The sacred right to ‘insult’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Jailing Egyptians for insulting religion and the military goes against the revolution’s spirit, and violates people’s secular and sacred rights.

Monday 31 October 2011

The revolution seems to have made the Egyptian regime very quick to take offence from all those ungrateful pesky Egyptians. In April, the courageous blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was jailed for three years on the ludicrous charge of “insulting the military” – which is an offence only to our intelligence. The posts that got him in trouble include one in which he contends that “the army and people were never a single hand” and another that accuses the interim regime of “recycling the same old shit” but this time on a china plate – not to mention his view that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III has a “long history of hypocrisy with [Egypt’s] leadership”.

In protest against his sentencing, Sanad began a long hunger strike in jail which has placed his health at serious risk. Now reports are emerging that he has been moved to a psychiatric hospital, drawing severe condemnation from Egypt’s mental health community. An interesting blog containing Sanad’s determinedly outspoken writings from prison has been set up by his friends.

Human rights activists cautioned at the time of Sanad’s imprisonment that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and their warning seems to have been sound. Since the revolution began in January, an estimated 12,000 civilians have stood in the dock before military courts, which is more than the total number of cases during the Mubarak era. This is despite the fact that one of the key demands of the revolution was to abolish the emergency laws that make it possible for the regime to execute such summary “justice”.

Now Egypt’s civilian courts have joined the fray of Egyptian institutions making offenders out of bloggers who cause offence. Ayman Youssef Mansour also received three years, but this time not for offending the demigods of the military but rather for “insulting” Islam, “promoting extremist ideas” and “inciting sectarianism” on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the court gave absolutely no details about what exactly Mansour had written and my repeated attempts to dig up his writings online only led me to the empty shell of his Facebook page. But judging from other online content, which has riled pious Egyptians, I suspect that, though Mansour’s page may have caused offence, especially if it was atheistic, it probably did not incite sectarianism or fitna.

Although atheism can be just as oppressive as any other belief system if it becomes the official ‘religion’ of a repressive state, as the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, I’ve never heard of any member of Egypt’s marginalised, unrecognised and forgotten atheist minority ever calling for a ‘jihad’ or ‘crusade’ against believers.

For instance, many Egyptians have been campaigning for the removal of a controversial satirical Facebook page, which mocks religion mercilessly. The content of the page ranges from juvenile and absurdist humour – “If a prophet comes who declare ‘Aha‘ [‘Oh Shit’] I shall believe in him” – to biting political satire and social commentary, but it is all rather harmless.

One post, citing God’s various haughty titles such as “King of Kings”, asks whether “God suffers from megalomania or is just the Muammar Gaddafi of the heavens”. Another post, mocking Mubarak’s attempts to hold on to power by ostensibly delegating his authority to his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, reports: “God has declared … that he does not intend to run for a second godly term and that he is handing over all his powers to the angel Gabriel.”

Though each of these posts gets dozens of likes, indicating that many Egyptians and Arabs approve of this brand of humour, they also elicit hundreds of comments, many of them condemnations and childish insults by believers, many of which are, ironically, blasphemous in nature.

Of course, I can see why, in a largely religious society, the mocking or deriding of the most fundamental beliefs people hold dear can cause anger. But trying to shut down such debate or jail those who hold contrary views goes against the spirit of freedom embodied in the Egyptian revolution. And even for those Muslims who do not believe in modern secularism, Islam itself has traditionally guaranteed freedom of belief for all. This is spelt out, for example, in the constitution of Medina and the long tradition Muslim societies have had of tolerating criticism and the ridiculing of Islam.

More pragmatically, it is in every Egyptian’s interest to scrap the vague legislation that outlaws the “ridiculing or insulting” of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Though the law appears to accord all Egyptians equal rights, this is only the case if we assume that all Egyptians are Muslims, Christians or Jews – but there are those who belong to other religions or none. Then there are those with alternative, more liberal interpretations of their faith, such as academics, novelists and film-makers who have had cases brought against them by Islamists. And not only is this vague law a gift to ultra-conservative Islamists, it was also thoroughly exploited by the former regime to silence its critics.

And far from preventing the fitna the law is apparently designed to do, it may actually stoke the fires of sectarianism and division by creating a new battleground in the courts. This can be seen in how some conservative Christians have taken the Islamists’ lead and are, too, bringing cases to the courts against those they perceive as having defamed their faith.

And who is to determine what’s defamatory? In some ways the very existence of Islam and Christianity can be seen, at one level, as being mutually insulting to each other. After all, regardless of the respect Muslims hold for Christians and their faith, Islam ultimately emerged as a ‘corrective’ for the deviations that Christianity had apparently taken from the ‘true faith’, and challenges some fundamental Christian beliefs. Could that not be interpreted as insulting?

