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ONE of the minor gods in Greek mythology was called Proteus, who was known for his power of prophecy. He is better known for his ability to assume different shapes in order to avoid answering questions. This latter description can easily be applied to a national leader prominently in the news these days. Right from the beginning more than 41 years ago when he overthrew the monarchy that ruled his country for 17 years, Muammar Gaddafi has eluded any firm definition of his character outsiders apply to him. All except one — ruthless, despotic ruler of Libya.
Even the spelling of his name gives outsiders trouble — a few years ago a British newspaper, the London Evening Standard, counted 27 spellings while the US Library of Congress is reported to list 32. The problem is that many letters in the Arabic and Roman alphabets do not have a direct equivalent sound, and the picture is complicated by differing regional accents of Arabic. Most English-language broadcasters and publications have settled on a few variations of Muammar Gaddafi, but the closest rendering I have come across is one from a Libyan publication of the 1970s — Muammar Qathafy, in which the Q is indistinct and the TH is stressed as in the English this, that or the other.
This modern Proteus has been variously described as mercurial, flamboyant, a mad dog, eccentric, megalomaniacal, murderous and a terrorist. He was born of a Bedouin family in a tent and affected that style during his public career. Gaddafi nurtured notions of overthrowing the old order from his days as a cadet at officer school, and when King Idris (the only king Libya ever had) left for medical treatment in Europe he and a few like-minded junior officers took advantage of the opportunity. Since September 1, 1969, Gaddafi has been sole ruler of his oil-rich North African country smack in the middle of the Sahara desert.
He had long admired the coup in neighbouring Egypt by a cabal of army officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser introduced an amalgam of traditional Arab traditions and socialist tenets in a new ideology he dubbed Arab Socialism, and Gaddafi used that template to bring in his own version of Islamic Socialism with a blend of the welfare state and Arab nationalism. He also admired the powerful revolutionary despots of the day and took his cue from the publication in China of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book setting out how Chinese revolutionaries should behave. Gaddafi's Little Green Book, which appeared in three volumes, covered the gamut from religious observance to the proper way to perform one's bodily functions.
He renamed his country the Great Socialist People's Libyan Jamahiriya. Jamahiriya is a combination of two Arabic words which mean "state of the masses" and which Gaddafi coined to signify that his country was a republic ruled by the masses or, to use a term popular in the old Soviet Bloc, "people's republic". That might have been the intention, but in practice Libya became one of the biggest kleptocracies in the world. Its major source of income by far is petroleum. With fewer than 6.5 million people, Libya obtains about the same per capita earning from oil as does Saudi Arabia. But instead of spending the money on building up infrastructure and diversifying the economy, Gaddafi preferred to look beyond his borders.
At first he entertained the notion of a grand Pan-Arabism with him in the forefront, but after he caused all manner of trouble in places like Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Palestine, the other Arab countries regard Libya practically as a pariah.
Gaddafi engendered the wrath of the United States and several other countries by fostering terrorism. He maintained a steady supply of weapons to the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain, as well as fringe groups in several other parts of Europe. He was implicated in the bombing of a night-club in Germany which killed American servicemen, and engineered the bombing of a Pan American airliner over Scotland in 1988. He even embarked on a programme to develop nuclear weapons.
After the world slapped sanctions on Libya, he changed tactics, made reparations, allowed accused people to be tried in foreign courts, and discontinued the nuclear efforts. Foreign diplomats and business people beat a path back to Tripoli not because they thought he was taking the path of righteousness, but because of what lay beneath Libya's parched sands.
He turned to Pan Africanism and used Libya's oil wealth to curry favour among leaders throughout the continent, savoury or unsavoury. Some of it has been beneficial - his support of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress earned him the undying gratitude and affection of the respected statesman, and he has helped needy states like Mali, Chad, Liberia, N****, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Ethiopia. Right now he bankrolls a 20,000-strong peace-keeping mission in Darfur, sponsored by the African Union and the United Nations. The mission could be in serious jeopardy if that support were to disappear.
Gaddafi is among just a few people who still maintain a dream of a united states of Africa, and Libya provides 15 per cent of the dues of the African Union. While his fellow Libyans see themselves as Arabs or desert tribespeople, he has tried to portray Libya as an African nation and in his usual flamboyant fashion appears in public wearing tunics bearing the portraits of prominent African leaders. He once proclaimed himself "king of kings" on the African continent and has welcomed hordes of people from neighbouring countries to work in Libya.
But for all the money Libya has earned from its oilfields, Libyans are much worse off than their counterparts in other oil states. Gaddafi has not built anything like a "people's republic", but rather has devoted his efforts to maintaining himself, his family and associates in power. They have made themselves fabulously rich through a network of state enterprises and have salted away much of the money in financial havens like Dubai and other Persian Gulf states as well as south-east Asia.
Using a combination of playing off one tribal group against the other and outright brutality, Gaddafi has retained power for more than four decades. His days now appear to be numbered. Libya is sandwiched between Egypt to the east and Tunisia and Algeria to the west. Unlike the despots in Cairo and Tunis who left to avoid bloodbaths in their countries, Gaddafi is in no mood to be conciliatory. He went on the air to describe his opponents as rats and cockroaches, the young demonstrators as being drugged with hallucinatory pills "in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafé" and even claimed that al Qaeda is behind the protests.
The worst thing that could happen is a full-scale civil war, with its attendant cost in blood. The Protean, Gaddafi, seems to have run out of disguises, and we see him only as the violent despot. He could still prevail, although with each passing day the forces against him seem to gain strength. One thing is certain - like Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi is determined to remain in Libya and to die there. The only question is ... how?