The image of a bloody, topless Colonel Muammar Gaddafi pleading for his life whilst being dragged and humiliated by Libyan revolutionary fighters will perhaps become more memorable than the images of his dead body. The once mighty dictator reduced to a pitiful wreck is already one of the defining images of the ‘Arab Spring’.
Amidst all the rightful jubilation of the Libyan people at the end of a terrible era in their history, many questions concerning the treatment of Gaddafi have now arisen. For, without his (famously gold-plated) pistols, Gaddafi was an unarmed 69 year old man when he was killed.
For many around the world, even those who actively supported the Libyan revolution, it was difficult to defend the scenes seen in the videos of Gaddafi’s last moments. It is also hard for some to justify the celebrations of the Libyan masses when news of Gaddafi’s death emerged, with the implied suggestion being that those celebrating were cheering death.
It is therefore important to note that this should not be seen as the celebration of the death of a man. This is a celebration of closure, a celebration of the end of a dictator, an end to a system that killed thousands and disenfranchised millions, and an end to a deadly civil war. This is a celebration of a new beginning for Libya; one that Libyans hope will bring a fully functioning democracy and a state that is able to provide for its citizens.
Yet questions also arise at the precedent the treatment of Gaddafi, and his apparent extra-judicial execution, is setting for a new Libya. Gaddafi’s Libya was rife with human right’s abuses, something that the National Transitional Council has promised to wipe out. Should a better start not have been made, then? This is particularly important in light of the continued reports surrounding human rights abuses committed by NTC forces. Whilst these may be understandable in light of the instability of a country emerging out of a 42-year dictatorship without a fully functioning government, Gaddafi’s death will certainly add to the arguments of those who say that Libya will not be able to become a democracy.
The treatment of Muammar Gaddafi in the moment before his death, in particular, was worrying. As someone watching from the outside this was the lynching of a desperate, pathetic old man. In a weird way, I felt a tiny tinge of sympathy for this murderous dictator, and I think many others felt the same. For me, it is quite clear that it was wrong to kill Gaddafi in this way, and the treatment meted to him before his death was also wrong. The vast majority of Libyans are Muslim, and it is obvious that a prisoner being treated this way is un-Islamic.
I cannot justify it at all; however, I can understand why it happened.
In such a tense situation it is certain that any normal NTC fighter who attempted to stop the attacks on Gaddafi would have been immediately suspected of being pro-Gaddafi, and would have been risking his life. And for what? A man that has likely been the cause of untold suffering for that fighter?
For that is the crux of the matter. We are talking about a group of largely young men coming across the man who has tormented them and their families for their entire lives. A man who has been the cause of so much death, suffering and pain. The men who found him were likely those who faced the bullets of the Jamahiriya when they came out to protest, unarmed, on the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata and elsewhere in February. It is pretty much a certainty that they also had seen friends killed and injured in the most imaginable manner through the months of the fight against Gaddafi’s forces. Those who may have defected from the Libyan armed forces knew of their colleagues who refused to shoot at protesters and had been shot themselves instead.
I agree with the notion that it would have been better to see Gaddafi on trial. However, let’s not pretend that the Libyans are the first people to wreak vengeance on those they hate. Benito Mussolini was shot by Italian anti-fascist fighters and then strung up, upside-down, in the central plaza of Milan whilst the locals threw stones at his body. Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator overthrown in 1989, was captured, immediately tried in a military court (the trial lasted 2 hours) and then executed by firing squad. And of course, how can we forget the killing of Osama Bin Laden earlier this year by the US Army.
From our far-flung corners of the world it is easy for us to sit and moralise. We can moralise over the rights and wrongs of showing images of a dying, and then dead, Gaddafi on our television screens and in our newspapers. I am not surprised that people in the West should be against this, but in all honesty regularly watching Arab television means that the images do not offend me. An argument can be had for the hypocrisy of Western media outlets in showing the pictures of the dead Gaddafi and yet never doing the same for a Western figure. It can also be argued that showing these images makes a spectacle out of the dead, and desensitises us. I would disagree; in fact I would argue the opposite. Whilst I may be used to seeing images of dead people that are perhaps more available in Arab media outlets, it does not mean that I am not shocked every time I see those images. If anything it makes me think more about the crimes that are committed daily around the globe. The problem that people have in the West is that they are sheltered. Sheltered from the real horridness of daily life, and death, in our world. When you do not see the result of a drone attack, the blood, the guts, the gore, it is a lot easier to back it as a useful tool in the anti-terror crusade.
