…To the Shores of Tripoli


By David A. Andelman

OSLO—On November 5, 1985, a small private jet that CBS News had chartered for myself, producer Jennifer Siebens, and a two-man camera crew touched down in Tripoli, Libya after a two-hour flight from Paris, across the Mediterranean. Met at the airport by senior government media types, we were immediately shuttled to our hotel in central Tripoli overlooking Green Square. And green it certainly was. Indeed, they must have emptied the contents of their local Benjamin Moore store of “Clover Green,” since that’s what made the square Green. They’d simply paved it all over and painted it. Not a blade of grass, not a single living thing. Which it turns out was an entirely appropriate metaphor for Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, then and now.

In those days there were two principal reasons that Western journalists were summoned to Tripoli for an audience with the Leader. Either he had done something of which he was inordinately proud and wanted to boast—or he was afraid. We suspected in our case it was the latter. And not without reason. At 2 o’clock in the morning on April 15, 1986, the United States would launch a massive air attack on Libya, dropping 60 tons of bombs on five targets, one of them Bab al-Azizia, the lavish compound where Gaddafi lived and worked. Gaddafi managed to escape with his nine lives intact, fleeing after receiving a telephone call warning him the planes were in the air.

But that was all in the future when we arrived the previous November. For two days, our handlers stalled. They took us to see clinics where Libyans were receiving free medical treatment, to construction sites where snazzy new apartments were being built for Libyans by their Leader. We were each given our own copy of the Green Book, Colonel Gaddafi’s rules for law and behavior, his philosophy of life and government. Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book had nothing on the benevolent Leader of Libya and his Green Revolution—neatly ignoring those pesky Western scientists who’d coined the phrase the Colonel perverted for his own, far less generous and compassionate ends.

But above all, we spent a lot of time hanging around our hotel waiting for our summons to Bab al-Azizia. Not surprisingly, the hotel was somewhat thinly populated. Libya had by then wandered pretty far off the traditional tourist routes. Indeed, Western relations with Libya had been cooling since the arrival of the Reagan administration in the United States in January 1981. That May, the United States closed the Libyan “People’s Bureau” (embassy) in Washington and expelled the entire staff in response to conduct “generally violating internationally accepted standards of diplomatic behavior,” after Gaddafi was heard talking about ordering the assassination of the new American president. Relations continued to deteriorate. In August 1981, two Libyan jets fired on U.S. aircraft participating in a routine naval exercise in the Gulf of Sidra, recognized as international waters by everyone except Colonel Gaddafi. The American planes, returning fire, not unsurprisingly promptly downed both Libyan attackers. On December 11, 1981, the State Department invalidated all U.S. passports for travel to Libya, effectively a total travel ban, and advised all Americans to leave the country. The following March, the government prohibited imports of Libyan crude into the United States and launched an extensive trade boycott. At the same time, America’s allies were busy. In 1984, the British severed diplomatic relations with Libya after a British policewoman was killed by someone firing on demonstrators from an upstairs window of the Libyan embassy in London.

By the time we’d pitched up in Tripoli, Gaddafi was pretty firmly ensconced in the pantheon of pariah world leaders. All sorts of allegations swirled about him—nefarious plots hatched around the world and carried out by his agents embedded in Libyan embassies, or his support of known and unknown international terrorists. All of this Gaddafi vehemently denied.

So Jennifer and I were amused, though hardly surprised, when we emerged from our cameraman’s hotel room on our second afternoon in Tripoli and looked down the long, empty corridor to see a lone figure struggling with his room key. He was all but unmistakable. The cane and the limp (since his serious stroke in 1980), but especially the black eye path. It was George Habash, notorious found of the violent Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, responsible for a string of armed hijackings of Western aircraft that culminated in the renowned Entebbe raid on an Air France jet his followers had hijacked. Oh yes, the front desk clerk shrugged indifferently, “Mr. Habash has been in residence here for some time.” Unh hunh.


A half hour went by, then another. Finally, the doors flew open and through it charged a half dozen enormous dark-skinned women, each over 6 feet tall. (Jennifer was 6 feet tall, or “5-foot-12,” as she preferred to say, so we had a ready measurement.) Each was clad in a camouflage suit and carried an AK-47 assault rifle. They formed a semi-circle behind us, and struck poses of defiant preparedness. Another quarter of an hour passed. Then the door flew open once again.

Through the opening strode Colonel Gaddafi. He, too, was six feet tall. He was clad in an immaculate white linen cape bordered with room on our second afternoon gold filigree and tied at the neck with a single gilded ribbon.

He deposited himself on his chair, on a small riser so that he would certainly be looking down on us, threw his cape carelessly across his chest, and boomed genially, “How may I be of service?”

