August 03, 2020
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Tripoli Diary

At a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Prince Abdullah (now King of Saudi Arabia) screamed across the table, pointing at Gaddafi: “Kalb”, which means “dog”.

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Tripoli Diary

Cowboy, Femme Fatale

The first meeting with Muammar Gaddafi was the most dramatic. It was exactly a week after President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of the city on April 15, 1986. In a sense, the Anglo-French enthusiasm for Gaddafi’s elimination we saw now completes the circle begun with Reagan’s air attacks. Remember, the Reagan-Maggie Thatcher combine had taken upon themselves the daunting task of reversing the process of western decline after the US defeat in Vietnam, the emergence of Communist governments in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Nicaragua and powerful Communist parties in Italy, France and Spain. The attack on Libya was part of Reagan’s counter-offensive, climaxing in the Star Wars project that led to the Soviet implosion. This, alas, was followed by the ‘neo cons’ overreaching, leading to the present trauma of rampaging capitalism. The Anglo-French rush into Libya was (partly) to keep the wolf from Europe’s door.

Yes, that memorable first meeting. Past midnight, I found myself being driven to Bab-el-Azizia, the fort-like compound where Gaddafi lived. Foreign minister Kamel Maqhour greeted me at the gate. Then, past a series of rectangular spaces to a dimly lit room with low ceiling, like a spruced-up army camp. Behind a rectangular table, in air force overalls, a black embroidered gown draped over his shoulders and flanked by gorgeous, well-chiselled women bodyguards (one ebony black, the other, her marble counterpart) stood Gaddafi. They made for a stunning trio, like an ad for a fitness parlour.

Camels, Mules and Other Kinsfolk

The conversation bristles with self-conscious sexuality. Reagan attacked him to impress Thatcher, he laughs. “He is a failed actor who became president of a great power and he wants to show he can move fleets, big war machines. He is suffering from old age. He wants to finish the world before he goes. I have studied psychology. I know what I am talking about. He has a special relationship with Thatcher: he wants to prove to her that he is a man.” Men from Sirte, reared on camel’s milk, are known for flaunting their macho sexuality. He looked athletic compared to the kings and sheikhs who populate Arab summits. His arrogant carriage was itself something of a taunt. Occasionally he added insult to injury by calling them “lackeys of imperialism”, provoking outbursts, some of which have become part of Arab summit folklore. At a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Prince Abdullah (now King of Saudi Arabia) screamed across the table, pointing at Gaddafi: “Kalb”, which means “dog”.

The Envoy’s Convoy

Non-aligned foreign ministers decided at a meeting in New Delhi that a delegation of foreign ministers led by India’s Bali Ram Bhagat should proceed to Tripoli—in the spirit of nam solidarity. Rajiv Gandhi asked me, “Aren’t you covering the story?” His special assistant Ronen Sen navigated my request for an interview with Gaddafi through diplomatic channels. At Tripoli’s Hotel Mahar, I buttonholed Bhagat and handed him a copy of my interview request to be handed to “the leader”. I was granted the interview, but, ironically, Bhagat was sacked soon upon his return. Reagan had apparently thrown a ginger fit at the Indian initiative.

Gaddafi was to step up his diplomatic contacts with New Delhi. His son Saif ul Islam visited India with a “sealed” letter from Gaddafi for Prime Minister Vajpayee. This was in 2001, after Gaddafi had made his peace with the West. In those days, Gaddafi was a ghost of his former self, like an actor without a stage. The letter was his “new internationalism”. He urged Vajpayee to take the initiative to “reunify” India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a reversion to the pre-1947 structure! Vajpayee was amused. He should take up the project first with Pakistan, Vajpayee suggested, with a glint in his eye.

A Trophy For Their Wall

The straightforward colonial solution as to what to do with Gaddafi’s body would have been to hide it from people who might be tempted to build a shrine around which might grow popular movements: just like the last Mughal emperor, dispatched to Rangoon to die in the garage of a junior officer or, better still, like Osama bin Laden, tossed into the sea. Why did the West want to have him killed? In his appraisal to me, Gaddafi was on target: oil, one of the world’s largest reserves of underground water, an angry clergy choked by his secularism, his links with every dissident in Africa, unwavering support for Palestine and, of course, “my fierce independence”. Only when the mist lifts shall we know how many of Libya’s six million-strong population—divided into 140 tribes—will agree on a leader through the democratic route.

Surely, it must enthuse the faithful that every kick that landed on Gaddafi’s body was accompanied by the sound of “Allah-o-Akbar”. Was that not poetic justice for a man who had banned the mullah? For such misdemeanours, he was shot at close range and even as his body lies in a freezing room, a BBC camera brings into focus a young, unknown reporter, kneeling next to the body, with the triumphant look of a shikari standing over a trophy.

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