The colonel’s last stand

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, by Lindsey Hilsum, Faber RRP£17.99, 304 pages

Colonel Gadaffi’s Hat, by Alex Crawford, Collins RRP£14.99, 304 pages

Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, by Alison Pargeter, Yale RRP£20, 304 pages

As Libyan rebels tried desperately to hold off Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s forces in March last year in the town of Zawiya, 50km west of Tripoli, one opposition supporter had a simple question for the Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford: “How can we do this on our own?”

Within two weeks, his rhetorical plea – quoted in Crawford’s book, Colonel Gaddafi’s Hat – was moot. Following a UN Security Council resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, Nato warplanes had begun a bombardment of Gaddafi’s forces that over the next six months would chip away at the regime until a path was clear for the rebels to take Tripoli.

I and other journalists saw the extraordinary bravery of many Libyans opposed to the colonel, from the long-persecuted Amazigh, or Berber, people battling out from their western mountain redoubt, to the Tripoli dissidents who tried to protest even as pick-ups packed with soldiers roamed the streets. But in the end they did need outside help in unseating an adversary who proved much more resilient than the leaders toppled in a matter of weeks in Libya’s neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.

As Alison Pargeter, an analyst at Menas Associates, a political risk consultancy, puts it in Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi: “Had Nato not entered the conflict when it did, it is likely that the rebel forces would not have been able to dislodge Qaddafi from the west of the country and would not have prevented him from retaking the east.”

At the time of Nato’s action, there was much talk about how the international intervention in Libya – dominated by the west and Qatar – had reinvigorated the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and showed that the world would no longer stand back while a dictator murdered people. Yet barely six months after Gaddafi was extracted from his drainpipe hidey-hole outside his home town of Sirte and killed with the summary ruthlessness his regime had practised over the previous four decades, the Libyan war looks more an outlier than the start of a trend. Security forces in Syria and Bahrain continue long-running crackdowns with few checks.

In death, as in life, the Libyan colonel who styled himself the Brother Leader or Guide remains an exceptional figure, one who illuminated with disturbing clarity both the dark heart of tyranny and the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of an international realpolitik that sustained him until finally turning on him with lethal force.

The recently published books on Libya by Crawford, Pargeter and, most notably, Lindsey Hilsum, international editor at Channel 4 News, all approach from different angles a war that surprised almost everyone because of the supposed tightness of Gaddafi’s grip on his nation. Pargeter mainly tells the back story of how a man who in 1969 led a revolution against a sclerotic monarchy eventually claimed the title of world’s longest-ruling dictator. Crawford’s book is more personal, and focuses on the great scoops of her journeys to Zawiya and to Tripoli’s Green Square for the moment, in late August, that showed the regime was finally collapsing. Both books are enjoyable but have mirror-image virtues and flaws as accounts of the Libyan war: Crawford’s is high on drama but light on context, while Pargeter’s is rich in historical detail but cursory and distant in its description of the conflict itself.

Hilsum’s Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution is a passionate but measured account of why the battle for Libya happened, how it played out and what may be yet to come. By hanging the distressing but often inspiring stories of a group of Libyans around the central figure of the colonel, she gives a rounded and readable snapshot of extraordinary change in a closed country that few international journalists could claim to have known well before last year’s events. If the colonel himself still remains a mysterious and elusive figure at the end of it all, then that seems appropriate for a regime whose deepest secrets seem to be dying with it, whether through Gaddafi’s violent end or the drowning in the River Danube last month of Shokri Ghanem, a former premier and oil minister.

With their reminders of the sustained terror unleashed by a man whose regime used public executions to suppress dissent and fired on protesters from the start of the uprisings, all three books are a partial riposte to two arguments now circulating amid the post-Gaddafi chaos of uncontrolled militias, revenge killings and regional rivalries. One is that Libya is now in a worse state than it was before, riven by internal tensions that are a legacy of imperial occupation and are tearing it apart now the effective – if suffocating – cement applied by the colonel has gone.

The other is that the Nato intervention was a cynical effort to hijack the discontent felt by a significant but not necessarily overwhelming number of Libyans, and use it to install a regime favoured by the west. In an essay in the London Review of Books in November, provocatively entitled “Who said Gaddafi had to go?”, Hugh Roberts, now a professor at Tufts University in the US, asked bluntly: “What if anything has Libya got in exchange for all the death and destruction that have been visited on it over the past seven and a half months?”

Such critiques – while a valuable counterweight to conventional thinking – risk playing down the suffering of large numbers of Libyans during the Gaddafi years. One crucially important group, whose actions drove the calls for Gaddafi to go, were the families of an estimated 1,200 prisoners killed at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison in 1996. Perhaps the greatest single outrage of the colonel’s rule became, poetically, the genesis of his undoing. More than 15 years after the massacre, the Abu Salim families were protesting because they were still trying to find out exactly what happened that dark day. Prisoners, a group of whom had rebelled against their treatment, were taken to the jail yard and then gunned down. The slaughter was suppressed by the regime and the story only emerged – and even then only fragmentarily – in the years that followed, as surviving prisoners who had witnessed it were released and started to tell what they had seen.

