As I sat transfixed in front of a television this week, watching the revolution unfold in Libya—it beats the hell out of House reruns—I was transported back to a simpler time in the history of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as its leader prefers (Muammar Qaddafi isn’t wordy just in speeches). Long before the Day of Rage became a staple of the region, or “Thursday” as they now call it in the Arab world, I traveled to Libya at the end of 2009.
I tasted the fruits of Tripoli, though not the fermented ones. Libya, like so much of the joyless Maghreb and Middle East, is a country that survives on near beer. I strolled along empty plastic bottles, also known as the beach. The only other beachgoer I spotted was a fellow who was openly relieving himself in the Mediterranean, and from the look of the mounds of trash on the shoreline, this likely improved the water quality. I sampled the charms, such as they are, of the Old City. At least I think it was the Old City. It’s hard to tell sometimes in Libya, where everything, from the Soviet-bloc-style tenement architecture to the used toilet someone tried to sell me at the souk, has lived beyond its expiration date.
But my real purpose there was to meet terrorists as a guest of the Qaddafi family. Or, to be more precise, a guest of Muammar’s heir apparent back when Qaddafi was still able to plan for such things as heirs apparent, his second son, Saif. The Qaddafi clan being a big one, Saif is not to be confused with his brother Al-Saadi, who was a professional soccer player in Italy for exactly one match before failing a drug test. Or with brother Mutassim, who a Serbian ambassador once described as “not very bright,” and who allegedly shook down the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation for $1.2 billion in the interest of starting his own “military/security unit.” Nor is Saif to be confused with brother Hannibal, who beat his servants in a Geneva hotel with a belt and clothes hangers, and once was arrested for punching his future wife in a Paris hotel. She was eight months pregnant at the time.
Saif, by contrast, was considered the cosmopolitan, liberalized face of the Qaddafi family—the guy who called for reforms, who started charitable foundations, who championed ecotourism, and who got his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, where his thesis was entitled “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions.” Before last week, when he took to Libyan airwaves warning protesters there’d be “rivers of blood” in the streets if they persisted, he was considered the sanest Qaddafi brother, an admittedly low bar along the lines of being considered the most chaste Kardashian sister.
My visiting group of journalists and academics didn’t meet Saif personally—he was probably off in Europe somewhere, posting bail or demanding diplomatic immunity for one of his degenerate siblings. But we’d come at the behest of his Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which wanted to showcase how it was rehabbing former terrorists from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who were now rethinking their jihad drink and renouncing violence, as men who face life sentences, and in some instances death sentences, might tend to do.
The LIFG was once a sister organization of al Qaeda, and after the Afghanistan struggles of the eighties, some of its members had even become running buddies with Osama bin Laden (one LIFGer told me Osama was a nice guy, he’d just fallen in with the wrong crowd). But if LIFG members, in their day, fraternized with stone-cold killers of Westerners and innocents, they professed to having only a single objective: killing Qaddafi. This was once considered radical thinking in Libya, before last week, when the entire country essentially turned into the LIFG, and not the reformed edition, either.
We trekked from terrorist den to terrorist den, interviewing mild-mannered men in sweater vests who spoke haltingly through horrible interpreters. If they said something interesting, which they rarely did, we didn’t worry too much if we missed it, figuring we could borrow notes from the government minder from the menacingly named Office of International Cooperation, who sat in a corner, furiously scribbling down the LIFGers’ self-conscious utterances about how they once wanted Qaddafi dead but now thought he was a pretty okay King of Kings (one of the many demure titles Qaddafi has claimed for himself).
The minder communicated, not so subtly, that if all the dialogue and reeducation and the new Nerfed up Book of Correctional Studies that the former terrorists had group-authored (all of this, we were told, of their own volition) didn’t take, then the Libyan government would be in touch. And you don’t want the Libyan government to be in touch. Anyone who has ever read a Human Rights Watch report knows that thought control is much preferable to taking your chances in a Libyan prison.
