In December 2004, then-Canadian prime minister Paul Martin visited Moammar Gadhafi in the oversized Disney World-style tent the Libyan dictator used to entertain guests, and declared him to be a “philosophical man with a sense of history.”
Martin was angling to land a billion-dollar contract for the Montreal firm SNC-Lavalin, which perhaps discouraged him from more accurately describing Gadhafi as malicious, cruel and almost certainly insane. But then, Gadhafi’s idiosyncrasies have always been more interesting to those outside the country than details about how he ruled Libya. Journalists accompanying Martin in 2004 got a lot of mileage out of two camels mating outside the tent while Martin and Gadhafi chatted inside. So did Martin—he included the anecdote in his 2008 autobiography, Hell or High Water.
Gadhafi, the man who is now fighting to hang on to power, and who has unleashed a wave of brutality against his own people, has long been a seemingly endless source of similar colour. There is his insistence on setting up that climate-controlled tent in foreign capitals; his all-female bodyguard unit; his strange fashion sense; the Ukrainian nurse with whom he travels—”a voluptuous blond” according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. All this distracts from decades of international terrorism, skulduggery and crushing repression at home.
Gadhafi has at one time or another backed many of the most odious men in Africa and the Near East, including Uganda’s tyrant Idi Amin and former Liberian president Charles Taylor, whose rebel army of mercenaries was trained in Libyan camps. In the 1970s, he threw himself behind a burgeoning strain of Arab supremacism and dreamed of a united Arab belt across the African Sahel, the wide swath of land that spans Africa south of the Sahara Desert. He founded an “Islamic Legion,” set up more training camps, and provided money and weapons to various Arab and Islamist groups, including in Sudan. The “Arab Gathering” that eventually spawned the genocidal janjaweed in Darfur grew out of this movement.
When pan-Arabism didn’t translate into personal power for Gadhafi, his interest in it waned. He’s lately switched his focus to Africa and has used Libya’s considerable oil wealth to buy influence with governments across the continent. Among the foreign mercenaries he has dispatched to massacre Libyans protesting his rule are black Africans who face being lynched should they fall into the hands of anti-Gadhafi protesters. There are also reports of white gunmen, possibly Russians or East Europeans, who have been paid to kill for Gadhafi.
Internationally, Gadhafi’s regime is blamed for a 1986 nightclub bombing in West Berlin, and for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died. In 2003, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations formally accepted “responsibility for the actions of its officials” in relation to the bombing, which began the end of Libya’s international isolation—a process that was further aided by Gadhafi’s admission that Libya had a nuclear weapons program and his abandonment of same. Grip and grins with various Western politicians, including Paul Martin, soon followed.
But if Gadhafi made some efforts to soften his image among international leaders who might invest in the country, his actions at home remained unrelentingly thuggish. There are no political parties or genuinely independent media. There are national and regional congresses, which in theory provide a forum for grassroots political participation. But Tim Niblock, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, describes them as a transparent facade. “It doesn’t really stand for much,” he says. “I’ve attended some of these people’s congress meetings. You can have certain kinds of complaints, like you can’t buy jam at the supermarket, but big issues cannot be discussed there.” Any decision of substance is still made by Gadhafi—who insists he doesn’t really run the country but only guides its ongoing revolution.