Hilsum starts her book with a haunting story told by a man named Fouad Assad Ben Omran, who used to go every two months with his sister in law and her children to take food and clothes to his brother-in-law at the jail. They waited a day or two at the gate before being told that, although the prisoner was there, they weren’t allowed to see him. Then, one day, after 14 years of visits, they were told he was dead. “A massacre is somehow an imaginable horror,” Hilsum writes. “But 14 years of false hope, the deliberate not-telling ... seemed to me cruelty of an altogether different order.”

Protests in February last year by the Abu Salim families in the eastern second city of Benghazi, home of the monarchy the colonel overthrew and long a centre of opposition to him, were met by a violent crackdown by the authorities. It triggered a chain of events that, within days, led to an uprising across the east and in western areas such as Zawiya, the coastal third city of Misurata and the Nafusa mountains. Hilsum, in particular, works hard to reflect the plurality of an opposition that ranged from Islamists to returnee British-based doctors, although – as with so much western reporting of the Arab revolts – it still feels at times as if the cosmopolitan and internationalist voices are disproportionately strong.

Once the tinder-box of revolt had been sparked in Benghazi, Gaddafi was confounded by a combination of circumstances that left him perhaps uniquely vulnerable among Arab world dictators trying to contain uprisings. Unlike Syria, his country was thinly populated enough, the battle-lines clear enough and the terrain straightforward enough – scattered urban centres separated by large tracts of desert – for international powers to consider an air campaign feasible. He had few friends in the Arab world, for reasons ranging from his regional swagger to his alleged involvement in an assassination plot against the now King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The colonel’s years of financing terrorist and rebel groups around the world – “Libya was always going to be too small for Qaddafi”, as Pargeter writes – had also made him plenty of enemies elsewhere. Western capitals, reconciled with him for a few years during which he forsook weapons of mass destruction, helped stifle Islamist groups and offered attractive oil deals, could live without him as a long-term ally. If one or more of those factors had been more favourable to him, Gaddafi might be sitting tight in Tripoli now, shrugging off international condemnation of his latest brutally effective crackdown on dissent.

Even with these foes ranged against him, Gaddafi might still have saved himself if he had kept his mouth shut, or at least had less of a facility for chilling rhetoric. Less than a week after the uprising started, he made an infamous speech in which he branded his opponents “drug addicts, jihadis and rats” and threatened to “cleanse Libya inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway, person by person, until the country is cleansed of dirt and scum”. Hilsum suggests his “fate was sealed” by this address, which was known as the zenga zenga speech (zenga is Arabic for alleyway), and was mockingly mashed up into a hit hip-hop track by Noy Alooshe, an Israeli musician. Hilsum quotes Alistair Burt, Britain’s Middle East minister, as saying that Gaddafi’s words revived the “folk memory” of the international failure to stop previous slaughters in Rwanda and Srebrenica and “made us act”.

In Tripoli during the war, regime figures would sometimes sound bewildered at the sharp turn of international political sentiment against them. One complained that Gaddafi used to get a Christmas card from Queen Elizabeth II. For all their grotesque self-pity and their refusal to take responsibility for their actions – one former Libyan diplomat even denied the Brother Leader had made the zenga zenga speech – their reaction hinted at the double standard in the international rapprochement that prolonged the regime’s life and led to western powers sending Gaddafi opponents suspected of involvement with terrorist groups back to Tripoli and near-certain torture. There was also an important debate to be had about whether Nato had stepped beyond its mandate to protect civilians, and about the deaths and damage the air strikes were causing – though the regime’s lies and clumsy propaganda tours meant these questions were posed less often and potently than they might otherwise have been.

Even with Nato’s air cover, it was a bloody struggle for the rebels, with thousands of casualties in Misurata alone. While we will never know exactly how Libyans stacked up for and against Gaddafi before – and indeed after – the revolt, it never seemed too hard to find dissent in Tripoli, where the rebels’ arrival was preceded by a series of carefully planned local uprisings. Crawford describes her amazement as her convoy drives to the heart of the city without resistance, with even her own editors in London finding it difficult to credit until they had seen the pictures themselves.

Looking to the future, all three authors touch on the brutalisation of society by the Gaddafi years and war, reflected most horribly in the reprisal killings of black Africans accused of being regime mercenaries and in the pulverising of loyalist towns such as Sirte. Hisham Alwindi – the young man who takes the hat of Crawford’s title from the colonel’s bedroom in his sacked Tripoli compound – notes that there is a lot of “corruption and Gaddafi-ism” around despite the regime’s fall. Hilsum raises the sensitive question of why Libyans “submitted to a whimsical despot for so long”. Now both the Guide and Nato are gone, those are demons the people he dominated for 42 years will have to conquer on their own.

Michael Peel is the FT’s Middle East correspondent

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