The colonel in his labyrinth - Mahir Ali - Wednesday, March 02, 2011

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Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

— Epitaph on a Tyrant
by W.H. Auden

MORE than 70 years ago, Auden was able to encapsulate in just six lines what he perceived to be the primary attributes of tyranny.

In the 1930s in Europe, there were plenty of candidates to choose from; the poet likely had Hitler in his sights, but may well have had Mussolini, Stalin and perhaps even Franco in mind too. His multi-layered description has broadly stood the test of time.

I was reminded of it while watching Col Muammar Qadhafi’s shenanigans in recent days. His grotesquely delusional rant on Libyan state television last week reinforced the impression that his utterances deserved more than mere analysis: they required psychoanalysis. If he really believes what he has been saying about drugs and Al Qaeda, then the colonel’s crazier than one might have imagined.

A certain degree of loopiness has been evident from the beginning of his reign, his entertaining eccentricities have consistently been combined with varying degrees of ruthlessness. Arab nationalism of the Nasserite variety was all but moribund when Qadhafi, a 27-year-old army captain, assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1969, displacing Idris, Libya’s only king.

The transformation was popular in Libya at the time; Qadhafi looked up to Nasser, and he reportedly went into seclusion for several days when the Egyptian leader died in 1970. But to traditional Arab monarchs he embodied one of their worst nightmares, and they have consistently been wary of his predilections, not least his pan-Arabist inclinations. Despite his best efforts, however, Qadhafi was unable to replicate Egypt’s brief union with Syria under the rubric of the United Arab Republic.

His keenness to be seen as an African leader was also thwarted time and again, not least on account of Libya’s dubious role in Chad. It would be unfair, though, to overlook the fact that Qadhafi was among the leaders Nelson Mandela chose to visit, in defiance of American advice, following his liberation in order to thank them for extending support to the African National Congress during its armed struggle against apartheid.

Within Libya, however, Qadhafi’s rule transmogrified into a singularly unpleasant autocracy, and his refusal to acknowledge its limitations strengthens the impression that Qadhafi is a very different entity from the person who, under the fond auspices of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, addressed a congregation of Pakistanis at Lahore’s largest stadium, which has thenceforth borne his name.

Qadhafi’s ruthlessness in crushing dissent has been displayed on numerous occasions since then. Last month’s events are by no means the first revolt against Qadhafi, but the difference is that this time there can be little expectation that his regime will survive.

The colonel was almost alone in decrying the events in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of the established order, and his determination to cling on to power in the face of the steadily growing odds is clearly at variance with his diminishing authority. Qadhafi’s refusal to go may mean that a repetition of Nicolae Ceausescu’s fate lies in store.

Libya has thus far proved to be the bloodiest component in the process kicked off by the Tunisian upheaval earlier this year. At least 1,000 people are believed to have been killed, but the actual toll could be several times as high — easily eclipsing the casualties in the relatively successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

The transformation in Tunisia took a step forward recently with the resignation of the premier who had succeeded Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in the face of continued popular protests against a dispensation seen as too similar to the ancien regime. In Egypt, too, the tendency has been to preserve the status quo — particularly in relation to Cairo’s ties with Israel — while pillorying Hosni Mubarak.

In Bahrain, where the revolt against the established authority involves implications at variance with the norm elsewhere in the Middle East, the royal family has sought to perpetuate its rule through minor concessions to the populist demand for pluralism. Yemen’s Ali Saleh has followed a similar trajectory.

With its Shia majority — and a longstanding territorial claim on the part of Iran — Bahrain differs from its neighbours in the Gulf. But there have lately been stirrings in Oman as well. And the Gulf’s dominant power, Saudi Arabia, has been showing signs of nervousness. A successful eruption there would presumably involve a shift in nomenclature, given that the custodian of the holy shrines rules the only country in the world that bears the name of its ruling family. What’s more, the winds of change have even been felt in occupied Iraq.

In the days before he fled to Sharm El Sheikh, Mubarak was inclined to dismiss the uprising against his rule as an Islamist plot. Qadhafi, too, is prone to dismissing the uprising in his country as an Al Qaeda endeavour, suggesting that the Islamists have been supplying drugs to young Libyans — whom he has dismissed as vermin that ought to be exterminated.

That’s absolute nonsense. If anything, Al Qaeda and its cohorts have been more or less completely sidelined by the Arab revolts. They will, no doubt, seek belatedly to draw sustenance from the transformations, but the notion of a substantial Islamist element in the game-changing revolts appears untenable for the time being.

It’s not just Al Qaeda: Israel is also in a quandary. The future is still unwritten. But the prospect that it will be substantially different from the present holds out the hope, in the foreseeable future, of a transformed Middle East in which the fears and tears of tyrants will no longer mean that little children die in the streets.

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