That does not mean that all armed conflict is wrong. In the case of Libya armed intervention was necessary to protect the Libyan people from certain massacre. Of course, NATO powers primary reason for intervention was not humanitarian. But, occasionally, interests converge. Here’s something – maybe the Libyan people do not have this ingrained sense of weakness when it comes to the West? Do you genuinely think, after they gave their lives to fight Gaddafi, that they will lie down and see their land raped of its resources? Unfortunately, the tribalism of certain elements of the global anti-imperialist movement blinds them to this. For many of those asking why Gaddafi had been summarily executed were those who were against Nato intervention in Libya, and in turn against the Libyan revolutionaries, painting them as murderous puppets of the West, rather than the freedom fighters that they are.
It is time to ask the people who have suddenly taken an interest in the ins and outs of international law concerning the execution of murderous dictators, or Gaddafi’s social welfare system, where were you through the 42 year reign of terror? Where were you when Gaddafi ordered the deaths of 1000+ political prisoners at Abu Salim? Where were you when Libyan students were hanged live on state television for the mere crime of speaking out? Where were you when Libyan dissidents were murdered abroad, chased to their deaths by Gaddafi’s agents? And for those who seem to think of Gaddafi as a Black nationalist, where were you when he invaded Chad, sparking off yet another war?
For that is the major problem with some of those who now speak out about the perceived wrongs of the killing of Gaddafi, attempting to equate those who will come after him with the tyrant himself. They have completely failed to understand Libya and the painful history of the last 40-odd years. A quick look at Gaddafi’s past would stop those who think he genuinely was a pan-Africanist. Gaddafi was an opportunist who merely switched from pan-Arabism to pan-Africanism when he saw that his fellow Arab dictators had realised he was a clown and were not taking him seriously. Unfortunately, the Africans crowned Gaddafi King of Kings, further expanding his ego.
It is interesting that there are no prominent Libyan activists speaking out on behalf of Gaddafi, or even against Nato intervention. Surely, if this was all a huge imperialist conspiracy one Libyan would have been found in the West to speak out? Well, unlike the many activists who now imagine they are speaking for ordinary Libyans, or the global South, Libyans actually know their country and their history, and they know that Gaddafi had to go, whatever the cost.
For the anti-imperialists are just as much at fault as any right-wing nationalist in perceiving everything in the non-Western world through a Western lens. Those criticising the war against Gaddafi have viewed the whole conflict through the prism of Nato intervention, forgetting the huge legitimate grievances of the Libyan people. It is insulting to the memory of the tens of thousands killed by the Gaddafi regime to talk about the whole affair as some sort of plot to prevent Gaddafi from using gold currency instead of dollars – the fact that this argument supposes that Gaddafi is some sort of economic revolutionary shows how preposterous it is. As bizarre as this might seem to people who only view the world with Western eyes, the people of the ‘East’ actually would like to be free from their homegrown dictators. Hey, some of them may even prefer capitalism to the bizarre ramblings of a madman obsessed with the colour green. The internal oppressor for the people of Libya was far worse than any external oppressor in the form of Nato.
The Libyan people know the oppression that they have faced; they have lived it. They do not need those who only took an interest this year to tell them what they should and should not do with their dictator, and with their future. Instead, they deserve our support, our understanding. Look at the hundreds of thousands who have come out onto the streets of Libya to celebrate their liberation. Understand that for them Gaddafi was the greatest evil, and he had to go, whatever the cost. And before passing judgment on their country, talk to a few of them, and try and understand that the Libyans are ecstatic that Gaddafi is gone.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East