The interview itself, as expected, was nothing remarkable. He was vastly misunderstood. He had nothing but affection and admiration for the American people. He was a man of peace, not war. Toward the end, we began getting into some more sensitive questions. No, he did not in any sense oppress his people. Of course he tolerated dissent, but there was none—his brand of popular and benevolent leadership was valued universally by his people. Then why this praetorian guard, that continued to glare at us throughout the interview—did he fear for his life? No response. Simply an ear-to-ear, rather patronizing grin. How silly a question of course. For television, it was the perfect out-cue. And then he was gone. The sequence reversing itself, though in much shorter order. The Leader took his leave, followed promptly by the Amazonian guards in lockstep.

I was left, however, with one overriding, utterly chilling, impression. It was his eyes. In no sense can the camera possibly do them justice. They look at you, through you, and you recognize that there is something quite mad going on behind them. Today, a little more than a quarter century later, and without treatment by an appropriate medical professional, there’s hardly been any improvement.

Gaddafi cares as little about his people now as he did in 1985, or in 1969, when he first seized power. Until the recent uprising, the vast bulk of the Libyan opposition was operating abroad, and all too often they feared for their lives at the hands of Gaddafi agents. Those few brave Libyan journalists who dared deviate even a jot from the line dispensed from Gaddafi’s bunker simply disappeared.


In May, the Overseas Press Club of America, which I serve as President, paid tribute to two former recipients of its most distinguished awards for photography. Chris Hondros had been twice honored for his courageous work in Liberia and in Bosnia. Tim Hetherington, whose last major portfolio appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of World Policy Journal, was to be honored a second time for his work in Afghanistan. Each was barely 40 years old, and both died tragically while covering the current war in Libya— victims of a mortar shell launched by Gaddafi’s forces against rebel troops in the Libyan town of Misurata.

At the OPC tribute, emotions were still raw from the loss. Hetherington’s parents had arrived the day before from London in order to attend. They rushed from the room, overcome by emotion, as a tape of their son’s greatest work unspooled on a large screen. A single candle was lit by the distinguished Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy in memory of some 60 journalists who lost their lives over the previous year—44 in 2010 and another 16 so far this year. The yellow flame burned through the evening—marking the very personal consequences of the actions of despots like Muammar Gaddafi.


Two weeks later, on the final morning of the Oslo Freedom Forum, a three-year old gathering that aspires to the title of “Davos for human rights,” attendees awoke to troubling news from C.J. Chivers of The New York Times. In Benghazi, self-described capital of a putatively free Libya, death squads have been quietly targeting Gaddafi supporters for their own form of instant justice—seizure, handcuffs, then an immediate bullet through the head. Is this to be the face of the new Libyan democracy the West has been backing with its warplanes and missiles? If so, how exactly does the regime in Benghazi differ from the rule of Gaddafi in 1985 or today?

The day before, Tunisian blogger and democracy campaigner Lina Ben Mhenni rose before more than 200 human rights professionals, scholars, activists and journalists assembled from every continent by Forum founded Thor Halvorssen— himself a compelling product of a Norwegian father (imprisoned and tortured while investigating the Medellin drug cartel) and Venezuelan mother (who traces her lineage back to Simon Bolivar). Ben Mhenni made a disturbing charge— the Tunisian revolution is fading, as the new government exhibits many of the traits of its predecessor, which January’s uprising had sought to replace. “The last time I tried to travel before January 14, police wouldn’t let me leave the country,” she recalled. “Two days ago, a curfew was announced again. Things didn’t really change in my country. Freedom and freedom of speech are just myths.” She concluded with a plaintive plea, “I think the world is not interested in Tunisia anymore.” And indeed they may not be. We have moved on to new, more pernicious villains.

At dinner later that night, the deputy head of Norway’s Liberal Party, Ola Elvestven, sat down next to me and observed proudly that the six Norwegian jet fighters flying sorties over Tripoli have the wholehearted support of the people of Norway. Of course, it hadn’t hurt that since the start of the uprising against Gaddafi, the price of oil had soared 25 percent to more than $103 a barrel, fattening still further the pension and sovereign wealth funds of a nation whose people unflinchingly shell out $17 for a small bottle of mouthwash, $80 for a hardcover book and $10 for a gallon of gas. As proud bestowers of the Nobel Peace Prize, Norwegians are among the most vociferous supporters of democracy around the world, even if their taciturn demeanor sometimes hides their passions. (Paper towels for sale in the Nobel Peace Center gift shop remind visitors that “resentment and anger are bad for your blood pressure and your digestion.”) Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang boasted to me that his city has residents who can trace their ancestry to 193 nations, “one more than all the nations in the U.N.”

