A Life in the Flashbulbs

The never-before-seen photographs in the Qaddafi Files offer an unprecedented look into the long saga of the Libyan leader. I should know; I've been waiting and watching my entire professional life.


To someone like myself who had followed and chronicled Muammar al-Qaddafi’s revolution for almost a quarter century — and repeatedly interviewed virtually everyone close to the regime — the Benghazi uprising earlier this year initially seemed almost an exercise in futility. Barnacled with multiple layers of security organizations that had successfully protected Qaddafi for over four decades, the regime seemed impervious to any popular uprising or revolt. Yet, within eight months, the seemingly invincible security mechanisms the Libyan regime had created crumbled, and Qaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli.

The regime had grown so old by the time it collapsed that it was hard to remember where it all had started — in those heady years of the late 1960s when it seemed, momentarily, as if the Arab world stood on the cusp of a wave of destruction that would obliterate the old monarchies and outdated regimes that had ruled the Middle East for decades.

Many older readers undoubtedly remember this image from the beginning of Qaddafi’s 1969 revolution: the young, pencil-thin revolutionary in his carefully pressed military uniform or pin-striped suit, with closely cropped hair, smiling somewhat forlornly and shy at the cameras of the international media which he would — as all dictators inevitably do — court and villify for his own purposes throughout his reign in power. These are the early years — when an almost deliriously happy Qaddafi is sitting on a brocaded sofa beside or walking arm-in-arm with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his hero — this the young Qaddafi, a revolutionary who promised to return to the Arab world much of the grandeur and the power it had once possessed.

Seeing these remarkable early images, it becomes somewhat easier to invoke the zeitgeist within the Middle East at the time. When Nasser died in 1970, Qaddafi became the self-appointed guardian of his legacy, adopting the notion of Arab nationalism and unity as part and parcel of his revolution. For many in the West today, it is perhaps somewhat more difficult to understand what appeal Qaddafi once possessed for the Arab masses. But in Libya and in the Arab world, where the failures of non-alignment and of confronting Israel were keenly felt at the time — remember, this 1969, two years after the Six-Day war — the young Qaddafi represented, despite his blustering and often absurdly simple solutions, a voice for what many Arab rulers could no longer say. He spoke the unpalatable truths that others did not dare to articulate. He attacked both friends and foes alike with a sense of righteousness that antagonized his closest partners as much as his enemies.

To the young Qaddafi — he was only 27 years-old when the Sept. 1, 1969, coup took place — his ambitions of regional leadership during these early years seemed limitless. The old decrepit Sanusi monarchy of King Idris had been overthrown in a bloodless coup that was soon portrayed as a glorious and "everlasting revolution." This was to be a brave new Libya, driven by the certainty of the Colonel’s convictions, by his unflagging energy for revolutionary movements, and fueled by the gold rush of oil revenues after the 1973 Ramadan war.

For almost a decade, the regime was eager to demonstrate its revolutionary credentials to the world: it supported Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian liberation cause; and shipped illegal arms to a number of causes the regime subscribed to, including the Irish Republican Army. Much of the oil money furthermore was spent on sophisticated military hardware, eagerly displayed by the regime as a sign of its prowess and modernity during its annual Sept. 1 celebrations. And at the heart of it all was the man who now, at his insistence, became known as The Brother Leader and The Guide.

But the disappointments of pursuing revolutionary regional leadership were soon visible. His increasingly open confrontation with the West and his alienation of his fellow Arab rulers kept Qaddafi isolated, left to attend interminable public receptions with dour-looking Eastern European and Soviet officials who had become his outside supporters. The Leader’s dazzling smile from his earlier encounters with Nasser had sagged somewhat. His hair was now spilling out from beneath the military képi; the trademark oversized sunglasses starting to hide his eyes. In his meeting with Brezhnev an Arab-style cloak has replaced the previous military trenchcoats. The transformation from ascetic-looking Arab revolutionary to self-styled philosopher-king and eventually to the clownish figure we came to know so well had begun.

As the 1970s and 1980s proceeded, there were as well the darker images to the revolution the regime found increasingly difficult to disguise: the human rights abuses, the images of torture that had become widespread, the prisoners of an ill-considered war with Chad and, most infamously, the public hangings of opponents that forever soiled Qaddafi’s image beyond redemption. The late 1970s and 1980s were as well the period of Qaddafi’s rule imprinted most vividly on the West’s minds: the terrorist incidents, the confrontation between President Ronald Reagan and Qaddafi, the bombing of Libya in April 1986, and the growing isolation of the regime. The Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, was the logical endpoint for a regime that had lost all international legitimacy. At home, the revolution was dying rapidly, and the Libyan ruler — surrounded as all dictators are by sycophants, and tone-deaf to any kind of contrary advice — simply went on as if nothing had changed.  

His often bizarre pronouncements were by now beyond questioning at home, his enormous pictures and security services everywhere. The iconography of the revolution became the dictator as he wanted to be seen: always triumphant, his clenched fist in the air as a sign of determination, the wraparound sunglasses and, eventually, the hennaed hair half-hidden by a succession of colorful headgear. By this time, Qaddafi’s world had become so reverential and closed that even his son, Saif al-Islam, in his art gallery debut in London, included a painting showing his father in what had by then become an unavoidable and stereotypical image of Qaddafi: the ruler, with crossed arms, mysteriously staring off into space as if detecting some wisdom in the sky undiscernible to ordinary Libyans. Brother Leader, by that time, had turned away from his Arab nationalist cause and, literally, wrapped himself into the robes of his newfound cause of African unity.

