Hitchens archive: Colonel Ghadaffi's Libya

In this 1976 article, Hitchens reflects on a dictator on the ascendant.

"The lunatic of Libya" was President Sadat's most recent attempt at a definition of Colonel Ghaddafi. He delivered it during Egypt's national day last week, a day that is ironically celebrated as a public festival in Libya as well. Ghaddafi's reverence for Nasser is exceeded by nothing but his reverence for himself; one even sees the occasional poster of the founder of modern Arab nationalism, smothered by scores of the colonel (and in one instance, eccentrically, by a portrait of Giscard d'Estaing).

Libya's redeemer has long ago exhausted the hyperboles of his enemies and his admirers. He is young, visionary and dashing - or puerile, unbalanced and erratic - depending on which way you slice it. He prefers to take his power neat. Of the original 12 members of the Revolutionary Command Council, two (Majors Hawadi and Hamza) are in detention and two (Majors Muhaishi and Al Huni) have fled abroad. Another was killed in an apparently bona fide crash. And the prime minister - Major Jalloud - has been two months in Beirut, filling the fruitless role of a mediator. Evidently, Gaddafi does not think that Libyan statecraft calls for very much in the way of checks and balances. Nor, if it comes to that, did any of his pre­decessors, whose departure dates (the Italian fascisti, the Americans, the British) are all anniversary-fodder as well. But Ghaddafi is distinguished from the more routine kind of putsch-monger and demagogue by having an ideology all of his own. It is called "The Third International Theory", a box of unsorted ideas worked out by the leader himself. Al Thawrah (the revolution) and Al Jihad (the holy war) are often intermingled in this salad of ideas, with baroque results. It is defined by 'aspects' of which the 'metaphysical' one is: 'The contents of the heavenly messages according to which modern science is interpreted.' That is for adult consumption. What are they teaching the children? Incidentally, the states objectives of the Arab Socialist Union in Libya include 'to prevent the people from falling in the stranglehold of one class or one individual' and 'to denounce right-wing puritanistic ideas, as well as the parasite left'. Now, wall-posters in Tripoli do no exactly eschew the individual, while Muslims and non-Muslims are prevented from buying or consuming a drink in puritan Libya. Parasite leftists must needs ferret away half bottles of whisky in their spongebags when paying a visit.

The thing that gives Gaddafi his prestige is the issue of the Palestinians. Those who affect surprise at Arab feeling on this question often pretend that it is only used by corrupt and despotic regimes as a means of distracting the masses from their superstitious and neglected lot. Nothing could be less perceptive: any government that relaxed its stand beyond a certain point would probably fall. Currently the great issue is Lebanon, where a ragged army of Palestinian refugees and Lebanese left-wingers is confronting a Syrian invasion, an entrenched local Falange party and the combined hostility of the Russians, the Americans, the Israelis and the Saudis.

In Beirut last September, I was told by PLO supporters that "come the four corners of the world in arms", they would fight them off. Now, they are being called upon to do it and Ghaddafi is paying a large number of their bills. Diplomatic sources in Tripoli say that the length and complexity of the struggle is blunting his enthusiasm, but give that he denounced the October 1973 war and the later Arab oil summit as being irrelebant to the Palestinian struggle, this point seems at least debatable. He may at last have found his cause, and the vehemence with which other states denounce him is due to the fact that they recognise the present conflict's potential as a detonator far beyond the borders of Israel or Lebanon.

One way in which Arab states do manipulate the issue of the PLO is by holding competitive conferences in their support. This autumn, the Iraqis will hold one. So last weekend, the Association of Libyan Lawyers held one too, and invited myself among others. It was tightly overseen by officials, and much-harangued by fraternal OAU diplomats (Uganda mysteriously missing from the list). The only really absorbing session was one featuring anti-Zionist Jewish spokesmen, chiefly from North America. Foremost was Dr Alfred Lilienthal who has been fighting this lonely corner ever since he was a GI in the Middle East 30 years ago. But there was also a Mr Neuberger from the fascinating Naturei Karta sect of Jews, based in Jerusalem, who look on Zionism as a blasphemy against the Torah and the Talmud. They support the PLO. Mr Neuberger was warmly applauded, though I noticed that his speech also contained an attack on theory of evolution. The entire proceedings had been opened by ten minutes intoned from the Koran by a muezzin, which seemed odd since the subject under discussion was a secular state.

Libya is swamped in oil money and has a very small (2.5 million) population. It is not difficult to control politically, and Tripoli is resounding to the noise of new construction; whether of housing estates, barracks, hotels or roads. Perhaps it is the astonishing Roman remains on the coast just outside which give the impression that the desert will nevertheless be back one day. Or perhaps it is that Libya is now ruled by the greatest Ozymandias of them all.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.