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On the Death of Libya's Tyrant

[A torn banner showing Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte. Photo by Asmaa Waguih] [A torn banner showing Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte. Photo by Asmaa Waguih]

An understanding of the context of Muammar Gaddafi’s demise helps explain why it happened as it did. It also has important repercussions for the future of Libya, since his killing raises important questions about Libyan judicial, military and social processes.

Gaddafi’s rule lasted for over four decades—long enough for the majority of Libyans to have lived their entire lives under his reign. More to the point, Libyans lived under an all-encompassing aegis of fear, which the regime managed to maintain both at home and abroad.

Gaddafi’s image and persona were uniquely associated with ultimate power and authority. His larger-than-life pictures were everywhere, his slogans on buildings and streets throughout the country. Billboards praising him as the leader were erected on every corner. There were so many that one stopped noticing them individually. Rather, his omnipresence became an active part of the urban and rural landscape. Over the course of four decades, many Libyans developed a distinct sense that Gaddafi, and hence his regime, was always watching. Once, in Benghazi, I referred to the regime as the “occupation of Muammar”. A cousin fearfully admonished me, “Even the streets are listening!” How does an entire population overcome such an entrenched legacy? 

The first step—removing Gaddafi’s iconic and physical presence—began during the first days of the February 17 uprising. People began tearing down the innumerable billboards and building-sized images of him, while also publicly tearing up smaller pictures and images of the dictator. His speeches to the country in February and March 2011 were projected in public places, so that crowds to throw shoes and other objects at his image. Since Gaddafi was out of immediate reach at that time, his image, as if in a ritual, bore the public’s physical rejection and outrage.

The condition of fear inculcated over decades ran so deep that as late as August, residents of Benghazi were still afraid that the regime would return and punish them—despite there no longer being any serious military threat to “liberated” eastern Libya.By that time, many Benghazi civilians had acquired weapons from destroyed military depots. I asked a newly armed friend why, at this time of relative security, he was still holding on to his weapon. “I have to protect my family,” he said, “in case Gaddafi and his brigades return.” “But will they actually be able to return to attack Benghazi?” I pressed. ”Not a chance!” came his reply. Yet he still held onto his weapon. The contradiction this example raises becomes understandable when examined against the backdrop of decades of regime violence and authoritarian rule. But it is also part of a larger story about Gaddafi’s persona and the population’s relationship to it.

Because Gaddafi so intensely personified the oppressive regime—indeed he was Libya’s regime—much of the revolutionary discourse focused on him. To rise up against Gaddafi or against the regime were for many one and the same act. Conversely, to defend the regime was also to defend the person and persona of Gaddafi. The discourse of both loyalists and the opposition came to reflect this manichean reality almost as soon as protests erupted in eastern Libya. Indeed, both sides fixated on his persona and physical character.

This fixation took on various exaggerated and often incongruous forms. Among his supporters, there was extreme praise and an exaggerated attribution of credit for the many positive things they perceived in the country. One billboard declared: “The Leader: Without him, Death!” Supporters echoed this discourse, referring to Gaddafi as al-qa’id (“The Leader”). In March, al-Arabiyya’s television crews showed young women demonstrating in Tripoli, screaming that he had raised them and given them an education, as a father would. Another time, one supporter was even filmed prostrating himself in prayer to a portrait of Gaddafi.

In stark juxtaposition, opposing discourses took on a similarly exaggerated form. These focused on exceptionalizing Gaddafi in a converse manner: rejecting and delegitimizing his authority and connection with anything worthy of “Libyan society”, even ridiculing his physical appearance. For example, several variants of a rumor concerning his birth circulated. According to one version, his father was an Italian and his mother a Libyan Jew. Thus Gaddafi, illicitly conceived near Sirt, had been adopted by rather than born to the Gadadfa tribe, and was not a true Libyan. In other instances he was presented as the devil incarnate. English-language graffiti in Benghazi argued for his foreign origins and loyalties: “Kaddafi high rank in Mossad [sic].” Rejecting his self-styled bombastic titles, Libyans opposed to the regime would refer to him as Mu‘ammar (his given name) or more simply and derogatorily as hadha (that one).

Gaddafi, of course, also tried to render himself exceptional, contributing to the sense that he was different and somewhat removed from common Libyans in general. In one speech to the nation, for example, he declared that Libya was no longer for Libyans; they were too lazy and underachieving to deserve its natural resources. The clear implication was that he, Gaddafi, was above them all or at least not in the same category as the Libyan people.

More recently, Sheikh Sadiq al-Gharyani, one of Libya’s best known religious authorities, carried public rejection of Gaddafi even further. Early in the uprising, Gharyani declared the revolution to be a religious obligation incumbent upon every Muslim in Libya. Just after Gaddafi’s death, he issued a disparaging fatwa pronouncing the dead tyrant to be a kafir, not only a non-Muslim but also one who denies the existence of God. His fatwa thus also prohibited Muslim burial rites for the dead dictator. This had the effect of removing Gaddafi not only from Libyan society, but also from the worldwide community of believers.

Other rumors, amplified during the uprising as people could speak more and more freely, were concerned with Gaddafi’s physical appearance. He had undergone cosmetic surgery, and his hair was artificial (and thus could not be used for DNA testing). This became evident in revolutionary graffiti artwork depicting Gaddafi caricatured, or in women’s clothes, but also in new derogatory nicknames: ‘the monkey Gaddafi’ or even Gird-dafi, a play on the word gird ‘monkey’.

