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Gaddafi… A Chess player - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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We don’t know much about Colonel Gaddafi’s chess skills, but it is unlikely that his skills would be at a level to compete with the President of the World Chess Federation [FIDE], Russian Kirsan IIyumzhinov, who is one of the rare [international] figures to have visited under-siege Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi during this current period.

Gaddafi welcomed the FIDE president and appeared on [Libyan] television playing a game of chess with his Russian guest, moving his chess pieces with enthusiasm and concentration. This news report also featured the Libyan leader’s eldest son, Mohammed Gaddafi, standing in shot, whilst a television broadcasting recent footage of the Libyan leader could be seen in the corner of the room, confirming Gaddafi’s good health and the reliability of this news story.

The news report failed to tell us who won this chess game, the Russian expert or Colonel Gaddafi, whose skill and ability in this intellectual game that is based upon the art of politics and war are unknown to us.

Chess – like the sciences and arts – can be used as a yardstick of a nation’s progress. Chess first came to prominence in the ancient world, before spreading to Europe and the Americas. Chess most likely originated in ancient India, although there are other accounts that suggest that early precursors to this game were played in ancient Egypt, China and Persia.

One of the most circulated accounts regarding the origin of chess is that this game originated in India – although as mentioned above others claim Persia – around the 6th century AD. The important thing is that this was a game that emerged in the East, before being exported to the rest of the world. It rose to international fame after being introduced into Europe, being recognized as a mentally challenging and stimulating game. This is a game based upon mental and intellectual combat that has nothing to do with strength or force.

This is a game based upon utilizing the tools at your disposal to overcome your opponent, by slowly but surely capturing his pieces, until you ultimately triumph by taking out his main force, namely the King, thereby decisively and conclusively ending the game. Chess is a game that is governed by its own internal logic and regulations which are observed by both players. Moreover, several other things can be taken into account including the element of time. A game of chess can be played with a timer or stop-watch, with both players playing according to the clock. When it is the player’s turn to move, time is registered, whilst this countdown is suspended after the player has made his move. This is how the game’s duration is calculated, with the player who runs out of time without making a move being penalized.

We don’t know much about Colonel Gaddafi’s chess skills, or indeed his time management abilities; however it seems that the Libyan leader has decided to send a message to the world and to his rivals, whether this is the rebel National Transitional Council [NTC] that has established its own fiefdom in eastern Libya, or the Western NATO forces, or the Arab parties that have allied against him. The gist of this message is that he is still in control of his chess pieces and still capable of changing the scene across the chessboard, maybe even turning the tables on his rivals, or at least making their mission more difficult.

The symbolic message of this news item and the photos [of Gaddafi playing chess] is clear. As we all know, Gaddafi is fond of history, symbolism, and reading in between the lines.

In any case, the game is not over yet in Libya, and we have no clue how it is going to end. However, all those in the war camp opposing Gaddafi continue to affirm that the Libyan regime is nearing its end-game and that Gaddafi’s time is running out.

We have learned not to rely on promises and hopes from what happened in Iraq during the years of embargo, as well as what has happened in Somalia, which has been labouring amidst chaos, armed conflict, and radical and non-radical militias. Perhaps Libya is heading for a Somalia-like chaos, an Iraqi-like paralysis or a Lebanese-like state of “not war” but not peace and an intensification of sectarianism. Is Libya heading for a complete division between its east and west? The future remains uncertain and this is what prompted Gaddafi to send this symbolic message to the word: the game is not over yet!

The same could be said about the complicated Yemeni chessboard. The president and the pillars of his regime were shelled, and he – along with some of his comrades – suffered grievous injuries. At this current time, the Yemeni president is hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, but his regime, represented by his vice president, is still going strong, whilst the opposition continue to chant anti-regime slogans although with less enthusiasm than previously amidst the current sense of confusion and bewilderment about how to deal with this “difficult” president who has mastered the art of taming the venomous and non-venomous Yemeni snakes. Even whilst he is lying down in his hospital bed, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to constitute the most difficult problem in the Yemeni chess game. We cannot attribute this to any special or exceptional powers that he wields, although he does excel at political manoeuvring and so perhaps it can be said that Saleh is far more adept at this game of chess than Gaddafi. This is something that can be traced to the Yemeni president’s position from a constitutional perspective, as well as what the figure of Ali Abdullah Saleh represents to Yemen in terms of his military, tribal and political relationships, as well as his personal investments in religious and tribal figures. This “Salehite” power remains effective and unbroken even after Saleh has left the country and is recovering from his injuries in a hospital bed in Jeddah.

There has yet to be any “checkmate”, either in Yemen or Libya, even though the regimes in both countries have lost their major pieces, with their rooks, knights, and bishops being captured and removed from the board. However the game is not over until the King has been checkmated, and so long as those in power can still move and operate effectively. In other words, the game is not over until the ruling regime is out of moves.

We must also not forget the story of Abd al-Rahman I [founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba], who was also known as “al-Dakhil” [the Immigrant] and Saqr Quraish [the Falcon of the Quraish tribe]. Following the Abbadis revolution, Abd al-Rahman I fled Damascus, living in exile abroad for many years, before establishing the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba, rebuilding the glory of the Umayyad dynasty in a previously unconquered region of the world, namely Andalusia.

Don’t say that you have killed the wolf until you put your ear to its chest and do not hear its heartbeat, only then can you safely put your head in its jaws!

The game is far more complex than many believe, particularly those who only see a struggle between supporters and enemies of freedom. This is not just a conflict between those who support justice and equality and those who are against this. Indeed, a huge part of this revolutionary enthusiasm can be traced to a strong desire to topple the oppressive regime in Libya and the scheming regime in Yemen. However this is not the whole story. There are many parties, among those fighting the regimes, who are seeking to replace them and seize power. This is something that they are attempting to do explicitly, attempting to capitalize on these exceptional circumstances in the Arab world which might never be seen again. These parties are attempting to come to power during this current period of time which has seen huge changes taking place in our region.

This is not to mention the issue of oil, and the position of the international community [regarding what is happening in our region], to name but a few variables.

Therefore this game is far more complicated than some Westerners might think. It is not just motivating people to revolt for freedom. The “Hollywood” interpretation of what is happening might be that the entire region has woken up to demand freedom, but the truth is that freedom is an ancient human demand…but the form that this freedom takes, as well as its interpretation, manifestation, and indeed limits, differ from one culture to the next. More importantly, the issue of preserving our identity (whether this is our religious, national, or pan-national identity) may take precedence over freedom in the eyes of the people of the East, especially the Muslims. The majority of these people might even sacrifice a considerable measure of freedom for the sake of preserving their identity and protecting this against “foreign” circumvention. This is something that is beginning to be revealed by the outbreak of strong religion rhetoric in post-Mubarak Egypt, which is reminiscent of the situation in Iraq following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. .

The game is not over yet, and this is the most difficult and challenging – and perhaps the longest – chess game our region has ever witnessed!

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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