But there are contradictions, even an underside, to paradise. There’s illegal immigration, even in a nation that prides itself on extremely liberal asylum policies. Without a “huge underclass of illegals, who work in our kitchens for next to nothing, hotels, restaurants and lots of businesses couldn’t function,” observes one leading Norwegian journalist. In front of the Grand Hotel on the morning of my departure, a small gaggle of Palestinian refugees parades with their flags, handing out leaflets to the few passersby who will accept them. “Some of us got the final rejection and deportation order after years of waiting and hope,” their leaflet pleads. “We ask for your support for our just cause…and the right to merge to the Norwegian community [sic].” Many contradictions in this northern European humanitarian pleasure palace.


In Oslo, there are horror stories from around the world—on the stage of the Freedom Forum, in the hallways, and at the dinner table. Stories of oppression, revolution, and rebirth, followed inexorably by repression once again. Such a grim, perhaps inevitable cycle, may indeed be the ultimate irony posed by the revolution in Libya and its accompanying violence, which hangs like a pall over this gathering, overshadowing equally intense stories of suffering and censorship, torture and death. Much of the world, or at least the West, has come to the aid of the rebels of Benghazi. But what about the rebels of Bahrain or Syria, Burma or Nachevan? (Yes, even that tiny breakaway republic of repressive Azerbaijan has its own violent revolution.) The future is hardly bright at all.

For the past year, Steven Levitsky, a professor of comparative government at Harvard, has been living in Peru, currently in the throes of a presidential contest between two candidates described by Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa as “choosing between AIDS and cancer.” But Levitsky is more interested in the future of democracy in other countries, especially the Middle East. The thesis he has developed is chilling. He calls it “competitive authoritarianism,” and describes it in a lecture on this last morning of the Freedom Forum. “The collapse of the Soviet Union, the rising power of the West, and unprecedented Western democracy promotion in the 1990s raised the cost of dictatorship, creating incentives for developing countries to adopt formal democratic institutions— particularly multi-party elections,” he explains. “Suddenly, it became much harder to sustain full-scale autocracy. You could do it if you were China or a big oil producer like Saudi Arabia, but if you were a poor country like Cambodia, Malawi, Nicaragua or Albania, the cost of outright dictatorship was extraordinarily high.”

So instead, quasi-democracies grew up, as the distinguished Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi describes the monarchy in his nation—a Parliamentary democracy until a dissenter begins to take on king and country. Then, watch out.

Helas, it is beginning to look like we may be en route to similar systems in much of the democratizing—or potentially democratizing—Middle East, where competitive authoritarianism seems already to be morphing into what I’d call copycat authoritarianism. Indeed, the models are all around, often not very far from home. After, all, even Muammar Gaddafi probably didn’t intend to become a full-blown dictator when he overthrew King Idris, back in 1969. One key question seems to be emerging. What can a nation’s ruler, or even a cadre of rulers, get away with—distinguishing themselves from the predecessors they overthrew with a veneer, perhaps, of democracy, without abandoning the fundamental, bedrock assurance of indefinite continuation in power? And above all, how much score-settling will there be along the way? Even today, the revolutionaries in Libya have been spotted carrying into battle the king’s old tri-color flag and his portrait—an act of defiance, combined with some unsettling back-to-the-futurism. How many of these young freedom fighters remember how truly corrupt and authoritarian (though certainly pro-American) was Idris’s rule?

In many respects, competitive authoritarianism, as Levitsky so rightly suggests, is by far a cheaper, easier alternative to democracy. It avoids nasty confrontations with Western democracies, yet dispenses with much of the messiness of real democracy, not to mention outright challenges to the autocratic regime. After all, if the party line can be dictated from the presidential palace— a line that politicians, journalists and indeed much of civil society is effectively forced to recognize and obey—then why trouble yourself with real democracy that could lead to negotiation, compromise, or electoral defeat? (Of course, an alleged commitment to democracy did not prevent the defeated incumbent in Côte d’Ivoire from holding on for months, holed up in a hotel and proclaiming himself President for Life.)


Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil Elaraby, a former judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, has brokered a condominium between the feuding Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, in the process sending chills down the spine of Israel, which once thought Egypt was the one Arab neighbor it could count on. Why take on this potentially incendiary mission? Because in the political vacuum that king’s old tri-color flag is Egypt today, Elaraby can not only get away with it, but sees the way the wind is blowing across the region. “Egypt has turned a page with every country in the world,” Elaraby tells Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post. “If you want me to say it—Iran is not an enemy. We have no enemies. Anywhere.” Elections loom in Egypt this fall. No fool at all, Elaraby’s move would suggest an interest in hedging against whatever shape the nascent revolution might take at the polls or thereafter, since no matter who emerges on top, the Egypt-Israeli relationship is headed for an inevitable change. Of course, in a more optimistic scenario, a free and democratic Egypt could become an anchor, if not a stabilizing, force in the region—the model it once was when Gamal Abdel Nasser first seized power in 1956. In this case, serving as an honest broker might assure Egypt’s return to a model, even a leadership, role.