The combination of U.S. and international economic sanctions bit fiercely, however, and the ambitions of the regime were severely hemmed in as the millennium came to an end. The agreement to declare and shutter its weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003 promised a way back out of the deadlock for the regime. It also allowed Qaddafi to dramatically recast his international image. Gone now were the meetings with the equivalent of Eastern Bloc party apparatchiks; gone were the public welcomes for terrorists in Tripoli. Instead, there were now meetings with Tony Blair and, eventually, with Condoleezza Rice, and state visits to Brussels and New York. Qaddafi eagerly looked for an image that would match his by now limitless ego and self-deception. The Brother Leader and those around him started to portray him in earnest to the world as he had, at any rate, always envisioned himself: a global political figure of major proportion, a visionary thinker whose ideas about democracy were worthy of serious intellectual contemplation, a man who could hold his weight among the rulers of the world.

As usual in oil dictatorships, in this campaign for respectability and recognition, money was no obstacle. In his son, Saif al-Islam — the self-proclaimed would-be reformer of his father’s dictatorship — Qaddafi found an eager ally. The campaign to brighten Qaddafi’s international standing was orchestrated by Saif al-Islam and implemented by Monitor Group, the international consulting firm that had initially provided Libya with a blueprint for its economic strategy but had strayed, perilously, into burnishing the image of the dictator.

Missing from the Foreign Policy Qaddafi Files collection — and their absence indicative perhaps of what little importance they ultimately presented to the regime — are the pictures of Qaddafi with those Western intellectuals and public figures brought to Libya by Monitor to engage with him in philosophical discussions about his Green Book: no images of Qaddafi with Fareed Zakaria, with Anne Marie Slaughter, with Joseph Nye, with Francis Fukuyama, or Benjamin Barber. Perhaps they exist somewhere. Only Condoleezza Rice, who came as Secretary of State in 2008, merited her own picture album, separately, found at Bab al-Azizya.

The February uprising earlier this year abruptly put a halt to the regime’s charm offensive. The speeches from both father and son in mid-February indicated how unreconstructed the regime had remained. Behind the images of a newfound pragmatism, there was no substance, no possibility of compromise or of adaptation. The language used by both men was the same violent and intemperate language of two decades earlier, unrepentant, its labeling of any opposition as "cockroaches" and "rats" unchanged.

What the uprising finally also provided, somewhat unexpectedly, were glimpses of the dictator that, for once, had not been officially approved. Throughout the 42 years of iron-fisted rule, there had never been any hints of domesticity. The public persona of the dictator had been carefully crafted, sculpted, and cultivated for decades in extravagantly large pictures and slogans from the Green Book that had once been strung and printed across almost any available public space: from bridgeheads and the walls of the Saraya al-Hamra in Tripoli to blankets in Tubruk to waterbottles from Kufra.

These pictures in Foreign Policy are very different: they punctuate the public myth by showing us Qaddafi en famille, playing with his grandchildren, relaxing in his tent, savoring a moment with his wife, attending weddings — all of it somewhat alarmingly in the same poor sartorial style as that revealed in his public appearances. Once cringes involuntarily at the thought of Qaddafi, who brooked no opposition and who once summarily held the power of life and death for his subjects in his hands, enduring the teasing of one of his young grandsons. And while there was a never-ending and deliberate extravagance to all his public appearances, the settings at home in contrast look decidedly dowdy if not shabby: the ramshackle collection of couches and coffee tables, flung seemingly at random within the tents Qaddafi preferred to live in. One cannot just call it bad taste — what is interesting is that it expresses no taste at all. It reveals a personal life pared down to its essentials, a life that has seemingly not moved beyond the asceticism of 1969 — the traditional lifestyle of a bedouin eschewing anything beyond what is immediately needed.

Already the public visual and physical legacies of the Qaddafi era are rapidly disappearing. The walls of Bab al-Azizya have been leveled, its inner sanctum now a meeting place for family weekend picnics, soon to be turned into a public park. The public posters of the former leader and the exhortations from the Green Book have been shredded and torn down. The Jamahiriyya’s green flags no longer flutter from what is now Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli. When the civil war unfolded, the omnipresent images of Qaddafi and the slogans from his Green Book disappeared, destroyed in joyous auto-da-fés on street corners and, eventually, at Bab al-Azizya, where Libyans stomped with undiminished glee on the burning images.

Instead one now finds graffiti of Qaddafi everywhere — and soon even that will be gone. So quickly and thoroughly has the physical presence of the former regime disappeared that on a recent visit to Benghazi I desperately found myself salvaging volumes of his speeches before they were all fed to the bonfire. (Although one should not unduly worry: In the aftermath of the civil war, Libya’s embassy in Washington found itself burdened by 200,000 copies of the Green Book that had been left undistributed.)

Qaddafi, the last self-proclaimed Arab warrior, not surprisingly remained defiant and uncompromising until the end. Calling himself a bedouin and a martyr, he vowed repeatedly during the uprising that he would fight to the end, for the sake of Libya and to stand up to the machinations of the West — and he was true to his word. He said he would oppose all those who wanted to sell out Libya, much like the country’s national hero, Umar al-Mukhtar, had resisted Italian colonialism. For all his buffoonery and his misappropriations of symbols, if Qaddafi had understood one thing clearly about Libya, it was that its history could be a powerful force — something he harnessed for four decades in what turned out to be a reckless political experiment that devastated both the country and its society.

But the final pictures of the dictator possessed a less than heroic quality: Qaddafi dragged through the streets of Sirte, his beloved hometown, his bloody battered body dumped unceremoniously into the back of a pickup truck, his face twisted into a grimace of pain.

One thinks back involuntarily to the early photographs in this collection: of a young Qaddafi embarking upon his revolution, with a winning smile, brimming with confidence, so long ago before it all went disastrously and irrevocably wrong.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola