Landing in Libya with war clouds looming

Landing in Libya with war clouds looming

The Libyan war provides a lesson for both dictators and foreign interventionists

As we taxied into Tripoli airport in March 2011, it was clear we had landed in trouble. Instead of making normal announcements about disembarking and the temperature outside, the flight attendant said this would be the airline’s last flight into Libya, and if we wanted, we could stay on board and fly home immediately. Otherwise, we were on our own.

My cameraman and I, among a handful of passengers, walked out of the plane in troubled silence. Among our worries was that our visas had been signed by the Libyan Ambassador to India, who had subsequently defected in protest against Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s policies, and had been declared a traitor. After several hours of interrogation by immigration officials, however, we were allowed to enter Tripoli to cover what we later realised would be the last days of Gaddafi in power.

Outside the airport, a tent city had come up of foreign nationals, immigrants, labourers, nurses and teachers including thousands of Indians who were queuing up to leave Libya. At the Indian Embassy, a few valiant diplomats worked day and night to issue passports and help with exit papers, amidst sounds of intermittent gunfire and clashes, before they themselves had to leave Libya, to escape the violence.

The UN Security Council had begun to discuss a British- and French-backed ‘R2P’ (Responsibility to Protect) resolution to bomb Libya, so as to (ironically) protect its citizens from its dictator. War clouds were gathering over the country that, for all Gaddafi’s public lunacy, still had the highest per capita income in Africa. Gaddafi had gambled that while foreign journalists (American and European, that is) remained in Tripoli, he would not be bombed, so he had put them up in splendour at his own Rixos Hotel. He also thought that he could control their reportage by slowing down the Internet everywhere except at the hotel, so that they would be forced to file positive stories from one easily monitored place.

The ruling militia took us to see pro-Gaddafi rallies and escorted us to towns that they had won from the rebels. On some evenings, Gaddafi and his son Saif would appear at the hotel and exude confidence that they would defeat the uprising. Finally, Gaddafi figured that while Western powers had a UN mandate to protect people in eastern Libya (Benghazi and Cyrenaica), they did not have a mandate for regime change, especially while he controlled western and southern Libya (Tripolitania and Fezzan), and even in the worst-case scenario, he would remain in power.

Gaddafi was wrong. NATO forces never stopped once Benghazi was secured, and eventually stormed Tripoli too, led by rebel forces. They then launched a massive hunt for Gaddafi, and when he was found by a mob, he was lynched to death. It was too late for Gaddafi to learn what the end of all dictators from François Duvalier to Saddam Hussein should have taught him.

For the West, after the decade of conflict that followed their ‘intervention lite’, and especially after the tragic killing of the U.S. Ambassador and other staff in Benghazi in 2012, the victory was a pyrrhic one. The rebel groups that U.S. troops accompanied to Tripoli were soon led by Islamist terrorists. The lesson for dictators and foreign interventionists can only be one: when you use violence to remove your enemies, ensure that what follows isn’t worse than them.

Your email address will not be published.