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Ali Ahmida: After battling Reagan in the cold war, Gaddafi makes a deal with Bush and Blair and becomes more alienated from Libyan people

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And thank you for joining us again in our history of modern Libya. And joining us again from Biddeford, Maine, is Ali Ahmida. He’s a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of New England in Biddeford. He specializes in political theory and anticolonial resistance in modern Libya, and he’s the author of The Making of Modern Libya and Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya. Thanks for joining us again, Ali.

ALI AHMIDA: Thanks again.

JAY: So we left off, essentially, to simplify, a regime led by Qaddafi comes to power in 1969, more or less popular, overthrows the Western-inspired monarchy, introduces some reforms. Oil had been found nine, ten years earlier, so now there’s increasing oil wealth. It’s increasingly shared amongst the Libyan people. Gaddafi, I–correct me if I’m wrong, but in a fairly popular way amongst the Libyan people, who have a history of being occupied by fascists, that spirit you could say is reflected in Gaddafi’s support for national liberation movements in Africa, and even abroad, Latin America and other places. So how do we go from there, where he’s more or less popular, to today, where it seems most of the people want to overthrow him?

AHMIDA: [inaudible] number [inaudible] that occurred after the 1980s. One is that the economy deteriorated. People’s lives began to be undermined. The social welfare state that was guaranteed earlier began to really be shaken. And then the regime engaged in a disastrous confrontation with the United States that led to the Lockerbie disaster later on.


NEWS REPORT: A Pan Am 747 jumbo jet with 255 people on board has crashed just north of the Scottish border. It crashed into a petrol station and a number of houses. Eyewitnesses report a huge explosion and a 300 foot fireball. There were 240 passengers and 15 crew on board.


AHMIDA: And the sanctions were imposed by the United States, and also by the United Nations, on Libya.

JAY: So talk a little bit about that confrontation. First of all, what were Gaddafi’s motivations for getting into a fight at that level? And describe what happened.

AHMIDA: Well, what happened is I think the viewers should know that [inaudible] Reagan administration we have a new Cold War. The rhetoric of the Cold War was revived.


RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.


AHMIDA: And Gaddafi, even though, you know, he was anti-Communist, he was seen as really a sponsor of terrorism, and his regime showed themselves as supporters of liberation movements. That led to sponsoring some groups in Europe and the Reagan administration’s bombing of Benghazi and Tripoli, where around 60 people were killed, including his adopted daughter. So that confrontation was really crucial in understanding the psyche of the regime, you know, whether we–he was (his regime) responsible with the Lockerbie or not. It seems that there is indication that they were responsible, even though the case hasn’t been resolved completely. And after 1992, there was evidence shown to connect Libyan secret intelligence officers to the Lockerbie bombing. And that led to the coming of the sanctions.

JAY: Now, what do you make of what happens to Gaddafi himself during all this and what motivates him? I mean, it’s one thing to support national liberation movements in Africa. It’s another thing to be, you know, getting involved in Europe and apparently selling arms or providing arms to the IRA. And what motivates him to get involved in all of this?

AHMIDA: Well, what motivates him is really complex thing. But we could say that in some times he supported awful groups like Idi Amin in Uganda, or Charles Taylor in Liberia, or shadowy groups. But also, as when I visited South Africa, the South African groups, all of them told me that the Soviet Union did not support us as much as the Gaddafis’ regime. So the record for the Gaddafis’ regime is mixed. Some of it was real, some of it was really supporting only groups that will support the ego and the legitimacy of the regime internally and regionally. So that’s what I have to say about that. But I think it became more that the leadership in Libya became more isolated, more personalized. And he played his game very well at the beginning. But then–this is a guy who came from the countryside. He spoke with a thick Bedouin accent. He dressed up like them, he ate like them, and he played the symbolic, you know, politics very well. But Libya began to become really alienated from him and began to–he began to rely more and more on security apparatus for sustaining his regime. The sanctions, Paul, led to unintended consequences inside Libya, strengthening Gaddafi’s regime, and really weakened society more, and led to widespread corruption for people to survive within the bureaucracy. And in 1996, the regime committed a massacre, one of the worst in modern Libyan history after at least the second half of the 20th century. They murdered 1,200 political dissidents in Libyan prison in the infamous Abu Salim Prison massacre. And that haunted the regime even during the uprising, because the people who protested on February 15, they were really–are the families of the men, young men, who were murdered in prison.

JAY: Now, who were they? We had talked in the previous segment about the role of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, old royalists connected with the CIA who had a fairly open agenda of an armed overthrow of Gaddafi, and who actually admit, I believe, to having had cells in Libya that were trying to have influence in the Armed Forces, trying to overthrow him. So to what extent is this period kind of driven by that force? And what I’m getting at is it’s not purely paranoia on Gaddafi’s part, that there are some people at out to get him.

AHMIDA: The prisoners were–some of them were radicalized youth who became Islamists. Some are active in other organization who were opposing the regime. The majority of them were Islamist. And the regime, we know that his very brutal and very, very much right hand, General Abdullah Senussi, he himself led the shooting of those prisoners after alleged mutiny within the prison. To this day we don’t know the details, the bodies, the–what exactly happened, but we know that the massacre took place. And in the last ten years, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi tried to lead some kind of a soft way of addressing the concerns of the murdered prisoners. But that hasn’t been resolved completely. And that became, really, an issue, you know, later on, when more people began to push for accountability.

