Review: Sandstorm by Lindsey Hilsum

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution

Lindsey Hilsum

Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

Typologies can be misleading but, reading Lindsey Hilsum’s account of the recent Libyan revolution, one feels an irresistible temptation to construct a list of dictator characteristics. Dictators tend to come to power young and enjoy a certain measure of popularity in the beginning; with age, they become increasingly brutal and eccentric. Many start out as a member of a group that they come to dominate, then discard. They believe their people love them (Nicolae Ceausescu suffered this delusion even as Romanians turned out in their thousands, in December 1989, to overthrow him). They also suffer a related delusion that they and the country they rule over are indissolubly one.

Dictators are given to massive and misguided vanity projects and, in their desire to be seen as philosopher kings, they inflict their thoughts on a defenceless people. North Korea’s Kim Il-sung had Juche, the Paraguayan dictator General Stroessner had The Golden Book, Mao Zedong had his “thoughts”. Muammar Gaddafi had The Green Book, a work so fetishised that outsize versions were built across the country in concrete painted green. According to Hilsum, it is a work that alternates between second­-hand socialist ideas and more bizarre original “thoughts”. For example: “It is . . . unreasonable for crowds to enter playgrounds and arenas to watch a player or team without participating themselves” – an edict that, if carried out, would have killed off Libya’s sporting life for good.
The Brother Leader, Universal Theorist, Falcon of Africa, King of Kings and Supreme Guide of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya displayed another dictators’ trait: longevity. Dictators can last decades, provided they avoid the dangers intrinsic to the job. Gaddafi, who was almost 70 when rebels finally killed him, was showing every sign of planning a ripe, if increasingly crazy, old age, kitted out in an ever more bizarre series of costumes.
As Hilsum observes acidly: “[B]y 2011, he seemed like a character from an old movie that no one wanted to see again.” He had been in power for 41 years and “his dyed black hair grew longer and wilder, while his face grew more distorted by Botox, like a sinister Middle Eastern Michael Jackson”. By the time the end came, Hilsum points out, many Libyans were heartily embarrassed by him and ashamed of what he had done to their country.
Gaddafi was not just a fashion failure, either.  One African politician described him as a “split personality – both of them evil”. His list of victims ran into the thousands: some were tortured to death in his prisons, many more executed (hangings were televised on public holidays). Others, such as Ali Abuzeid, were murdered on European soil on the dictator’s orders.
Early in his career, Gaddafi earned some popularity thanks to his fierce anti-colonialism and his social programmes – he built hospitals using Libya’s vast oil revenues. He was a hero to young men such as Mukhtar Nagasa, son of a diplomat, who had studied The Green Book at school and who told Hilsum that Gaddafi and the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser were “like rock stars to us”. Gaddafi was also a friend of Nelson Mandela, who visited him, despite sanctions against Libya, when he was released from prison.
Libya’s health services would eventually deteriorate, the victim – like the rest of the country – of the regime’s corruption, incompetence and downright brutality. Gaddafi’s pharaonic project was the “Great Man-Made River”, the world’s largest irrigation project, in which millions of gallons of water are pumped from underground aquifers in the south of Libya to water the north. The scheme cost $20bn and made so little sense that western intelligence agencies believed, wrongly, that it was a cover for something else.
Hilsum was in Libya, reporting for Channel 4 News, when Gaddafi finally met his end. Her book brings together an account of the long months of the battle to overthrow him with an excellent replaying of Libya’s history under Gaddafi, portraying previous generations of rebels and the failed attempts to unseat him. Gaddafi spent $22bn on weapons in his first ten years in power and the wars that he encouraged and funded across Africa are still playing out in coups and instability. He also funded terrorism and was a major patron of the IRA. But Gaddafi bought so many weapons that, when the moment came, many rebels were able to arm themselves from long-forgotten caches of military hardware.
It was western companies, Hilsum reminds us, who serviced Gaddafi’s fantasies. The German company Imhausen-Chemie, she writes, helped him to build a chemical weapons facility and several Germans were prosecuted for supplying sanctions-busting materials and equipment. With the advent of the “war on terror”, though, all was forgiven as Gaddafi shrewdly parlayed his weapons programme, and compensation for the Lockerbie bombing, into international respectability.
The relationship became embarrassingly close. MI6 and the CIA helped to track down and return his enemies – “the least we could do”, according to Mark Allen, MI6 director of counterterrorism, who signed his letters to Gaddafi’s henchman Moussa Koussa “Your friend, Mark”. Hilsum’s account is essential (and accessible) reading for anyone who seeks to understand where Libya has come from and what the future might hold.
Isabel Hilton is Editor of

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master