I feel like I’m supposed to write a kaddish for Qaddafi. And I’m having a lot of trouble doing so. What I want to do is defend him somehow. Say that he’s been maligned for decades. Tell you about the jokes Tunisians (Libya’s neighbors to the west) used to tell about Qaddafi, all the way back in the 1970s.
In those days, Tunisians used to sneak over the border ‘basbor de-la-lune‘ into Libya to work. They’d cross over at night, their passports being nothing but the light of the full moon. Qaddafi put people to work. Even Tunisians.
In Tebourba, people said that just working in a cafe in Libya brought home more money than anything they could do back home. And so they’d go. And they’d stay until they’d made their fortune. Two years. Five years. And then they’d come home briefly, bearing massive gifts. Sewing machines and heaters. Fancy fuzzy carpet and grandfather clocks. Electric fans and electric ovens. Even if the electricity couldn’t handle it. They brought the hope of employment and wealth. And then they’d be gone again. To bring back more.
Tunisians used to joke that Qaddafi gave everyone a car and everyone a house. Every Libyan, that is. And that Libya was so rich, that when the car ran out of gas, they’d just abandon it right where it stood. Libya was that rich. It was a very Tunisian joke. Tunisia was surrounded by rich neighbors, and their humor was the worst kind of self-deprecating.
Until last year. When Tunisia led the way.
And then the neighbors followed.
Qaddafi was killed today.
And the media is still making jokes about him. How ludicrous he was. The crimes he perpetrated. Remember when Reagan called Qaddafi a ‘Barbarian and a rat fink’? It was headline in the SF Chronicle way back when. Today, even NPR still felt the need to joke about Qaddafi’s hats, his ego, and his tent. The media has enjoyed decades of making him look clownish and stupid. A country bumpkin who ended up in power. Although, he never did hold any official title beyond ‘colonel.’
My favorite Qaddafi story is when some Minister in Tunisian President Bourguiba’s cabinet handed him an edict, and the first president of the republic signed it, sight unseen. Only to discover that he’d just given his country away. To Qaddafi. Under the edict, Bourguiba would stay president of the newly combined nation, and Qaddafi would head the military.
When Bourguiba realized his mistake, the story goes, he threw the Minister in prison for a while, and went on national TV.
“I’m an old man,” President Bourguiba said, “and someone took advantage of me.”
Tebourbis told me this story. They loved this story.
And then Bourguiba—right there on the tube in front of his entire nation—admitted that he’d made a mistake.
He picked up the edict in his two hands, held it up for all to see, and tore it to pieces. Khalass. No more treaty.
God, that was simple.
And that was the difference between the two North African leaders.
Qaddafi tried to merge Libya with Egypt, too. And Chad, as well. It just never seemed to take.
I was once in Chad when Qaddafi was visiting N’Djemena. As we traveled south from the capital, the tribesmen were riding north to pay him homage. Thirty five years later, he still had sub-Saharan and even Tuareg allegiance, even in recent days. He desired a greater Maghrebi union. And believed that kings and royalty were anachronistic in the modern age. That the Middle East and North Africa should let go of monarchy already. For himself, no title, just rule. Seems he was more opposed to titles than despotism.
Long live the revolution. That’s what Qaddafi used to say.
But if the rest of the world is holding its collective breath for the blossoming democratic institutions any time soon, you can say kaddish for that one starting right now.
Yes, I know. You’re sick of my invoking Ibn Khaldun. But there it is. A prediction of yet another oscillation of elites. The ‘Arab Spring’ may well be an upheaval against a generation of despotic rulers across the Middle East and North Africa. But expect preexisting opposition factions, parties, and leaders-in-exile (or prison) to step into power vacuum more than democratic proceedings.
But if democratic institutions somehow miraculously do flourish one day—thank this eager new generation (with their cell phones, smart phones, social networks) for finally doing what every generation before them could not manage. Keep in mind how the ‘Arab Spring’ started. In Tunisia. With one young man. Underemployed, and bureaucratically hampered. One young man with no future at all.
Unemployment of a plugged in hip new generation. Linked in to global scene. Aware of options and lack of options. No movement, uprising, or revolution has solved that one at all. Not anywhere. Not even here.
The next leader and government of Libya is going to have to do at least one thing that Qaddafi did. He—or she—is going to have to somehow put this next generation to work.