While the denouements of various Middle East scenarios may take divergent forms, they may well arrive at a not dissimilar destination—a form of authoritarianism, whether rooted in some mutated variant of resurgent Islamism, as the new leaders in Tunisia fear, or personal or family rule that manages to cling to life at gunpoint, as in Syria or Bahrain. Why else would the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates enlist the services of Blackwater’s founder to build a praetorian guard with the muscle to put down any form of revolt from within or challenge from abroad?


Harvard’s Levitsky observes that there is a path to a more sanguine future. “Democracy promotion appears to work best where linkages to the West are extensive,” he concludes, “which suggests that long-term policies of building ties—like the EU did in Eastern Europe—has some real value. But the international response to isolationism is often to isolate—to suspend assistance, exclude from international organizations, apply sanctions. These policies reduce linkage, which may ultimately limit the effectiveness of external pressure.”

Of course then there is the question of how receptive are the rulers of many of these nations to some sort of bear hug from powers who for so long seemed anathema to their entire style of government. Did the West ever embrace any of those who now lust for freedom in Egypt— be they secular intellectuals or the Muslim Brotherhood? For that matter, did we ever have very much leverage at all in Syria with the Assad rulers, father and son? All too often the West, but especially the United States, has been out of touch with the hopes and dreams of most of the region's people—our engagement confined largely to the regimes of their oppressors or violent intervention when it has suited us, or our various acolytes.

The principal problem is that the West has largely misunderstood the Arab world, and other parts of the world that have tolerated or suffered from the abuses of authoritarian or perniciously religious rule. The West has just recently begun to insist broadly that governments tolerate opposition and hold free and fair elections— a demand made only episodically in the past. When necessary, the wiliest of dictators have simply played along. Elections are held, but as Levitsky’s competitive authoritarian model suggests, are quickly seen to be either rigged or meaningless as the rulers retain their firm hold over the real levers of power and influence. Security forces, bought off in their own way, go along willingly, even eagerly. Is there real democracy in Tanzania, Zambia, Ukraine, just to name a few that lay claim to this form of government? Yet how insistent have Western leaders been that the rulers of these nations do anything more than pay lip service to the ideal? Meanwhile, in much of the developing world, even the greatest champions of human rights are all too often sucked into that same vortex of suspended disbelief— trapped by their own natural prejudices— unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between the American response to Osama bin Laden and NATO’s war on Muammar Gaddafi.


On the first morning of the Oslo Freedom Forum, the organizers cull 12 of the most distinguished presenters, human-rights advocates, even freedom fighters (or fighters for freedom) to go before the world’s press. The death of bin Laden is still quite fresh, so it is inevitable that this would be the first question—was this the right action by the United States? “We are setting ourselves on a slippery slope if we accept extrajudicial execution,” Johann Peder Egenaes, Secretary General of Amnesty International, starts off. One after another weighs in with a similar view. Finally, Paul Steiger, the head of ProPublica and chairman of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, asks for a show of hands. How many approve of the American action against bin Laden? Not a single hand rises. Forum founder Thor Halvorssen quickly cuts in that many are not voting in the negative, but merely abstaining in public.

Then there’s the question of Libya— another example of the use of force by the West against a third world dictator of questionable moral fiber, if not sanity, whose use of violence to settle scores has only recently been challenged with any effectiveness. “Is the NATO action against Gaddafi’s forces appropriate or justified?” I ask the panel. Again, not a single hand. Certainly not appropriate, responds Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee, indignantly. Forgetting that it was in fact armed intervention by Western forces under

U.N. command that brought an end to civil war and establish democracy in her country eight years ago, Gbowee asserts that the African Union needs to be the body bringing law and order and a transition toward peaceful, democratic change in Libya—an African nation. Conveniently ignored is the failure in early April of the one peacekeeping mission to Tripoli and Benghazi by an African Union delegation—not to mention the reality that a substantial number of rulers of its member nations are themselves dictators who’ve availed themselves handsomely of the oil wealth Gaddafi has dispensed over the past third of a century.

But inevitably, Thor Halvorssen has the final word, setting the tone for much of the debate that would spool out in Oslo and spill over as delegates boarded their planes four days later, back to their homes in nations, free or oppressed, on every continent. “Not a single dictatorship would be able to survive,” Halvorssen observes, “without the complicity of democratic countries.”


David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal.

[Illustration: Damien Glez]

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