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Libya: The colonel’s make-believe land | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ask anyone to name the weirdest regime in the world and you are sure to hear: North Korea. If you think harder you might find another even weirder regime: Libya.

It is one of only three out of 190 members of the United Nations not to have a constitution. (The other two are Israel and North Korea.)

“We want to develop our own model of government,” Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi told me in an interview in 1975 during the Islamic Summit in Lahore, Pakistan. “Libya will become an example for the world.”

More than three decades later, and as the revolt spreads to virtually all parts of Libya, one might wonder how successful the colonel has been.

He has fathered a strange beast called The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah, gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest name of any country in history.

He has also become the first author in history to build statues of his “Green Book all over the country. Even Mao Zedong did not have the temerity to push his “Little Red Book” so hard.

One thing is certain: in many ways, the colonel has succeeded in outclassing North Korea. Libya has not become an example for the world, but it has become a warning.

North Korea has a designated head of state. Libya does not have one. The colonel is the “Supreme Guide”, a personage with unclear, and thus unlimited, powers and no responsibility.

Unlike North Korea, Libya does not have a clearly defined government, although we one sees individuals going around acting as if they were ministers and governors.

In the past few days, we have seen Gaddafi, with his sons in tandem, casting themselves in ”as/if” official roles, trying to quell the nationwide uprising, often with the help of mercenaries from Black Africa.

Under Gaddafi, Libya as a whole became an “as/if” society.

There, everything resembles what it is supposed to be but is not it.

In a sense, there is no Libyan state. What we have is a metaphor posing as a state which itself is a metaphor.

Gaddafi’s project was the destruction of the Libyan state, and today it is clear that he has succeeded. Forty-two years later, with dead bodies strewn on the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi, Al-Bayda and Tobruk, we are back to tribal politics.

The spectacle of the ‘Supreme Guide’ acting as a desperado in a B movie is both comical and pathetic.

North Korea has an army that, despite its obvious shortcomings, has been tested in battle.

Many people think that Libya is ruled by the military. The truth, however, is that Libya does not have an army.

Sure, there are individuals in uniforms who take part in parades and show an array of weaponry bought from abroad. All that however belongs to the realm of make-believe. Frightened of his own army, Gaddafi has made sure that Libya’s military units never have enough bullets to attempt a coup against him.

On paper, Libya’s arsenal of weapons appears impressive.

Over the past four decades, the colonel has bought some 2000 fighter planes from France and the former Soviet Union. Most of those, however, are in a state of decomposition without having been used in a war. The few that could still fly are either felling to Malta or used by the colonel to bomb his own people in the streets of Tripoli.

The colonel has also bought a whole navy, again bequeathing it to rust.

For his ground forces, the colonel has bought thousands of tanks.

On paper, in our region only Saddam Hussein had more tanks. What Libya has today is a mountain of scrap metal.

The colonel spent more than $2 billion trying to snatch the Ouzou band from neighbouring Chad, but failed.

This does not mean that Libyan soldiers and officers were worse than the Chadians. Libya failed because the colonel constantly purged the army of competent officers while imposing on it the childish strategic doctrine he fantasised about.

The Libyan economy is also “as/if”.

Theoretically, Libya should be one of the richest nations.

According to World Bank estimates, since he came to power in 1969, the colonel has had something like a trillion dollars to play with, for an average population of less than three million. (Over the past 42 years , Libya’s population has doubled to around 6.5 million, including 1.5 million foreigners.)

And, yet, as far as income per head per capita is concerned, in 2010 Libya was ranked 83rd in the world. In 1984, Libyan income per head per annum was $8500, the same as the United Kingdom. In 2008, the figure for Libya was around $12,000 while that of the UK was just under $40,000.

Since 1984, Libya’s “as/if” economy has been either shrinking or stagnating most of the time. In better years, such as 2007, growth did not exceed three per cent.

Last year, the Libyan economy shrunk by one per cent.

Visiting Malta with a Libyan friend we were shocked to see Libyans begging in the streets of Valetta.

Each month, the Italian naval police pick up dozens of Libyan clandestines trying to enter Europe in search of a better future.

For the past decade at least, unemployment in Libya has been around 30 per cent. Unemployment rate for people aged between 16 and 25 stands at 50 per cent.

The colonel fancies himself as a Renaissance man, someone who could be soldier, poet, philosopher, engineer, novelist and politician at the same time. Today, he is adding a new persona to that impressive list: an Arab version of Billy the Kid engaged in a final shootout.

Gaddafi even insisted on writing the script for a television series he had financed about a legendary Libyan rebel.

He would pay those who flattered his fantasies generously.

The late American TV reporter Pierre Salinger received $100,000 for writing a short preface to the colonel’s unreadable short stories.

The Italians, who appear to be good in such things, persuaded the colonel to spend $1 billion developing a racing car that he had supposedly designed. The car was never made but some Italians left Libya richer than before.

Practising chequebook diplomacy, the colonel had two-dozen African dictators on his payroll. His ambition was to become President of the African Union, an “as/if” parody of the European Union.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the colonel emerged as the paymaster of numerous terror gangs across the globe.

Even in that he was original. When it suited him, he handed the secrets of those he had financed to their enemies. On some occasions, as was the case of Moussa Sadr, an Iranian mullah who had emerged as leader of the Lebanese Shi’ites, the beneficiaries of the colonel’s largesse would disappear in Libya’s ocean of sand.

In 1999, I met Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s favourite son for an interview in London.

He told me exactly what his father had told me 24 years earlier: “We are going to write a constitution”!

Twelve years later, last Sunday night, as Tripoli had become a battle zone, the “favourite son” repeated the same promise on Libyan television.

The colonel came to power when coups d’etat were in season in the Arab world. As the past two months have shown the season has changed. Today, Libya appears out of sync with the times.

As I was writing this column, a British editor phoned to ask whether I thought Gaddafi would still be in charge next week.

I answered with a question: Was he ever in charge in the first place or was he, too, the victim of fantasies he projected into a trompe l’oeil called the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiryah?