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Witness: Strange bedfellows: Gaddafi's reforms recalled

The following memoir of Libyan reforms under Muammar Gaddafi, "Strange bedfellows: Gaddafi's reforms recalled", was written by William Maclean, a Reuters journalist based in north Africa from 2006-09.
/ Source: Reuters

The following memoir of Libyan reforms under Muammar Gaddafi, "Strange bedfellows: Gaddafi's reforms recalled", was written by William Maclean, a Reuters journalist based in north Africa from 2006-09.

One evening not so long ago, at a party at the Tripoli compound where Muammar Gaddafi today plots his survival, I watched, dumbstruck, as superstar Lionel Richie walked onstage.

From the first note, hundreds of soberly dressed Libyan officials sprang from their seats and spent the next hour dancing to Richie's greatest hits. Their delight was genuine. The superstar, too, was pleased.

It was April 2006, and the incongruous gathering reflected the breathtaking ambition of Gaddafi's opening up to the world after years of ostracism for his support of terrorism.

"Libya I love you. I'll be back," said Richie.

Loudspeakers boomed his words over the homestead, a park-like compound dotted with tents, residential buildings, security encampments and the spectral remains of a house bombed by U.S. warplanes in 1986 and kept in ruins as a memorial.

A few meters away, herds of camels grazed between palm trees and young children chased antelopes under a bright full moon.

Richie was followed by Spanish opera stars Jose Carreras and Ofelia Sala, a 60-piece orchestra in thunderous accompaniment.

I had known Richie would sing. But after he began, I had to rub my eyes to remind myself what I was seeing was real.

Gaddafi's olive branch to the world, and the push for domestic economic and social reform that accompanied it, has now been consigned to the history books by his violent response to an unprecedented popular revolt.


But it was hot news then: Gaddafi had begun to improve his standing in 2003 when Libya accepted civil responsibility for the bombing of a passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Gaddafi's overtures to Western heads of state, entertainers, intellectuals were vivid evidence that the Libyan leader and his reformist son Saif al-Islam were, and remain, skilled networkers.

On later visits, as I listened to Gaddafi talk about Libya's future, I learnt that the reform push was chaotic, disjointed, elite-driven, meaningless to the average Libyan and in large part an elaborate public relations exercise.

The reforms had elements that appeared genuine, even if often half-baked, but they were heavily slanted to the economic realm. Politics was taboo.

The 2006 concert was the most vivid embodiment of those contradictions.

The gathering at Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound seemed at first glance to be a strange event for Western entertainers to attend: The concert was called to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1986 U.S. raid on the North African country.

But organizers explained that the music would be a deliberately upbeat commemoration of an event that marked one of the lowest points in Libya's ties to the West.

U.S. forces bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in the early hours of April 15, 1986. Then President Ronald Reagan said it was in retaliation for what he called Libyan complicity in the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin a month earlier in which three people, including a U.S. serviceman, were killed.

Gaddafi's former home has been kept in its wrecked state to mark the overnight attack in which an estimated 40 people were killed including Gaddafi's adopted daughter Hanna.

I learnt to make a distinction between make Gaddafi's ambitions for his country and the plans proposed by Saif al-Islam, who called not only for a free market economy but also for press freedom and deeper "democracy."

His father, in contrast, says his Jamahiriyah system of town hall meetings should never change. He argued that it gives more say to ordinary people than Western elections.


It was a point Gaddafi drove home in a debate I attended in the desert town of Sebha between the Libyan leader and leading Western intellectuals.

Dressed in sweeping brown African robes and occasionally holding a copy of his 1970s Green Book of political philosophy, Gaddafi said Libya accepted that economic transformation could come in the shape of globalization even though, he said, it was driven by powerful financial interests.

If they had hoped to convert him to ballot box democracy, they were disappointed.

"51 percent -- this is not democracy. This means that 49 percent is against the winner," he told U.S. political scientist Benjamin Barber and British sociologist Anthony Giddens in a discussion moderated by British journalist David Frost.

One of the notable aspects of recent weeks, to some, is Saif al-Islam's complicity in his father's crackdown.

Time was when the young man was not afraid to anger his father and the die-hard conservatives that surrounded him.

That boldness was illustrated by the case of Bulgarian nurses convicted of deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. They were freed by Libya after eight years' detention in a 2007 deal between the European Union and Tripoli.

Libya had said their actions -- always denied by the medics -- were part of a plot by Israel and the West.

Saif al-Islam had negotiated their release, ending what Libya's critics called a human rights scandal and clearing the way to full normalization with the 25-nation bloc.


In an interview with Reuters in Nice a few days later, Saif al-Islam breezily admitted Libya had fabricated the allegations of Western involvement.

His disclosure of the fabrication was a dig at security hardliners he had long said were an impediment to change.

"We created that story, the Libyans ... Here we are, we have a story, we have conspiracy, we got that complicated file which we carried for, what, eight years," he said.

"But the moment we sat together and decided to solve the issue, we solved it in a couple of days."

On Thursday, Saif al-Islam said his ambitions to reform his father's rule remain undimmed, despite the uprising.

But if reform does come to Libya, it will be at the hands of a government that succeeds Muammar Gaddafi. The old outcast, his rapprochement in ruins, is back out in the cold.