Former State Minister Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed recently joined a chorus of world leaders denouncing Libyan strongman Muammar-al-Gaddafi, calling him a “wicked, cruel” man.
“Wicked” and “cruel” might not be entirely out of place to describe the eccentric colonel who has ruled Libya with an iron fist for four decades, and virtually given his loyalists a free license to hunt down pro-democratic protestors, even as Human Rights groups pegged the current death toll at over 2000.
In his first interview on State-run television after the uprising began earlier this month, Gaddafi appeared wearing a hat with ear-flaps, holding an umbrella in the rain, leaning outside a vehicle resembling an armoured Tuk-Tuk outside the bombed ruins of his residence.
Thus, in a world that has seen colourful dictators ranging from Idi Amin to Kim Jong-Il, Gaddafi has steadfastly managed to hold his own, and occasionally push the envelope even further.
Addressing a loyal crowd gathered at the Green Square in Tripoli on Friday, he alleged that the revolts were sparked by youth under the influence of mind-altering pills mixed into milk and Nescafe by al-Qaeda. Fantastic claims like these have led to even traditionally timid, conservative media to label the ageing dictator outright insane.
Analysts reject any role of the al-Qaeda in the ongoing Middle Eastern democratic revolutions that has toppled long-reigning dictators in two of Libya’s immediate neighbours, and ended a two decade emergency in another.
According to Al-Jazeera, several international Libyan diplomats and military commanders have abandoned Gaddafi. On Friday, the Libyan ambassador to the US, Ali Aujali, who resigned earlier this month, hoisted the pre-Gaddafi era national flag at the Libyan Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Having already lost control of the Eastern half of his country, Gaddafi sought in vain to employ the nexus between the state and the mosque to deter protestors on Friday.
In a sermon aired on national television, the speaker was quoted as preaching “As the prophet said, if you dislike your ruler or his behaviour, you should not raise your sword against him, but be patient, for those who disobey the rulers will die as infidels.”
Ironically, Muammar al-Gaddafi himself came to power in a coup against Libyan King Idris in 1969, as a dashing, popular 27 year-old colonel.
As a teenager, he was strongly influenced by the fiery Arab Nationalist rhetoric of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and was once expelled from school for organizing a pro-Nasser student protest.
Inspired by Chinese Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book’, Gaddafi also penned a three volume ‘Green Book’, with the subtitle ‘The Solution to the Problem of Democracy’, in which he outlined his philosophy of ‘Islamic Socialism’. The book was also reportedly distributed in the Maldives by former Maldivian President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
In his book, Gaddafi notes that in an ideal state, the government disappears to pave way for the rule of the people. But 40 years later, Libyans are finding it tough to convince their leader to follow his own advice.
King of Kings
Analysts have struggled to understand the unpredictable, erratic and bizarre ways of Gaddafi.
During his 42 years in power, Gaddafi has never been the President or a party leader. The title he holds is “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Revolution.”
He has reportedly accumulated a massive fortune of 60 billion dollars over the years, and exhibits a taste for flamboyant, flowing robes and aviator sunglasses.
Gaddafi’s eccentric nature made global headlines during a 2007 visit to France, when he arrived with an entourage of over 400 staff, a fleet of armoured limos, a giant heated tent, and a camel. His 40 member security detail, often called the ‘Amazonian guard’, consists of han-dpicked voluptuous virgins trained in body combat, who all sport lipstick, eye-liner and sometimes high-heels, and are trained killers who never leave his side day or night. Despite the public claims of chastity, several reports state that they frequently provide sexual favours.
In a conservative region where women are traditionally restricted, Gaddafi hails his sharply dressed female security team as a sign of women’s empowerment.
Gaddafi has also never shied away from provoking controversy or antagonizing world leaders, leading the former US President Ronald Reagan to label him the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East’.
In what has been variously been described as choreographed buffoonery or downright megalomania, he stormed out of a 2009 Arab Summit in Doha after asserting himself as “the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa, and the Imam of all Muslims”.
In fact, a year earlier, Gaddafi did indeed proclaim himself the ‘King of Kings of Africa’, during a ceremony attended by over 200 traditional African kings and tribal leaders.
John Simpson of the BBC recounts an unforgettable interview with Gaddafi, where the Libyan leader repeatedly broke wind loudly throughout the conversation.
Gaddafi’s foreign policy is as odd, whimsical and mercurial as his personality.
Time Magazine reported that following the arrest of Gaddafi’s son, Hannibal, in Geneva for allegedly beating up two servants, he cancelled commercial flights between the two countries, withdrew $5 billion from Swiss Bank accounts and shut down local offices of Swiss companies Nestlé and ABB.
Gaddafi even submitted a proposal to the UN to abolish Switzerland and divide it up along linguistic lines, awarding the parts to Germany, France and Italy.
At various points during his reign, he expelled up to 25,000 Italians and 30,000 Palestinians from Libya, and closed down US and British military bases.
He has also converted a Catholic cathedral in Tripoli into a mosque named after Nasser.
In 1975, Nasser’s successor in Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat, called Gaddafi “100 percent sick and possessed by the devil”.
In a meandering, long-winded address to the UN General Assembly in 2009, described by some Arab diplomats as ‘vintage Gaddafi’, he offered to move the UN headquarters to Tripoli, demanded an inquiry into the assassination of John F Kennedy, suggested that Swine Flu was a Western conspiracy, and reiterated an earlier demand for Israel and Palestine to be united into a single state called ‘Isratine’.
In one frenzied moment, Gaddafi tore up a copy of the UN Charter, refuted its legitimacy – and referred to the UN Security Council as a ‘terror council’.
Gaddafi’s own translator reportedly collapsed from exhaustion towards the end of his speech, which is the third longest speech in UN history – but still modest in comparison to Indian ambassador Krishna Menon’s eight-hour marathon address in 1957, whose official transcript runs into 160 pages.
During an August 2010 visit to Italy, he upset his hosts by declaring that “Islam should become the religion of all of Europe”, and gave each member of his hired audience a copy of the Qur’an.
Gaddafi loathes Islamic fundamentalists. Nearly 50 religious seminaries were reportedly shut down in the late 1980s. His harsh crackdown on radical Islam forced the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in Libya to go into exile.
Nevertheless, in the past, Gaddafi has reportedly financed numerous militant groups, including Black September, which behind the attacks on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics.
In 2003, Libya formally accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland, which killed all 270 people on board.
In a volte-face during the last decade, however, Gaddafi started making amendments with the West, even opening up his weapons facilities for foreign inspectors to dismantle.
In the wake of the popular revolutions, however, the West appears to have decided it is time for Gaddafi to go.
The UN Human Rights Council has unanimously suspended Libya’s membership. The US has imposed sanctions, the Swiss have frozen his assets, and France has begun investigations in the Gaddafis’ finances.
Former Libyan Justice Minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abud al-Jeleil, reportedly said that he believes Gaddafi would ultimately choose to commit suicide like the vanquished Hitler, than surrender power gracefully.
Indeed, this week, Gaddafi has defiantly vowed to arm his supporters to ‘cleanse’ Libya– a move that Angela Merkel of Germany has equated to a declaration of war against Libyan people, signalling more bloodshed.
But as former ally Hosni Mobarak could tell him, declaring war upon one’s own people is often a futile exercise.