While one LIFGer, who now holds a government post, boasted of whacking a few low-level officials in his former life, most of the former terrorists seemed to have done nothing more than work in the LIFG communications shop, writing sternly worded editorials in jihader fanzines, their terrorist acts having all the teeth of a U.N. resolution. This could have been deliberate soft-pedaling on their part, with the note-taking monitor present. Though the closest any of them ever came to assassinating Qaddafi was throwing a grenade that didn’t blow up. Ronald Reagan came closer to killing Qaddafi, and he’d never even been to a madrassa. I started to question their terrorist seriousness.
Not only did they not seem imposing—the most danger I ever felt was an elevated insulin level from all the pastries and pomegranate juice we ingested in their sitting rooms. But for all their martyrdom talk, they found excuse after excuse for never having become martyrs: They arrived in Afghanistan after the Soviets had already left because word hadn’t spread (good thing there’s Al Jazeera now, or some still might be rolling into Mogadishu, looking for a piece of some Black Hawk Down action). They were detained on a fake passport. They could never find an open shot at Qaddafi, surrounded as he is by his phalanx of Kalashnikov-toting, all-virgin female bodyguards, the Nuns of the Revolution. By the end, we were openly mocking the ex-LIFGers, asking if they’d gotten any volleyball in at jihader training camp, if they knew anyone who’d blown a finger off in explosives class, if they’d ever been in a fistfight.
This near-timidity carried over to the streets of Tripoli. Walking the medina at night, you’d feel the drugged-up glare of Qaddafi, forever peering into the middle distance from his omnipresent billboards, looking like a jheri-curled Jim Jones in a Captain Stubing outfit. He is always depicted in his younger incarnations, before he started looking like a melting wax-museum version of himself. But for all the bustle in the claustrophobic alleyways, the sound seemed to be turned way down. Here, an act of rebellion was a wayward youth bombing a wall with pro-government graffiti. As I passed men smoking silently in shisha bars, without the social lubricant of women or alcohol to egg the action along, I felt as though I was witnessing a country of hollowed-out, beaten men.
Boy, was I wrong.
The last week has done nothing if not put the lie to that notion. Reports have poured forth from Libya of these once docile vassals being subjected to sniper rounds, fire from air and sea, and roving bands of imported mercenaries on the march to deliver death to them even as they stand in funeral processions or nurse injuries in crowded hospital corridors. And yet, the Libyan people appear to be getting the better of it, as one city after another falls their way. One of my favorite touches came when protesters in Tobruk torched a sculpture of Qaddafi’s Green Book.
The Green Book, a slim volume authored by Qaddafi in three installments over a period of four years in the late seventies, is compulsory reading in Libya, like the Constitution and Koran all rolled into one. A bit like Mao’s Little Red Book, The Green Book showcases Qaddafi’s full-flowering insanity, the kind that in America would see you either committed or achieving fast-track tenure at UC Santa Cruz. It is a jargon-heavy, stream-of-consciousness, near incoherent statement of Qaddafi’s beliefs, which in turn forcibly became Libyans’ beliefs, as they’d tell you if they could stop giggling long enough.
Since Qaddafi often seemed to recede for years at a time from the international stage, it’s easy to forget just how mad the man Reagan called the “mad dog of the Middle East” actually is. Here’s a helpful, though woefully incomplete, reminder: He suggested Switzerland be abolished, called Condoleezza Rice “my little black African woman,” asserted swine flu was created in U.S. military labs, stated a government shouldn’t tell women they can’t drive since that should be up to their male relatives, denounced sodomy on the floor of the U.N., charged that the CIA and Mossad injected Libyan children with AIDS, suggested Israel was behind the Kennedy assassination, finally settled eighties-era state-sponsored terrorism claims then tried to coerce oil companies to reimburse him $1.5 billion for the payout, said he could never form a union with Europe since Scandinavians walk around naked, and—my new personal favorite—suggested that the current revolution is the work of youth who are hopped up on hallucinogenic-laced milk and Nescafé provided by Osama bin Laden.
The Green Book sought to systematize Qaddafi’s scattershot nuttiness. As I watched the coverage of the revolution, I picked up my own dog-eared English translation, which I bought in a Tripoli gift shop, along with a Qaddafi watch that I practically stole (“I want you to have my leader cheap,” said the generous shopkeeper). With chapter headers like “The Solution to the Problem of Democracy” and “The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory,” it’s not hard to see what Libyans are fighting for, or rather against. Just a humble Bedouin, Qaddafi has always refused even to acknowledge that he is the leader of the country, preferring what he calls “direct democracy,” decrying evil dictatorships in favor of “supervision of the people by the people.”
