Life begins at 40. Poster celebrating fortieth anniversary of Gaddafi's accession to power. (AFP)

Getting to know the Colonel

Forty years ago, Muammar Gaddafi took power in Libya. Since then, Europe has vacillated between a desire to cosy up to an oil rich business partner, and hostility towards a "rogue state," which is suspected of financing terrorism. At present, Libya — which makes use oil contracts to coerce other countries into submitting to a range of humiliations including, the presentation of official apologies, and the payment of damages — rules the diplomatic roost.

Published on 1 September 2009 at 14:28
Life begins at 40. Poster celebrating fortieth anniversary of Gaddafi's accession to power. (AFP)

Not a single EU head of state – save the president of Malta – attended the ceremonies on Tuesday, 1 September, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution. But relations between Libya and the Western powers, shrouded in scandal and controversy for decades now, have not always been that uniformly grim. At the outset, they were marked by a constant seesawing between trust and mistrust, points out the Tagesspiegel. “At first,” recalls the German daily, “Gaddafi had a reputation of being incorruptible. But his image was to alter very quickly” with the launch of Libya’s nuclear programme and “the funding of various rebels and terrorist groups all over the world”.

Embarassing letters

The 1988 Lockerbie disaster (270 dead) and the bombing of a French airplane over Niger a year later (170 dead) relegated Gaddafi to “pariah status”, and prompted “decades of international sanctions on Libya,” recollects the Tagesspiegel. Gaddafi succeeded in restoring Western trust, however, when he admitted Libya’s responsibility for the attacks and agreed to compensate the victims’ families. Thereafter, the “erstwhile pariah” Colonel Gaddafi became chums with European heads of state — an amity that went from strength to strength amid a slew of business deals with Libya.

Last month, the early release of Ali al-Megrahi, convicted in Scotland for the Lockerbie bombing, and his triumphant return to Tripoli on 21 August renewed tension between the EU and Libya and embarrassed the British government. The Sunday Timeshas just published leaked ministerial correspondence in which UK justice chief Jack Straw wrote that it was in the "overwhelming interests" of the United Kingdom to make al-Megrahi eligible for return to Libya. "Straw had initially intended to exclude Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, under which British and Libyan prisoners could serve out their sentences in their home country.” The British daily also notes that “Gordon Brown’s government made the decision after discussions between Libya and BP over a multi-million-pound oil exploration deal had hit difficulties. These were resolved soon afterwards.” For Dominic Lawson in The Independent, “As ever, New Labour is obsessed with politics before government, and image before substance: thus it was that Gordon Brown's only action over this episode was to write to the Libyan dictator asking him not to accord Megrahi a grand public welcome home, and to complain bitterly afterwards about Gaddafi’s failure to keep the cameras away.” However, according to Marcel Berlins in theGuardian, this controversy could implode should it transpire that al-Megrahi is “innocent of the Lockerbie bombing”. "For many years," he argues, "the case has induced unease in the Scottish legal world."

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Arab league gives UK an earful

For Romanian weekly Dilema Veche, “al-Megrahi’s release tells us something important about the West: between 1988 and 2009, they let the Arab League give Great Britain an earful in matters of the dispensation of justice.” The French daily Le Monde points out, on the other hand, that al-Megrahi’s release will eventually prove one less obstacle between the EU and Libya, so it is “likely to improve relations with what used to be North Africa’s pariah regime, whilst the European Commission is conducting delicate negotiations with a view to clinching a framework agreement with Tripoli. Actually, Libya demanded the UK make a gesture of this sort to expedite the rapprochement.”

Several commentators have condemned what they describe as repeated provocations and the increasing efforts made to accommodate Libya in diplomatic circles. Italian weekly L'Espresso accuses Gaddafi of playing "a duplicitous game" with Libya's partners, and especially with Italy. Barely two days after Silvio Berlusconi's return from an official visit to Tripoli to lay the first stone in a motorway that will link the Libyan capital to Benghazi – which is being financed by Italy as a gesture of apology for the colonial period — the Roman daily accuses Libya of using Western intermediaries to buy arms, which it then supplies to rebellions and civil wars in Africa. In particular, L'Espresso refers to an investigation undertaken by prosecutors in Perugia into an arms trafficking network that included several Italian intermediaries, and a Libyan NGO.

Perilous repentance strategy

Leading with the headline "Rage and humiliation;" Le Tempsreports on troubled relations between and Libya and Switzerland, which took a turn for the worse when police forcefully arrested one of the Colonel's sons, Hannibal, who had beaten two of his staff in Geneva. On Thursday 21 August, the President of the Swiss Confederation, Hans-Rudolf Merz, traveled to Tripoli to present an official apology to the "Guide of the Revolution," reports the Genevan daily, which hopes that the gesture will expedite the release of two Swiss nationals that have been held in Libya for over a year and thus put an end to the crisis. But the release of the hostages, which was to take place before the 1st September, has yet to go ahead, because Tripoli is demanding a "bail payment" of 500,000 euros.

Le Temps takes the view that the often adopted Europeans strategy of apologizing can be dangerous: "Hans-Rudolf Merz realized as much in dealing with Libya — the apology is a very powerful diplomatic instrument which should be handled with care." In the case of Silvio Berlusconi — who offered an apology for Italian colonization of Libya, and in return obtained commitments from Gaddafi to block illegal immigration to Italy, supply Italy with oil and open up Libyan markets to Italian firms – and in the case of the Swiss President, "the Libyan leader has been able to use the apologies he has received to express his thirst for revenge on the West."

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