Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Coming in from the cold, Qaddafi's silence is gold


After years trying to build a reputation as an African statesman, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi appeared at a Europe-North Africa summit this month for what should have been a triumphant moment. But Qaddafi didn't even bother to address the meeting.

When asked why he failed to speak, Qaddafi quoted an Arab proverb: "Words are silver, but silence is gold."

The meeting came as Qaddafi was bringing Libya back into the international community -- and taming his revolutionary image -- but his performance proved again what has been clear for the 34 years of Qaddafi's rule: It's hard to predict the actions of the flamboyant Libyan leader.

On Friday, he surprised the world again when Libya declared it would rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.

"Libya is to play its international role in building a new world free of weapons of mass destruction and all kinds of terrorism, with the aim of preserving international peace and security," Qaddafi said, according to Libya's official JANA news service.

Libya would also help "face the ecological challenges so that the color green will prevail all over the globe," added Qaddafi, who has recorded his political philosophy -- a mix of socialism, populism and Arab nationalism -- in a volume called The Green Book.

Qaddafi's statements conflict with an international image as a sponsor of terrorism for the past three decades. Libya is blamed for a series of terrorist attacks, the deadliest being the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

Qaddafi often challenges the international order. In 1973, his country invaded neighboring Chad. In 1979, a mob in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, ransacked the US embassy in support of Iran's Islamic revolution. In 1986, Libya was blamed for a bombing at a Berlin disco that killed a US soldier and a Turkish woman.

The disco bombing prompted US air strikes on Libya that killed about 40 people, among them Qaddafi's adopted daughter. The two incidents underscored the bitter enmity between Qaddafi and Washington.

But the Libyan leader has gradually backed away from his revolutionary image. In 1999, he allowed two Libyans to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing -- one was convicted, the other acquitted. In August, Libya accepted responsibility for the attack, opening the way for the UN Security Council to lift sanctions on the country.

Qaddafi's change of heart was sold to the Libyan people as a decision to end the country's isolation and cure its sick economy, but most saw it as Qaddafi's way to avoid the fate of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Like Saddam, Qaddafi sought to be a pan-Arab leader on the model of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. But while other Arab leaders gladly accepted largesse from Libyan oil, they never took Qaddafi as seriously as he wanted.

After taking over Libya in a 1969 military coup as a 27-year-old army officer, Qaddafi gained a reputation as an eccentric, wearing flowing robes, organizing camel caravans to make political points and holding meetings in a desert tent.

He turned Libya into what he called a jamahiriya -- Arabic for a republic of the masses -- that was in theory run by people's committees. But all the while, Qaddafi was really in charge, squelching dissent and reportedly surviving several assassination attempts.

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