Watching rebel gunmen rampage through Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Bab Al Aziziya compound – once Tripoli’s Forbidden City of Tripoli – was a strange experience for me.
I spent an evening there with Gaddafi in 1987, a year after it was bombed by US warplanes.
Libya’s “Brother Leader” talked about the Mideast, Palestine, North Africa. He led me by the hand through his ruined private quarters, still reeking of fire and smoke, and showed me the bed in which an American 1,000 kilo laser-guided bomb killed his two-year old adopted daughter.
We sat in his gaily coloured Bedouin tent, talking into the night. He opened up to me about his love for fancy dress and beamed happily when I told him, tongue in cheek, how attractive he was to Western women.
Call this dictator nostalgia—a feeling not of course shared by a majority of Libyans who are now trying to hunt down their deposed leader of 42 years. Few will miss him. Gaddafi was a blight on Libya and an embarrassment to the Arabs.
Meanwhile, Libya is literally turning into a gold rush as the big Western oil firms pile into Libya and pay court to the new government in Tripoli, the National Transitional Council. Police units and troops from Britain, France and Italy may soon follow – all, naturally, as part of the West’s new “humanitarian intervention” strategy that has replaced “counter-terrorism.”
Libya is in semi-chaos and its economy devastated by six months of conflict. The food distribution system has broken down. Thousands of heavily armed “rambos” make their own law. There are barely any state institutions aside from the national oil company and central bank. The secret police have evaporated.
As a modest historian, I am always delighted when history draws striking parallels. We now see the fascinating spectacle of those old colonial powers, Britain, France, and Italy, starting to move back into their former overseas possessions.
Britain ruled Libya until a young colonel named Muammar Gaddafi overthrew the doddering old British puppet, King Idris. The US lost one of its largest bombers bases at Libya’s Wheelus Field. Neither nation was to forgive Gaddafi.
Imperial Britain had seized Libya from Italy’s fascist regime in 1943. Italy colonised Libya after tearing it away from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Italy used concentration camps and poison gas to terrorise Libyans into submission.
France, whose colonial empire included neighbouring Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Chad, and Niger, long competed with Italy and Spain for regional domination. Mussolini’s Fascist regime pressed claims to Tunisia, Corsica, Nice and Cannes.
An obscure colonial border dispute over Chad’s Aouzou Strip dating from the 1920’s between France and Italy led to a nasty little Franco-Libyan border war there in 1987.
French Foreign Legionnaires in jeeps, disguised as Chadian nomads, drove the wretched Libyan army from Aouzou in what became known as the “Toyota War.” Disguised French special forces and Legionnaires, as well as Britain’s SAS, just used the same theatrical tactics in Libya.
The big question now is which foreign power will dominate Libya. The United States, which has waged this little war from well offstage? Italy, which gets most of its oil from Libya? France, where President Sarkozy has been hinting at a Mediterranean union – bien sure, under French tutelage?
Oil is a potent aphrodisiac. Libya has vast reserves of premium, low-sulphur oil and gas, and a hundred-year supply of ancient artesian water. Energy-rich Libya will become an important market for European consumer products and industrial exports, as well as a huge major supplier of investment funds from its estimated $50 billion worth of annual oil exports.
There are more prizes to be had: Libya’s gold reserves, estimated at $4-5 billion; and its nearly $100 billion of foreign deposits and investments.
The files of its intelligence agencies, which may reveal the true story behind the bombings of a French and US airliner in the 1980’s. Western intelligence will also want to talk to Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, closest confidant and brother-in-law, Abdullah Senoussi, with whom I spent a most interesting evening in Tripoli. France has a warrant out for his arrest for the 1989 bombing of a UTA airliner over Niger.
It’s likely US, British and French intelligence have already grabbed Gaddafi’s files.
By Eric Margolis