Show Hide image

The NS Profile: Muammar al-Gaddafi

The‘‘mad dog of the Middle East’’ is back in the spotlight, 41 years after he took power.

Shortly before he died in 1970, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser said: "I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age." As a teenager growing up in the desert outside Sirte, Gaddafi had been an avid listener to Nasser's inflammatory Arab nationalist broadcasts on Radio Cairo. His school had even expelled him for organising a student strike in support of the Egyptian leader. Here was the "leader of the Arabs", who had humiliated the old colonial powers during Suez and brought the promise of unity to the region, giving his blessing. To the young colonel, still not 30, there could have been no greater compliment.

Gaddafi seemed worthy of the older man's mantle when he came to power in Libya on 1 September 1969, deposing the weak, pro-western king Idris while the monarch was receiving medical treatment abroad. By the end of 1970, he had expelled between 15,000 and 25,000 of the despised Italians who had occupied Libya from 1911-41, removed the US and British military bases, and turned Tripoli's Catholic cathedral into the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque.

Forty years on, Gaddafi is the object of international vilification once again. Yet America's fury at the Lockerbie bomber's triumphant repatriation does not change the fact that the Libyan leader is now a friend of the west. He has held meetings with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and Silvio Berlusconi greeted him with a warm embrace when his plane touched down at Ciam­pino Airport in Rome in June. The former "mad dog of the Middle East", as Ronald Reagan called him, is even due to address the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September. He has stopped offering sanctuary to and sponsoring terrorists, and traded his WMD programme for the normalisation of relations with the west.

None of this would have been conceivable during Gaddafi's early years in power. By the late 1960s, oil revenues were rapidly increasing - Libya overtook Kuwait as the world's fifth-largest exporter in 1969 - and Gaddafi played an important role in the 1973-74 oil crisis in which Opec cut production and raised prices, by leading the embargo on shipments to the US. At the same time as making good on his promises to provide free education and health care (as well as subsidised housing) for Libya's small population, he could back his ambition for regional hegemony with money, providing subsidies to Egypt and to others he saw as allies in the fight against Israel.

But Gaddafi did not limit his aid to Israel's enemies. Over time, it seemed any group that styled itself as a freedom movement could call on the Libyan state purse, from the IRA to the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines. Although his dreams of a pan-Arab merger with Tunisia, Egypt and Syria failed, Gaddafi's influence was felt far and wide. This frequently alarmed his neighbours, as did his erratic behaviour. In 1973, for instance, the QEII set sail from Southampton to Haifa full of Jewish passengers celebrating the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel. According to Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat, Gaddafi ordered an Egyptian submarine temporarily under his command to torpedo the liner: a directive countermanded only when Sadat ordered the sub to return to base in Alexandria.

Those who have met the "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution" over the decades describe him as "dramatic", "charismatic", "camp" (a television reporter who interviewed him in the 1970s told me he was convinced Gaddafi was wearing eyeliner) and always "unpredictable". He surrounds himself with female bodyguards, and broke wind noisily throughout an interview with the BBC's John Simpson. In March, he stormed out of an Arab summit in Qatar, declaring himself "the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of all Muslims". Such behaviour can, but should not, obscure the reality that he presided over a police state that dealt brutally with anyone perceived to pose a threat. By 1975, Sadat was already describing him as "100 per cent sick and possessed by the devil".

But for all Gaddafi's rashness during this decade (he also launched abortive invasions of Chad in 1972 and 1980), initially at least the west gave the young colonel's new regime the green light. "We thought he was a bit left-wing," says a British source, "but not too bad, and that we could deal with him." The US even supplied him with intelligence support. Very soon after the coup that brought him to power, the CIA warned him of a plot within the Revolutionary Command Council, Libya's supreme authority, allowing him to arrest and imprison the ring­leaders. News travelled, and Gaddafi gained a reputation in the region for enjoying America's favour. Although this had mostly evaporated by the end of the decade, Billy Carter, brother of the US president Jimmy Carter, still attended celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of Gaddafi's accession on 1 September 1979. In one of the many embarrassments he caused his brother, it was later revealed that Billy had received a $220,000 loan from the Libyan government.

The change was decisive once Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office in 1981. That August, the US air force shot down two Libyan fighter planes in disputed waters in the Mediterranean. Reagan ordered US citizens to leave the country and refused US passport holders permission to travel there. By the end of the year, his administration was claiming that Libya had plans to assassinate the president and, if that failed, would target other senior officials such as the vice-president George H W Bush, the secretary of state Al Haig and the defence secretary Caspar Weinberger.

