I have now had the opportunity to watch two performances by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. The first was his stunning speech 2 days ago, the ferocious ranting and raving 75-minute spectacle that ended with the chilling threat to launch a sacred march, with the millions he leads in Africa, Latin America and even Europe, against the rebellious Libyans! He threatened to to cleanse Libya “house to house”, “individual by individual”!
Earlier today I was thinking about that threat and decided he did not have the force to do it. Whatever forces Gaddafi has left under his command will stay put in Tripoli to defend his otherworldly home/headquarters, the Bab al-Aziziyya barracks, and smash whatever civilian unrest that materializes in the Libyan capital. He will seek to destabilize the regions that have shaken off his grip, even terrorize them. But he will not win. He has already lost.
Going back to the speech 2 days ago, I was reminded of Bruno Ganz' portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, the powerful story of the German dictator's last hours. Then today I watched/listened to Gaddafi's bizarre phone call to Libyan TV, almost pleading with the residents of Zawya, beseeching them to get their kids off the streets, to stop the rebellion. Once again he said that if the men are afraid to go out and get the young men off the streets then the “women and girls” should go and do it! Apparently everyone in opposition to the colonel's will is on “hallucinogenic pills”. He did go on to tell us a couple of days ago that these pills are “bad for the heart”. I never cease to find these nuggets of wisdom funny.
I pity the Libyan TV presenter who had to sit poker-face and almost motionless on camera throughout Gaddafi's ramble today. I am certain that presenter would have wet himself right there if the call of nature was overwhelming.
Sadly, Muammar's show is not funny, it's not a black comedy. It is a tragic manifestation of how unchecked power unleashes the terrors of madness. This was brought home when I saw the footage of about 19 bodies, hands tied behind their backs and shot execution-style. I could tell they had been executed from the pooling of blood around the heads. It must take some very brave men to commit such a cowardly act.
What an unfortunate episode in the history of the Arab world these past decades have been. These are criminal regimes, in every sense of the word.
So Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has spent the better part of these decades hunting down “stray dogs”, shooting dead his opponents across the globe, kidnapping, torturing and murdering and making Libya a bizarre spectacle is now a concerned guardian appealing to those in his custody. And that's where Libya and the Libyans have been all this time: in his custody.
Problem is Gaddafi actually believes what he said. Unlike Mubarak he was not pressured or manipulated by his son Gamal and the closed circle surrounding him. Nor does he resemble Tunisia's Ben Ali whose wife Laila apparently wielded tremendous influence over him.
Gaddafi has lived in a bubble for the past 41 and a half years, closing his country to the rest of the world, banning the teaching and learning of foreign languages and placing Libya in virtual time warp. He changed the names of months to suit his whims and interpretations, made his country's flag into a plain piece of green cloth, went against the traditions of the whole Islamic world and scrapped the traditional Islamic calendar and dictated that it should mark the death of the Prophet Muhammad, not his flight from Mecca to Medina, Hijra. It's called the Hijri calendar for a reason!
Like Mubarak before him, threatening chaos if the leader departs is both an insult and indictment. It's an insult to the millions of citizens to say they would be lost without the dear leader. And it's an indictment of these leaders because it's tantamount to an admission that no state institutions were built over all these years.
In 1990 American journalist Charles Glass published his book Tribes with Flags in which he described the majority of Arab countries as being just that, groups of tribes that raised a national flag. I regret to admit that he was correct in his assumption back then and that title holds true today. So many countries are basically a fiefdom, the citizens no more than serfs with a powerful overlord presiding over the whole miserable lot.
I suppose this is best illustrated by the pro-Gaddafi rabble I watch on Libyan TV these days, chanting Allah, Muammar, Libya wa bass (Only God, Muammar and Libya).
It is what I call the Colonel's Unholy Trinity, where the Brother Leader of the Revolution is second only to God and comes before the country.
It is a sordid chapter in the history of the Arabs whose end I sincerely hope is being written by the unfolding events across the region.
I cannot say I am confident that what follows today's news will be a better, brighter future. But if it affords us the opportunity to confront the transgressions of this shameful period, with all its brutality, hypocrisy and lies then I gladly accept it.
I do not have family members who are engaged in a selfless and brave struggle to win back their freedom and that of their societies. I bow with the utmost respect to those out in the streets facing overwhelming odds, to those who have paid the ultimate price. But I will not preach and call on the people of Libya, or whichever Arab society is next in its bid for dignity, to shed the blood of sacrifice. I think we have enough analysts and members of the opposition in exile who are doing this now. Some, I am certain, are pure and well-intentioned, while others are obviously jockeying for political position in the post-Gaddafi period.
The people know what they have to do and they're doing it. But no one, no leader or group, has the right to fight by proxy and shed the people's blood while living in grandeur and safety and the people wallow in misery.
What I hope we can get out of this juncture in our history is a sense of real belonging to our countries, creating a sense of civic duty and responsibility, building the institutions that are sorely lacking in all Arab societies, not the soulless shells equipped with computers, or 19th Century ledgers in some cases, that we still contend with.
It is time to tell the truth; to say it to ourselves, our families and our societies.
The cult of the leader has brought woes upon us. Awaiting the savior, the hero, the latter-day Saladin (a Kurd) who will liberate Jerusalem and regain for the Arabs their long-lost dignity, this false promise, this unrealizable fantasy must come to an end.
Our dreams must be firmly rooted in reality, our plans concrete, our societies unafraid to express opposition to whatever it is they deem unjust. But this justice cannot be a one-way street. It has to encompass everyone in our societies, all the minorities no matter what their religion, sex, race, creed or orientation.
This is not achievable overnight, but we need to start and I'm hoping that the process has already begun.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.