JAY: So as you head towards 2003, Gaddafi’s increasingly isolated, you’re saying, from the Libyan people. He’s still at great odds with the US and the British. But something–in 2003 he makes a deal. So what was the deal, and why did he do it?

AHMIDA: Well, the deal, I think he’s–contrary to the image of Gaddafi as [inaudible] crazy, sometimes he’s really a clown. And so when it comes to Libyan internal situation, he’s a very shrewd tactician and very–has a very good grasp of Libyan culture and Libyan society, especially trying to mobilize the countryside against the cities and the urban areas So he tried to always use the populist language and use divide-and-rule kind of tactics internally. However, he knows that the Cold War’s over. What happened in Iraq is also a very good lesson for him. And he tried to ensure his security by making a good deal with the Western government. That pushed him to conclude that the only way for him, for his regime to survive is to make peace with it. And the Western government, who are concerned about good news under the Bush administration, and also they were trying to find–come back to Libya and its very, very lucrative oil field, all of these factors played into–it was a good marriage between the Bush administration, Gaddafi’s regime, and other Western government, including the UK. And that led to a compromise or a deal where he turned weapons of mass destruction and he stopped his programs and agreed to pay all kind of compensations for the families, and they welcomed him as a reformed dictator.

JAY: Now, how much does this have to do with the invasion of Iraq? The, you know, neoconservatives in the United States suggest this is part of a byproduct of the Iraq invasion that Gaddafi Nazis was afraid he would be next?

AHMIDA: No. It helped a little bit because it set the tone, but the negotiations between the Libyan regime and the United States and the European Community started much earlier. So we can’t say that the Iraqi debacle really motivated this. But it did set the tone, because the United States government also realized that they needed, especially under George W. Bush administration, they needed some good news. And we know that Iraq turned to be a huge disaster for that administration. And, also, the Tony Blair government in England, thinking about all the economic and strategic interests in Libya, especially the oil, they were also eager to come to the Libyan economy and resume relations with the regime.

JAY: So just explain a little further why was it–why Gaddafi makes this change. You’re saying the negotiations begin before 2003, so it’s concluded in 2003. But when he makes the deal in ’03 and then the full rapprochement in ’08, he kind of opens the doors to a whole International Monetary Fund model, a whole new kind of neo-liberalization of Libyan economy. Why does he go there?

AHMIDA: Well, he needed some information, and he’s a very, very astute animal of international relations. So he knows that his regime’s survival is really contingent on having some compromises. But interestingly, Paul, what he tried to do is very, very kind of interesting, because he wanted normal relationship with the United States, and also European Community, but he always wanted to drag his feet and not to have a full opening of Libya to the United States specifically, because he is–deep inside him he was afraid that any opening would lead to undermining his own regime and his own survival. Add to that something really that alienated many Libyans: he began to groom his sons. So his sons began to really control major oppositions, have tremendous power and wealth. And when you talk about corruption of the regime, his sons come first to many, many, many ordinary Libyans. And I think that really shows us that the old man, the old dictator, is really out of touch with reality.

JAY: There’s been some reporting on the Libyan sovereign wealth fund, based in London, who was essentially run by his son–not in name, but apparently, according to some of the reporting, no big decision gets made without being run through the son.


JAY: So then bring us up to before the recent events. What’s been happening in terms of people’s living conditions? Why so much outrage breaks once this wind catches on from Tunisia to Egypt? Why are people ready to move? And why are they ready to defy the security apparatus?

AHMIDA: Well, I think we have a courageous, very generous, very proud people, despite the fact we’re talking of a small country who thought that they could be saved the agony of unrest and violence. They waited for a long time, and they were willing to give the regime a chance to have a really serious reform as I defined it to you earlier.

JAY: And [inaudible] by reform you’re talking about breaking up this concentration of wealth at the top elite.

AHMIDA: Fighting corruption,–

JAY: And more democratization.

AHMIDA: [inaudible] constitution, reforming the health system, reforming the educational system, opening the economy, all the basic things that most Libyan agree upon–and they were promised, by the way, Paul, by his son, Saif al-Islam. And the old dictator himself agreed that in Libya corruption is widespread. The system failed the people, and that has to be addressed. And that’s what, you know, motivated many Libyans to say, well, we could reform the country. Maybe the system after 40 years will allow us to rebuild the country. But when there–this reform-defined program was aborted, and violently aborted, the many, many people who are really alienated, frustrated, patient for so long, then the people began to say, well, there is no point of reforming this regime. This is a hopeless regime. So especially in the eastern region, with its history of anti-colonial resistance, with its stock of thousands of heros and poets and resistant traditions, they were the first to defy the regime.

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Ali Ahmida is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. His specialty is political theory, comparative politics, and historical sociology of power, agency and anti-colonial resistance in North Africa, especially modern Libya. He is the author of The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance (1994) in addition to numerous articles. He is editor of Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghrib: History, Culture and Politics (2000).