Witness: Up close, but not very personal, with Col. Gaddafi

Fri Feb 25, 2011 10:01am EST

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi speaks during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of the American military bases in the country, in Tripoli, June 12, 2010. REUTERS/Ismail Zetouny

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi speaks during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of the American military bases in the country, in Tripoli, June 12, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Ismail Zetouny

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Edmund Blair has worked for most of the past 20 years covering the Middle East. He has reported from Tripoli to Tehran, and is now the Reuters bureau chief in Cairo where he covered Egypt's revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak on February 11. He describes a close-up experience of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's flamboyant and idiosyncratic ruling style.

By Edmund Blair

CAIRO (Reuters) - There were, give or take, 1,000 tanks. They tore up Tripoli's seafront boulevard, literally. None had rubber pads to protect the road surface from the metal tracks. The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, looked on.

He was seated on a podium, with a handful of other African and Arab leaders and officials. It was 1994 and he was celebrating 25 years of a revolution that swept him to power.

The trip, my first to Libya, gave me a close-up view of Gaddafi's idiosyncratic system of rule, now teetering as rebels have taken charge of huge swathes of the country.

I also had a brush -- very briefly -- with the erratic man himself, who in the space of two days has called the rebels "cockroaches" and "rats" to be crushed or simply out of control youths who are high on Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.

But for Libyans rebelling against Gaddafi, the reasons for their revolt are simpler. They are tired of their flamboyant leader and his repressive policies that have failed to provide enough jobs in a country awash with oil wealth.

Back at the parade, I counted the tanks. There was not much else to do as the endless rows passed, chewing up the tarmac into dust and grit.

It was a traditional show of strength, though many of the Russian T-55s and T-72s, outdated even then, sputtered out clouds of black exhaust. At least one stalled before restarting.

Then I had my first -- fairly close -- encounter with Gaddafi. I was working for a magazine that covered Middle East affairs at the time. Photographers were invited to the podium to snap "the Brother leader," the title Libyan media prefers.

I am not a professional photographer, and not a very good amateur one either. But I did have my Minolta SLR. So I queued up with the serious snappers. Officials didn't seem to care. I had my turn crouched at Gaddafi's feet, clicking away.

He wore a smart white military jacket, with a breast full of medals, white cap and his trademark dark glasses. He has always been exuberant in his style -- one day flowing tribal robes, another military garb and then on others his swish, and I suspect Italian-made, suits. That day was no exception.

Below him, tanks gave way to trucks loaded with sections of concrete pipes, several meters in diameter, parts of "the Great Manmade River," a vast project on which Gaddafi has splurged billions of petrodollars to pump water from ancient desert aquifers in the south to coastal farms in the north.

The project, begun in the 1980s, now feeds water to some areas. But Libya's coastal plains are not the bountiful farmlands promised. Instead, they are full of youths, often well educated, trying to find jobs. Many have now finally tired of waiting for Gaddafi to deliver on his economic commitments.

Those pledges are laid out in Gaddafi's "Green Book" outlining his "Third Universal Way." It might be described as Marx meets Malcolm-X, touching on the slavery of wages, the failure of parliamentary democracy and black power.

"The blacks will prevail in the world," was one of the slogans from the book plastered in cabins of the ship that in 1994 took me from the island state of Malta to Tripoli.

Libya at that time was under an air embargo, imposed after Tripoli was accused of bombing a Pan Am jumbo over Scotland.

"A parliament is a misrepresentation of the people and parliamentary governments are a misleading solution to the problem of democracy," Gaddafi writes, describing his "happy discovery of the way to direct democracy" involving people's congresses and committees around the country.

Those committees and congresses, particularly in eastern Libya, have collapsed. A new kind of direct rule has emerged, no longer swearing allegiance to Gaddafi. Cities like Benghazi are now firmly in the hands of the people.

Back in 1994, any such aspirations were a long way off and Gaddafi had his international admirers. Next to me at one speech was a group representing the Sandinista movement of Nicaragua.

As he does now, Gaddafi rambled on, his address lasting more than a hour. And just as he did on Tuesday, when he addressed and threatened rebellious Libyans in a televised speech, he ended with his clenched fists in the air. It was vintage Gaddafi.

Shortly after that, I had my closest brush with the leader himself. It was about midnight when there was knock on the hotel room door. Other journalists and I were hurried out to attend a ceremony to award a Gaddafi-backed human rights prize.

That year, it went to an African human rights group. It has since gone to Hugo Chavez, Louis Farrakhan and Fidel Castro.

Bundled into a minibus, we were whisked off to a tent, a favored retreat of the Libyan leader.

Gaddafi arrived. He pushed through the crowd. This was no typical entrance of an Arab leader, or any other leader for that matter, where a path is cleared by security beforehand or a president emerges from a well-guarded rear entrance.

In the melee, I was, for a brief moment, crushed up against him. This time, he was in a shiny, grey, well-cut double-breasted jacket. At such close quarters, I could see his face plastered in heavy make-up. His hair clearly dyed jet black.

He pushed through what looked for that moment more like a paparazzi scrum around a film star. His head was held high. Too close for me to raise my camera, that image is a personal one.

I have traveled back to Libya several times since then to report for Reuters. Subsequent trips were never quite so colorful. Instead, I wrote about efforts to revive the economy and daily frustrations of Libyans tired of their lot.

One of my photos was published by my magazine. It wasn't very good. I think my editor was humoring me. But the trip gave me, as a young reporter, a close up view of Gaddafi's style. As he clings to power now, I doubt I'll get that opportunity again.

(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Caroline Drees)

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