Terra Incognita: Libya: Many collaborators, little romance

The long-running attachment West had to Gaddafi puts in perspective the subsequent lack of interest in rebels now fighting his tyranny.

Libyan rebel firing at heli (R) 311 (photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
Libyan rebel firing at heli (R) 311
(photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
Can someone tell me why the world’s press rushed to Tahrir Square in Cairo and cooed about how wonderful that uprising was, yet cares little for Libya?
By all standards, the Libyan situation seems more heroic. Photos show jury-rigged pickups with anti-aircraft guns mounted atop them to shield the protesters from Muammar Gaddafi’s Russian-made aircraft. They show old men waving antique rifles and swords while fighting marauding gangs of mercenaries who shoot into crowds. Isn’t all that more courageous than the protesters at Tahrir who, for the most part, were not harmed on such a large scale?
But there are few op-eds waxing poetic about Libyan freedom fighters. Nicholas Kristof, the inveterate New York Times columnist, is a good example. He wrote four laudatory columns between February 1 and 6 about Egypt. They included “Exhilarated by hope in Cairo” and “We are all Egyptians.”
But on Libya he was bored, noting on February 24 that “it’s time to nudge Col. Muammar Gaddafi from power.”
Nudge? And on March 2 he really got down to business with, “Let’s ratchet up the pressure toward a peaceful outcome.”
Such strong language!
Kristof is typical of a malaise about Libya. Is it really just because the press got used to rebellion in the Middle East? It seems that the big yawn is more about the fact that Libya doesn’t fit the right model. Gaddafi is an anti- Western socialist in the mold of Fidel Castro, an exotic part-time crazy person. He banged his fists at the UN; he carted around a big Beduin tent that he forced countries to allow him to pitch where he pleased. He postured and posed in robes that seemed like they came from the set of a movie about 1970s pimps. He wasn’t a fat, US-funded dictator and friend of Israel.
Because, for all the talk about how the Egyptian revolution wasn’t about Israel, there sure were a lot of headlines in the Economist, BBC and New York Times about how Israelis were sourpusses for not celebrating the downfall of Mubarak.
Had Gaddafi been the best friend of the Jewish state, would we not be hearing more about the inspiration of the Arabs throwing off the dictator? Or had he been some Western- supported regime, like Mubarak, with US airplanes bombing the protesters, wouldn’t there be some huge outcry about the “propped-up dictator” murdering Arabs in the street?
WE WILL never know why Libya didn’t inspire. We won’t ever know why Palestinians with slingshots and checkered keffiyehs make people weak in the knees, while the same people 1,000 miles away are boring.
But the lack of romance hides a more intriguing question: Why, for decades, did so many people and countries collaborate with the barbaric regime in Tripoli? I’m not speaking only of business interests like British Petroleum, but politicians, prominent leftist activists, academics, human rights programs and universities. The latest scandal involves the London School of Economics, which accepted $488,000 from Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Saif also received a doctorate from LSE, which is now being probed for plagiarism and was invited to give a speech at the university in 2010. Reports noted that he declared democracy to be the best system of government for his country.
But the ties between the LSE and Gaddafi are only the tip of a giant iceberg.
The West was wooed by Gaddafi after 9/11, when the regime attempted to portray itself as fighting Islamic terrorism. After the 2003 Iraq War, Gaddafi ostentatiously abandoned a nuclear weapons program. In murky dealings that are still not clear, the Scottish government released the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Mughrabi, in 2009 because he was supposedly dying of cancer. Mughrabi was given a hero’s welcome in Libya, and is still alive. Now it appears the UK government had some underhanded role in that release.
But releasing terrorists and giving the crooked sons of a dictator PhDs isn’t enough. The UN time and again gave Gaddafi a stamp of approval, first in 2003 when Libya was elected leader of the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 2010, 155 countries voted to put Libya on the Human Rights Council. Just prior to that event Ali Treki – a Libyan diplomat – was elected president of the UN General Assembly. This, despite the fact that he said in a 1983 speech: “Is it not the Jews who are exploiting the American people and trying to debase them? If we succeed in eliminating that entity, we shall by the same token save the American and European peoples.”
But why would a raving anti-Semite not head part of the UN, and a brutal dictatorship not be in charge of human rights?
Leading celebrities time and again patronized the Gaddafi family. Usher, Nelly Furtado, Beyonce and Mariah Carey all performed at lavish parties for them. When Gaddafi was in Italy in June of 2009, he asked to meet 1,000 prominent Italian women. And, no surprise, they came in droves to sit and listen to the dictator, much like Columbia University lapped up Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2007.
According to one report, “there were leading figures from politics, culture and industry; ministers posed for cameras, lawyers talked earnestly... in their seats and reality TV personalities blew kisses across the aisles.”
Human Rights Watch has been accused of “marketing Gaddafi” by praising his son Saif for creating “an expanded space for discussion and debate.”
Groups of activists, including Israeli- Arab MK Haneen Zoabi, have made pilgrimages to Tripoli.
The long-running attachment the West had to Gaddafi puts in perspective the subsequent lack of interest in the rebels now fighting his tyranny. Gaddafi and his henchmen should never have been given a pulpit at the UN, in Italy, at the LSE, or anywhere else, and hopefully sooner rather than later the rebels will remove them from power.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.