “I immediately asked to be moved to Tobruk [where the Libyan army was stationed] because the whole thing for me was difficult to believe. The Egyptian army on the Libyan border? The truth was this was a shock for us even despite the tensions that had been building up.”

Once Gaddaf Al-Dam was at the border, he was able to see for himself that Egyptian forces had indeed been deployed, “some of them even inside Libyan territory.”

He immediately got on the phone to Sadat. “He [Sadat] was enraged. He believed that Libya and Muammar wanted to invade Egypt. We spoke to Sadat the first few times over the phone, and then a number of secret meetings were held with Egyptian intelligence officials,” he says.

Gaddaf Al-Dam credits Algerian president Houari Boumediene and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with helping calm the situation, by explaining things from the Libyan perspective. However, he said it was one critical meeting which he held with Sadat at his rural home in Meet Aboulkom in Egypt that proved to be the turning point that defused the crisis.

Gaddaf Al-Dam believes that despite the crisis and the harsh words each man later volleyed at the other (during one television interview, Gaddafi said Sadat was “insane”), Sadat, like Nasser before him, saw the younger Gaddafi as someone he could take under his wing.

“Muammar had great respect for Sadat and for his history of struggle; likewise Sadat used to say, ‘Muammar is like my son.’”

He continues: “I carried on visiting Sadat in his rural home [even after the crisis] . . . He used to say to me, ‘Gaddafi brought me this palm tree,’ ‘This tree was planted by Gaddafi,’ ‘Gaddafi is the one who taught me about green tea and [Libyan] soup.’”

Back at Sadat’s home, Gaddaf Al-Dam found Sadat to be cut from the same cloth as the Gaddafis. “He was a rural man and a revolutionary man at the same time,” Gaddaf Al-Dam says. “By that I mean there was a kind of common language between us despite the crisis.”

But Sadat also flew into intermittent rages at the beginning of the meeting, Gaddaf Al-Dam says. “He would say, ‘How could Muammar do this? He wants to invade Egyptian lands all the way up to Amriya [in Alexandria]!’”

Once Sadat had calmed down, Gaddaf Al-Dam began to expound the details of the US plan the Libyan intelligence services had allegedly uncovered, and which was the reason for what Libya deemed to be the false information passed on to Sadat regarding Gaddafi’s intentions to attack Egypt. According to Gaddaf Al-Dam, the plan was to “get Egypt to invade Libya from the east, and Tunisia to invade it from the west, with the US Navy stationed in the Mediterranean to fend off any [possible] Soviet attack.”

But Sadat was unconvinced by the theory. He began showing Gaddaf Al-Dam maps and satellite images (“which seemed American to me”) he believed supported the idea that Gaddafi was planning an attack—and his anger returned.

At this point Gaddaf Al-Dam told Sadat he was willing to accompany Egyptian troops to the areas on the maps and photographs where Libyan troops were supposed to be stationed, in order to show Sadat himself that the information he was receiving was entirely false.

“He [Sadat] began to calm down eventually after being very angry for a while. At this point, I said to him (and I think I surprised him here): ‘No Mr. President, it is you who has a plan against Libya,’ and then I began to expound to him the details of the US plan.”

But Sadat remained unconvinced, once again pointing to the positions on the maps and the satellite images. So, Gaddaf Al-Dam tried a different, if somewhat unorthodox strategy. “After much discussion, I said to him: ‘Look, I’ve actually come here without permission. So we either come to some sort of solution or you will have to reserve a place for me with you here in Egypt, because Gaddafi doesn’t know about this meeting and I didn’t take his permission, so I can’t return to him after this without obtaining a satisfying result here.’”

It was at this point, Gaddaf Al-Dam says, that Sadat began to change tack. The mood turned more jovial and Sadat ordered that dinner be served to the two men, including the soup whose recipe Gaddafi had taught him and which he loved so much.

After dining, Gaddaf Al-Dam says he turned to Sadat to say: “Mr. President, I came here to make sure you understood that we have no enmity toward you, while you have deployed forces on our border. At the very least, ask some of these forces to retreat from the border, to prove your good intentions. If you get no response from Libya within a week, you can return the forces [to the border] once again.”

By the time evening had come and both men were enjoying a cup of the green tea Gaddafi had introduced to Sadat, things had calmed and an understanding had been reached; it was at this point, Gaddaf Al-Dam says, that Sadat reneged. “He said, ‘OK, I will recall [the troops] for a period lasting a week.’”

Now that Sadat was calmer, Gaddaf Al-Dam recounted to him once again the evidence Libyan intelligence had gathered regarding the plan Libya was convinced the US had hatched to sow discord between the two neighbors and, more importantly, weaken the Egyptian army so that it was involved in a war in the west, leaving its eastern front with Israel exposed.

“The plan aimed to drag Egypt and Tunisia into a war with Libya, with American and French backing, to bring down the regime in Libya at a time when most of our troops were fighting in Chad . . . French troops would enter Tripoli from Tunisia on the pretext that Libya wanted to invade Tunisia . . . Egypt would enter the country from the west to take over Benghazi, and then the [US Navy’s] Sixth and Seventh Fleets would close off our shores from the north in case the Soviet Union came to the rescue of the Libyan forces.”

Once he had secured Sadat’s word, Gaddaf Al-Dam returned to Libya, where he now had to face Gaddafi. “I told him, ‘I went to visit Sadat.’ Of course he was surprised and asked me why I didn’t obtain his permission. I told him he would not have let me go otherwise and would have said Sadat was in league with the Americans.”

Gaddaf Al-Dam then told Gaddafi what had happened in Meet Aboulkom, but he was convinced Sadat had duped Gaddaf Al-Dam, “perhaps on account of how young I was.”

Just when Gaddaf Al-Dam had become despondent that all his efforts had gone to waste, Gaddafi’s personal secretary entered carrying files of papers which he handed to the Libyan leader. Gaddaf Al-Dam got up to leave the room in order to leave his cousin alone to go over the papers, at which point Gaddafi stopped him at the door and asked him to come back. “It seems your friend is right,” he said. The papers said that Sadat had indeed pulled his troops back from the Libyan border, as Gaddaf Al-Dam had suggested.

Shortly after, Gaddaf Al-Dam says, Sadat withdrew the rest of his troops, and talks continued between the two countries, with armed forces and intelligence officials meeting a number of times and Gaddaf Al-Dam returning to Meet Aboulkom to visit his friend Sadat for more soup and green tea.

The second installment of the Gaddaf Al-Dam Files will be published soon.