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For Gadhafi, prisoner release is part of a complex agenda


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POSTED: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CAIRO » Once the mad dog of the Middle East, as Ronald Reagan called him, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, has focused on shedding his outlaw status: He heads the African Union, attended a Group of 8 economic conference in Rome and is courted by Western powers hungry for Libyan oil.

But if the world thought the colonel had changed his views after 40 years in power, he proved otherwise with the hero's welcome he gave Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988.

"He likes to rub it in to the West that he was vindicated, that he's becoming an internationally recognized figure again," said Dirk J. Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

It was signature Gadhafi, extracting a concession from Western powers, offering thanks, then appearing to mock them for caving in. On his visit to Paris in 2007, he lectured the French on human rights. In Rome this year, he pinned a photograph to his chest of the 1931 arrest by Italian troops of the Libyan guerrilla leader Omar al-Mokhtar, whom the Italians later hanged.

But this time, Gadhafi appears to have overreached (even if Megrahi's homecoming, indeed his entire case, may not be as straightforward as many perceive).

Instead of enhancing Gadhafi's standing, as he had hoped, Megrahi's release has highlighted inherent conflicts in his re-engagement with the outside world, experts said. Gadhafi's revolutionary ideology still clashes with Western expectations. He has failed to use his nation's opening to make political and economic improvements at home. There may even be a degree of naivete on the part of Gadhafi, who has expressed shock at the full-throated response from Washington and London.

George Joffe, a lecturer at the Center of International Studies at Cambridge University, said the Libyans had "felt they succeeded" at complying with requests to keep the celebrations low-key. After all, Gadhafi did not himself greet Megrahi at the airport.

In that way, this case forces the West and Libya to face up to differences in perceptions that have hung over the courtship since reconciliation began.

The West sees the current situation as clear-cut: Libya honoring a convicted terrorist who helped to blow up a jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. But Libya experts said that it was far more nuanced, explaining in part why Libya acted as it did, and why it was so surprised by the reaction. There are several reasons, the experts said, chief among them that the government never accepted Megrahi's guilt.

"When Megrahi was found guilty there was an immediate sense in Libya that a great miscarriage of justice had taken place," Joffe said. "And even on the day of the sentence, Gadhafi said that he would do everything to reverse it. Right from the beginning they did not accept the sentence."

Still, this does not completely explain Gadhafi's behavior.

"Libya is highly authoritarian, but he still has a domestic audience he needs to appeal to," said Dana Moss, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "In the aftermath of giving up nukes and re-engaging the U.S. he wants to show he is no puppet of the West and that he made his decisions independently."

In the days since Scottish officials released Megrahi, Gadhafi's son Saif al Islam Gadhafi seemed to go out of his way to incite vitriol aimed at the very people he was thanking—officials in Scotland. Most damaging was his suggestion that British officials had agreed to release Megrahi as part of a quid pro quo business deal.

Saif al Islam Gadhafi, who accompanied Megrahi home from Scotland, is thought to be engaged in a succession contest with his brother Moatessem-Billah Gadhafi. Saif al Islam Gadhafi was widely seen as using the Megrahi case to try to burnish his credentials, especially among the old guard who do not trust him.

But Libyan officials say his comments were misconstrued, that Libya was simply using any leverage it had, including during trade talks, to free Megrahi.

Perhaps the central element, however, which cannot be overlooked, is Moammar Gadhafi's personal ambition.

He gained the international status he craved when he became head of the African Union and he has used his position to promote his top goal—creation of a United States of Africa with one army, one passport, one currency and one leader. He hoped that bringing Megrahi home would elevate his status among African leaders.

From the beginning, it was almost inevitable that this case would end in hostility and recriminations. For those whose relatives died in the 1988 bombing, forcing Libya to pay millions to each family and putting Megrahi in prison for life amounted to a shred of justice.

But to Libya, that money was a business deal, a small price for a ticket to re-engage with the West and attract foreign investment. Libya did not admit guilt. It assumed responsibility for "the actions of its officials." The resolution cost Libya about $2.7 billion. The next year Libya's foreign investment reached $8 billion.

In the gap of perception over Megrahi's homecoming, where the West expressed outrage, Gadhafi saw hypocrisy, experts said. When in 2007 Libya released five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death on charges they had infected children with the virus that causes AIDS, they were greeted by the Bulgarian president and prime minister, the French president's wife and the foreign affairs commissioner of the European Union.

Gadhafi agreed to send them to Bulgaria to serve out prison terms, but they were immediately pardoned by the Bulgarian president.

"Why didn't we hear these objections, on the exoneration of this condemned team?" Gadhafi asked last week. "Are we donkeys, but they are humans?"

His parallel was dismissed in the West, where health officials argued that his charges were fabricated. But Libyans believed Megrahi was a political prisoner, and some experts assert that those sentiments are not without some justification.

"I remember talking to one of the judges from the panel that convicted him," said Vandewalle, of Dartmouth. "He said there was enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction."

Next Tuesday Libya will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Gadhafi to power. Megrahi may again be on display.

"The very concept of anti-imperialism is still at the heart of Gadhafi's discourse," Moss said. "His ideological prism has not changed. He has to show, or wants to show, that he is not backing down."

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.