Similarly, Christianity still exists because Christians do not accept that Muhammad is a true prophet, regardless of how much many Christians admire and respect him as a man, leader and visionary. So, it is best for everyone just to live and let live.

The new Egypt must uphold the rights of everyone to believe in what they want and speak freely about their beliefs. It must also protect its minorities, not only Christians and Baha’is but also the officially voiceless but significant nonbelieving minority.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 27 October 2011. Read the related discussion

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Law and order in Libya

 
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By Khaled Diab

Muammar Gaddafi once lived above the law, but his killers must not be permitted the same impunity to get away with murder. Justice must be done, even for fallen despots.

Monday 24 October 2011

After four decades as Libya’s tyrannical and idiosyncratic leader, Muammar Gaddafi has the unenviable distinction of being the first dethroned Arab leader to be killed during the ‘Arab Spring’. His death has been met with a mix of jubilation, disbelief and revulsion, and has been used as an opportunity by Libya’s interim leadership to proclaim an end to the civil war.

It must have been eerie and weird for most Libyans to wake up the day after his death to a Gaddafi-free Libya, since most of them do not remember a Libya without its “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. I recall the strange sensation I felt when Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and he had ruled Egypt for considerably less long and was not as omnipresent or omnipotent as Gaddafi in Libya. 

Even as a non-Libyan who happened to be born in Tripoli in the 1970s, when Gaddafi was still a young revolutionary, it took some time for the idea that the despotic-yet-colourful Libyan leader was no more. Hate him, or love him (as a minority still do), he had succeeded in shaping Libya so much in his own image that both Libyans and the outside world will take a long period of adjustment to come to terms with a Libya which is not Gaddafi-faced.

 Although I can understand the motivation behind his apparent murder and why most Libyans believe he got his just deserts, his apparent assassination nevertheless troubles me greatly.

After decades of abusing his power and months of civil war, it is perhaps not surprising that he who lived by the gun, at least by proxy, should die by it too. Besides, spontaneous executions of brutal fallen dictators are not uncommon – think of Romania. Nor are extra-judicial killings in the chaotic aftermath of bloody conflict. Think of the bloody purges in Europe following World War II.

Some in the Western media have described Gaddafi’s murder as “clood blooded”. Personally, I would liken it to a crime of passion. Cold-blooded suggest premeditation, which doesn’t appear to be the case here, unlike, say, was the case with the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden, or the British assassination squads that were active during the Irish War of Independence, or Israel’s extra-judicial killing of Palestinian militants.

That said, although Gaddafi’s murder is easy to understand, I find it extremely difficult to condone. In terms of principle, killing Gaddafi was wrong, because even fallen despots have the right to a fair trial, and I’m against the death penalty. “A trial would have been exhausting. I get it,” one Libyan told me. “This can’t be a healthy indicator for Libya’s future, but at the same time that’s a little difficult to predict right now.”

In my opinion, Gadaffi’s murder sends out the wrong signal, as does the unedifying spectacle of his body being put on undignified public display in cold storage facility in Misrate as the National Transitional Council bickers over what to do with the corpse. One reason why Libyans opposed Gaddafi was because of the arbitrary brutality of his rule and the relative absence of the rule of law. Through their actions, Gaddafi’s killers appointed themselves as judge, jury and executioner. And if it emerges that his murder was ordered from up high and was not the action of a renegade element, then this bodes ill.  

In order to demonstrate clearly that Libya is under fairer, more humane – and hopefully temporary – management, the NTC must launch a full and impartial investigation into his death and bring his killers to justice, no matter who they turn out to be and even if Gaddafi’s unknown murderers are considered to be heroes by many Libyans.

By so doing, the NTC will prove that the rule of law trumps all other considerations and that not only are the Gaddafis no longer above the law but neither are their killers. Finding and trying the killers of a loathed dictator will also help arrest Libya’s possible descent into bloody retribution and counter-retribution by sending out the clear message that no murder is acceptable, even that of a deposed tyrant.

 

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Are we now ‘friends’ of al-Qaeda in Libya?

 
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By Badra Djait

Belgium was one of the ‘Friends of Libya’ in Paris. But does the prime minister realise that these Libyan ‘friends’ include a former al-Qaeda fighter?

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Belgium’s acting prime minister, Yves Leterme (CD&V), represented the country at the ‘Friends of Libya‘ summit which took place in Paris on 1 September. The National Transitional Council of Libya, a political  body representing the anti-Gaddafi rebels, also took part in the gathering.