After four more years of skirmishes and ineffective sanctions, Reagan seized on a specific incident that he felt could justify a forceful strike on the Libyan regime: the bombing in April 1986 of a West Berlin disco packed with off-duty US servicemen. The US reprisal, in which Gaddafi's adopted daughter Hanna died, was controversial. There were suggestions - since given more credence - that Syria or Iran was behind the disco bombings. No European ally apart from Britain would give permission to the US to use its bases to launch the attack. Today, the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, chairman of the parliamentary all-party Libya group and author of a forthcoming biography of Gaddafi, says: "More questions should have been asked in parliament. We were rather gung-ho in supporting the attack."

As far as Britain was concerned, two incidents confirmed Gaddafi as the leader of a terrorist state: the fatal shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher by a gunman inside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, and the 1988 downing of the Pan Am jet at Lockerbie. These continue to be the main stumbling blocks to Gaddafi's final rehabilitation in the eyes of the west, as the international row over the repatriation from a Scottish prison of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has demonstrated. "The man who shot PC Yvonne Fletcher has been identified in Tripoli," says Kawczynski. "For us to let them have al-Megrahi without insisting on a statement about her is ludicrous." The Tory MP is also working with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to try to secure compensation for the victims of Libyan-funded IRA atrocities. He says he has repeatedly raised these issues with government ministers, but has been rebuffed. "'Don't rock the boat,' was what one of them said to me."

The story of how the "mad dog" came in from the cold goes back to the 1990s, when Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela persuaded the Libyan leader that the two Lockerbie suspects should stand trial (al-Megrahi's co-defendant was acquitted). The UN immediately suspended sanctions it had imposed in 1992 and 1993. When Gaddafi was quick to condemn the attacks of 11 September 2001 as acts of terrorism, urging Libyans to donate blood for use by American victims, it seemed another remarkable volte-face by a man who would once have been expected to revel in US misfortune.

In fact, it was a sign that Gaddafi was never the irrational maverick some liked to say he was. Sanctions had hit the Libyan economy hard, depriving the country of the specialists and the markets it needed to exploit its oil wealth; and two other factors had left him short of allies. As the diplomat and Middle East specialist Sir Mark Allen, who was one of the UK's negotiators in the talks that led to Britain's rapprochement with Libya, writes in his book, Arabs: "At the end of the cold war, the Arab left was stranded . . . The region was retuning . . . The reference points were not left or right, monarchical tradition or the promises of socialism, but fidelity to the example of the early Muslim community."

After Egypt and Israel made peace at Camp David, Gaddafi turned ever closer to the Soviet Union, which stationed thousands of military advisers inhis country and from which he bought billions of dollars of arms. But once the USSR collapsed, says Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, "he saw that if Uncle Sam was going to give him a kick, there was no one there to protect him". Nor was it conceivable that he could embrace the Islamists who, in fact, posed a threat to his rule. "He was deeply concerned about the threat from al-Qaeda," says Mike O'Brien, who as a Foreign Office minister was the first member of a British government to meet Gaddafi in 2002. "He had always promoted a more secularist, nationalist agenda."

He had set out his views at great length during his first decade in power, in the three volumes of his Green Book. His "Third Universal Theory" supposedly combined Islam with socialism - though the loose structure he presided over, which allowed for relatively free discussion by his associates before the leader took the final decision and retired to his tent in the desert, could be viewed as owing just as much to Arab, tribal forms of decision-making. Yet however one views Gaddafi's philosophy, he has long set his face against the Islamists, and he acted against ex-mujahedin fighters returning from Afghan­istan in the mid-1990s when other Arab states welcomed them home. Indeed, Gaddafi was the first leader to call for an international arrest warrant for Osama Bin Laden in 1998.

Once Gaddafi took the step to open up and dismantle his WMD programme, and then agree compensation for victims of Lockerbie, the way was open for the inter­national community to welcome Libya back. Gaddafi's son and possible heir, Saif, is clear about the path Libya is now taking. "The future is with more liberalism, more freedom, with democracy," he said in an interview with Time magazine. "This is the evolution of the entire world, and you either go with it or be left behind."

O'Brien, for one, is convinced. "Gaddafi is an intelligent guy who has been in control for 40 years," he says. "He realised that the only way to extradite himself from his difficulties was to use Libya's oil and gas wealth. This was realpolitik. He recognises that the world has changed and that he has to change with it."

For those who believe the west made a disastrous mistake in opposing the wave of nationalist politicians who came to power in the Middle East from the 1950s onwards, there is an irony. Gaddafi is the last of that generation, and while others who cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of Nasser have fallen, failed or died, it is the young man once praised by the Egyptian president who now appears to be becoming the kind of Arab leader with whom we can, and with whom we wish, to do business.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years