The Libyan uprising and subsequent conflict were the first opportunities for many Libyans to openly ridicule their ruler. At the same time, the above examples indicate a perhaps subconscious conceptual process of subverting and singling out the character of Gaddafi. This negative process mirrored that which was happening on the opposing side of the revolution, which involved heightened reverence and elevation of the ”Leader.” 

While visiting both the Nafusa Mountains and Benghazi, I entered former government buildings where people had torn down large tapestries of his image and placed them in entryways, so that visitors could tread on his face. I saw Libyans opposed to the regime stabbing and burning his portrait, trampling it underfoot or repeatedly driving over it with their cars. Clearly, the image of Gaddafi, much more than his green flag, was the main symbol of the regime.

In “After 42 Years,” his latest work, Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa writes that, “A young man did what millions wished to do… to tear him to bits.” He continues, “…six million hearts had prayed ‘O God, grant me the sight of him dead.’ ”

If we understand the February 17 uprising’s context, then, as Mattawa alludes, Gaddafi’s death simply had to come about.

The manner of his killing—long-awaited by so many Libyans—was not entirely surprising. With thousands of revolutionary fighters hunting for him, could any authority have enforced proper treatment and due process after his capture? This is not to argue that the manner of his demise was the preferred alternative. As noted Libyan novelist and writer Hisham Matar said in an interview with Jadaliyya,The manner in which he was killed, he and his son, and the way the bodies were treated, has made it difficult to rejoice.” Nevertheless, for Gaddafi to die in this particular fashion—weak, defenseless, alone, and not only on the run but dragged out of a dark hole like the “rat” to which he once compared Libyan people represents, with great irony, the final breaking-apart of his mythos.

Viewed in the light of the this context, the exhibition of his corpse for days—disgusting, un-Islamic, and inhumane though it certainly was—makes a certain amount of sense. It represents something very different than the simple death of an enemy of the uprising. Rather, the exhibition was emblematic of the final collapse of Gaddafi’s regime and persona to nothing but the feeble corpse of a 69 year-old man. In many ways, Libyans had to see his dead body, because they had to bear witness to the tangible end of his regime. After all, this moment was not just about finally transitioning to a new era in Libyan history, but about ending, definitively, the old one. And that end could only come with the tyrant’s death.

What is to be made of all this? With the fighting essentially over, both political and military aims have to shift. Fighters and victims of the regime’s brutality are looking for a new focus; they cannot go back to their old world. And for many of them, the yearned-for new one has yet to be constructed.

In some places, the transition has played itself out through vengeance-oriented vigilante justice. In trying to understand this phenomenon, it is helpful to remember that for many Libyans this revolution was very much about rising up against a single autocratic figure. Other considerations—such as democratic governance, getting rid of old laws, and building new institutions—would have to come later.

It was thus not entirely accurate to characterise Gaddafi’s opponents as “pro-democracy”;To understand the context and conceptualization of this revolution means first to understand whom this uprising was against, and not necessarily what this uprising was for.

Despite the need, on one level, for Gaddafi’s physical destruction, the manner of his killing was a misstep for the transitional leadership of Libya. It was not necessarily one they could have prevented, had they wanted to: the National Transitional Council has not been in complete control of all things military or judicial. As an NTC spokesman admitted recently, “We don’t have laws to carry out justice.”

This is evidenced by, among other things, the recently uncovered massacres of Gaddafi loyalists near Sirt, and the independence of the Misurata Brigades and some of the leadership in Tripoli from the NTC. This type of retribution adds to a terrible and ongoing precedent being set for the future of justice in Libya: the detention and torture of black Libyan and sub-Saharan Africans, the enforced displacement of the populations of “pro-regime” villages, the detention without charge or trial of around 7,000 prisoners of war, and most particularly the destruction visited upon Sirt in the final weeks, which was explicitly declared to be in retribution for the destruction inflicted on Misurata during the regime’s siege. “We guarantee that we are a nation that respects human rights, and does not permit abuse of human rights,” said Abdurrahim Keib, the new ‘prime minister’ of the NTC in a recent BBC interview. But actions speak louder than words.

Indeed, much remains to be seen in the new Libya. Of particular importance for its future development is a self-examination of the psychological legacy of the regime’s and Gaddafi’s omnipresence and longevity, and how this legacy, and reactions to it, play out in the formation of a new government. It is also clear that Libyan authorities must make an explicit and concerted effort to prevent, for example, the continuation of vigilante and unpredictable justice. Libyans now have an unprecedented opportunity to build a new country, but they must look back to the past four decades and decide which paths not to take. This is, as Hisham Matar aptly notes, Libya’s “return to sanity.”

2 comments for "On the Death of Libya's Tyrant"

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Thought-provoking and reflective, well written. There is so much to figure out for the new Libya. One big challenge is figuring out how trauma care can be provided for so many Libyans who have experienced such mind-numbing violence.

Louise O'Shea wrote on November 11, 2011 at 04:00 PM
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Well written describing the conclusion of the Arab Spring in Libya - Libya, you are a fine example to the World, watching your progress towards your New Country - Good Luck. In the end, All tyrants fall.

Alfred Jones wrote on November 22, 2011 at 09:14 PM

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