Qaddafi, he’d have you believe, is a people person, which is why in his book, he sets up layer upon labyrinthine layer of People’s Conferences, which must additionally set up Professional People’s Conferences, which are simultaneously members of the Basic People’s Conferences as well as the People’s Committees, so that all issues drafted can then be sent to a General People’s Conference, which is attended by the secretariats of the People’s Conferences and the People’s Committees, which are in turn answerable to the Basic People’s Conference. See how that works? There’s a flow chart in The Green Book. It actually looks like a circular firing squad.
All of this bureaucracy, of course, was set up so Qaddafi could weaken potential rivals and consolidate power, which he has also managed to do by not having elections. When asked about elections once, he said, “Elections? What for? We have surpassed that stage you are presently in. All the people are in power now. Do you want them to regress and let somebody replace them?”
Of course, for a man who can sell that line with a straight face, it’s just the beginning of the madness. Qaddafi propounds the need to abolish the wage system, since wages enslave earners to those who hire them. (This might explain why Libya ranks 173rd out of 179 countries on the Index of Economic Freedom.) “In a socialist society,” he writes, “there are no wage earners but only partners.” As Qaddafi and his children have looted state coffers overflowing with oil boom revenues, the people have been an extremely silent partner for four decades running.
Qaddafi the social scientist opines that “the black race is . . . in a dire and backward social condition” which has led “to an unchecked and high birth rate,” as they’d rather procreate than work since their “lassitude is due to living in constantly hot climate.” Qaddafi the PE coach wants the masses to vacate the grandstands at sporting events and take to the athletic fields “to practice sports in crowds, as they realize that sports are activities to be practiced and not watched.” Qaddafi the educator wants to see a “worldwide cultural revolution” that destroys prevailing education systems in order “to liberate the human mentality from syllabuses that nurture fanaticism and the deliberate reshaping of man’s concepts, his tastes and mentality.” (The Green Book aside, I think he means.)
At times, he sounds less like Colonel Qaddafi than Captain Obvious. Here’s Qaddafi on gender: “Women are female and men are male. According to gynaecologists [sic] women, unlike men, menstruate each month.” In most normal instances, finding yourself an audience to such utterances would prompt you to say, “That’s nice, Grandpa.” Then you would help Gramps on with his robe, wheel him to the dayroom, park his chair in front of The Price Is Right, and tell him the nurse will be by soon with his meds. Maybe, if you really liked him, you’d fetch him a bowl of applesauce. In Libya, Grandpa has had all the guns and has inflicted his demented worldview on the citizenry for 42 years.
Though seemingly not for much longer. When I met with the LIFGers in 2009, I was troubled by the fact that what little complaining they did about Qaddafi—when outlining for instance what had animated them to take up arms against him—essentially boiled down to his clipping their Islamic-extremist wings. They were mad at him, in other words, not for being crazy, but for not being crazy enough. (No surprise that al Qaeda’s North African wing said it supports the uprising.) Such uncomfortable realities in the Arab world could give any sensible Westerner—concerned over anti-Americanism, Islamic extremism, and $5-a-gallon gas for starters—serious pause about what comes next, as those Nescafé-addled youth take the country back from the only leader they’ve ever known.
But worrying about the lunatics who may come gives short shrift to the ones who are already here. As Qaddafi himself wrote presciently, though with his usual lack of self-awareness: “When the instrument of government is a dictatorship . . . a society . . . has no means to express its position and rectify the situation other than through violence.”
Watching these newly minted street-fighting men on TV wading through the rivers of blood that Saif al-Islam Muammar Al-Qaddafi promised would come, I was reminded a bit of my own compulsory education—a song they made us sing long ago in Sunday school. Its opening lyrics went, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”
Here’s hoping the protesters all held onto their copies of The Green Book. It’s hard to think of anything that would provide these emboldened fire-starters with worthier kindling.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His book Fly Fishing with Darth Vader is now available in paperback from Simon & Schuster.