But can Leterme, in the name of Belgium, befriend a certain Abdelhakim Belhadj, who is  not only the Transitional Council’s military commander but is also a former al-Qaeda fighter and the former leader of the  Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)?

“From holy warrior to hero of a revolution,” read the sarcastic headline in the London-based al-sharq al-Awsat sarcastisch.

Against the Soviets

 In 1988, Belhadj moved to Afghanistan to take part in the anti-Soviet jihad there. In 1990, the returning Libyan mujahideen set up LIFG. Belhadj was the former emir of this group which has been defined as a “terrorist” organisation since the 11 September 2001 attacks in America.

In 2004, Belhadj was arrested in Afghanistan, interrogated by the CIA and delivered to Libya, where he was eventually released in 2008. Earlier this year, he seized the opportunity to transform his defunct fundamentalist party into the Libyan Islamic Movement, which became one of the main opponents of the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In this capacity, he became the military commander of the Transitional Council.

Meanwhile, rumours have been circulating that Gaddafi has fled to neighbouring Algeria. A convoy of six Mercedes with tainted glass was seen crossing the border. A number of Libyan rebel leaders accuse Algeria of supporting Gaddafi. Algeria denies the allegations.

Until now, Algeria has refused to recognise the Transitional Council until it receives assurances that the new Libyan government will co-operate in combating al-Qaeda in North Africa. Why has Belgium not taken a similar stance?

In contrast with Libya, Bahrain and Syria will not be on the receiving end of a military intervention from NATO, the UN or any other international coalition, in the name of democracy, human rights or the “responsibility to protect”.

Syria has a mutual defence pact with Iran (renewed in 2006 and 2009). This means that an attack against Syria would constitute an attack on Iran. And didn’t China and Russia recently warn that attacking Iran could trigger a world war?

Why are the popular democratic protests in Bahrain, the neighbour of Western ally Saudi Arabia, not appreciated? More importantly, why were the elite Saudi troops sent to crush the uprising in Bahrain trained by Great Britain? It was confirmed in the British parliament that the Saudi National Guard was taught how to “maintain public order”.

Reconstruction

The West has declared its official commitment to help build democracy in Libya. Restoring security, improving the humanitarian situation and the establishment of a multi-party, pluralistic political system are officially the top priorities. But Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, knows better what it is all about. He promised, in a statement, to grease the palms of the the countries which helped Libya in the fight against Colonel Gaddafi with lucrative oil contracts. Libyan oil is highly sought after for its high quality which, among other things, makes it ideal for the production of kerosine, which is often used as jet fuel.

 A number of countries, including Britain and Germany, have promised to release tens of billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the Transitional Council. Other countries which did not immediately take part in the military intervention – such as Brazil, China and Russia – are hoping to get a second chance with the transitional government.

But the question for now is whether the “friends of Libya” will co-operate with a former al-Qaeda fighter in order to acquire those lucrative oil contracts?

 

This column is based on an editorial published, in Dutch, by De Morgen, on 30 August 2011. Published here with the author’s consent.

 

 

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How African is the Arab revolution?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though the ‘Arab’ revolution started in North Africa, most debate has focused on the Arab world, but what about the rest of Africa?

Wednesday 6 April 2011

It was vaguely reminiscent of when Egypt won the African Cup of Nations for the second time in a row and for a record seventh time in 2010, and it seemed that pretty much every African I came across would warmly congratulate me on my native country’s “stunning “achievement.

But this time the tournament in question was played out not on a football pitch but on the streets, the winning team did not represent Egypt but it was Egypt, and the prize was not to hold aloft a cup but to sip from the cup of freedom. And unlike with football, I did not have to feign interest

Nairobi

The Nairobi skyline. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When I visited Kenya in March, it seemed that pretty much everyone I came across wanted to talk about the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and the tragedy in Libya.

As soon as I touched down, the first person I came across – David, a Namibian public official who shared a taxi with me from the airport into town – confessed how compulsively he had been watching events unfold in Egypt, and how the north African revolutions evoked in his mind and those of other Namibians an excitement they had not felt since the fall of apartheid.

I was surprised that, on the other side of the continent, in a country with almost no political, economic, cultural or historical ties with Egypt, the Egyptian revolution could resonate so intensely. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been, as there is something universally appealing about people braving oppression to defeat tyranny.

Besides, as one Kenyan NGO worker put it, millions of Africans are cursed with dictators and tyrants, and so the fact that some of the longest-serving leaders on the continent have been ousted or are on their way out – and all this through the unleashed power of ordinary people – is inspirational to marginalised and disenfranchised citizens across the continent.

