What’s in a symbol? The flag on the left is Libya’s pre-Qaddafi tricolor, but what does that mean?
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Egypt’s has, so far, been as nearly a model revolution as can be imagined given the size and diversity of that country’s population and the forces with which it must contend. It has been peaceful (on the protesters’ part), coherent and realistic in its aims, and yet firm in its idealistic resolve. All the disparate factions have muted their rivalries, and all over Tahrir Square there has been one theme and one symbol: The protesters love Egypt more than they do their respective ethnic, religious and political subgroups, and every picture we see reflects this in an ocean of red, white and black flags. There is no doubt or ambiguity: These people want their country restored to them, and their demands make it clear what this means. A renascent Mahatma Gandhi could never have plotted a better course.
But Libya! This is an entirely different kettle of witches’ brew.
Currently, Libya is governed by Moammar Qaddafi — and already the murk sets in. This despot’s name is spelled in Arabic as represented above: qaaf-daal-daal-alif-faa'-yaa'. However, in much of North Africa, qaaf is pronounced as a hard “g”; hence the frequent “Gaddafi.” More mystifying spellings, however, are quite common. “Ghadafi” is a bit confusing, because ghayn is an entirely different letter and sounds less like a “g” than like a Parisian “r.” Then there is the still stranger “Gadhafi,” which is senseless because dhaal is a completely different letter than daal, and sounds like the “th” in “them.”
This orthographic issue is, of course, essentially inconsequential of itself. However, it presents a sort of microcosm for the ambiguities within the man and his government.
Long a pariah in the West because of his suspected role in the bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, Qaddafi has always taken a relatively independent course, and has therefore long been marked for overthrow at the first opportunity by some hawkish elements in Washington. But in more recent years, Libya has formally renounced terrorism and has been “rehabilitated” in the view of most officials, although with reservations. Meanwhile, Qaddafi has sought to don a more constructive persona, working to improve elements of his nation’s economy for the benefit of many of its citizens — although certainly not all. Schools, health care and infrastructure have all seen substantial investments from Libya's oil wealth, even as Qaddafi has remained coy about his country's alignment, doing business with China and Russia as well as the US.
But when the Egyptian revolution began, Qaddafi took a stand — exactly the wrong stand, as many people in the region see it: He said Hosni Mubarak should remain in office. To many, this proved that he is, finally, no more than another pliable despot working the will of foreign powers and industry.
Meanwhile, Libya’s revolutionaries are equally ambiguous. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they took arms from the first, intending to seize the country by force rather than by popular protest; this is enough in itself to demand scrutiny. It is also rumored that many of them — ironically, like the forces they are fighting — have received military training from the US. This raises doubts about their motives, with some concluding that they are US agents bent on establishing a more deferential government.
That the majority of Libya’s rebels are honestly seeking to regain freedom and independence I do not doubt. But they are fighting alongside others whose intent may be less pure, and with increasing foreign intervention, they will now have to be doubly vigilant lest their revolution be turned against them.
Returning to this post on 22 April 2015, I sadly note that the prediction in my last paragraph proved well founded. Today, even many of those who four years ago sought to topple him bitterly rue, if not the loss of Qaddafi, then at least what has taken his place. Libya, a political and economic power in Africa just over four years ago, is now a failed state.
In case anyone has missed the object lesson (from Libya as well as Iraq) for developing third-world republics, it is roughly this: “Conduct terrorist attacks that kill some of our citizens, and we will forgive you; these things happen. But if you ever try to make independence and national sovereignty real rather than rhetorical, and our corporate profits feel the bite, the countdown to regime change begins.”