So, could the spirit of the Arab revolution spread south into sub-Saharan Africa? Some people I met are hopeful that it will, citing the fact that many African countries share similar social, economic and demographic realities with Egypt and Tunisia, and that young Africans are waking up to their potential.

This “youthquake” certainly appears to be a factor in Nigeria. “As Nigerians prepare for presidential elections next month, what is happening, much less dramatically than in north Africa but with perhaps as much long-term significance, is that the youth is finally awake,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote recently.

Others are of the opinion that events up north will have little impact further south. “Many Africans see these revolutions as an ‘Arab’ thing and do not really see themselves as part of these events,” said Marion, a Kenyan social activist. And the failure of Zimbabwean activists to mount a Cairo-style “million citizen march” in Harare’s very own Tahrir Square lends some credence to this view.

Some also cited the more fractured and fragile nature of many African societies, and how tribalism and other divisions, as well as poor communication infrastructure, would make it difficult to mobilise the population as a whole to rally round a single agenda.

When I mentioned that this feared tribalism had not stopped Libyans of diverse backgrounds from uniting against Muammar Gaddafi, Sarah, who cut a fearsome matriarchal figure, predicted in no uncertain terms that she expected the Libyan dictator to emerge victorious – an outcome she favoured immensely. “In Africa, we need strong men to hold our societies together, otherwise we will have civil war, as Libya is proving,” she asserted defiantly, unleashing a storm of protest from her colleagues – who, like me, pointed out that the civil strife in Libya is entirely of the Gaddafi family’s making. I was shocked that she could speak of the Libyan leader, who had ordered air strikes and declared war on his own people, with such abandon and apparent infatuation.

“And where will the rest of Africa be without Gaddafi? Forgotten and neglected,” she said, expressing her expectation that the new crop of north African regimes would not be nearly as generous or involved in the African scene as Africa’s self-crowned “king of kings” was.

These assertions drove home to me how many Africans share – along with Arabs, at least, until the revolution changed attitudes – a belief in the apparent futility of freedom. The legacy of colonial oppression and exploitation, followed by postcolonial despotism and corporatism, has left many Africans disillusioned and sceptical that they can become masters of their own destiny.

But despite this negative self-image and the outside world’s view of Africa as a hopeless, benighted continent, an under-remarked revolution, or perhaps evolution, has been unfolding in many parts of the continent.

Kenya is a good example. Despite large income inequalities and a relatively high crime rate, clean and green Nairobi exudes prosperity and self-confidence. Though the city does not have much of a past, it exhibits a hope in the future and the power of freedom and knowledge. In fact, education seems to be a national obsession in Kenya, with some newspapers even leading with their education section.

Politically, Kenya has already had its own “revolution”, when its former dictator, Daniel arap Moi, was forced to step down in 2002, and his anointed successor, who also happened to be the son of Kenya’s founding father, was hammered at the ballot box.

Things have soured somewhat. Kenya’s current president, Mwai Kibaki, has exhibited psuedo-dictatorial tendencies and managed to hold on to power in 2007 amid accusations of vote-rigging, which sparked a wave of protests and violence that rocked the country.

“In Kenya, we take 10 steps forward and 12 steps back,” one Kenyan joked. My personal impression is that, despite numerous setbacks, the country is advancing. For example, Kenya’s new constitution, despite delays in its implementation, will limit the power of the presidency, boost the transparency and authority of the judiciary, and empower women.

From Kenya’s maturing democracy to Namibia’s successful post-apartheid multiparty democracy to South Sudan’s peaceful divorce from the north, Africans are slowly and gradually charting a course towards a brighter and freer future that is far removed from the images of conflict and destruction with which the outside world is most familiar.

 

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 28 March 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Mobile revolution in the Middle East

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.

 

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Defiantly delusional

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Muammar Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have something in common: delusions of grandeur that keep them desperately holding on to the reins of power.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

History remembers the likes of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle somewhat fondly for their jingoistic rhetoric and their, well, dogged outlook in the face of adversity. But the sort of defiance we see from the Muburaks, Mugabes, Gaddafis and, closer to home, Berlusconis and Putins of this world will get less generous treatment in the annals.

But what do these admonished leaders have in common that can be added to the world compendium of bad leaders – a must-read for opposition parties in countries striving for democratic legitimacy? Take Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for a telling case of two ageing leaders who do everything and anything to maintain their grip on power.

Indeed, their rise to power tells us as much about the men as their antics to keep it. Today they have the misfortune of sharing more in common than any other two world leaders in the news. And the kinship goes way beyond their defiant stand in the face of popular unrest and the obvious colonial connection between their countries.

Gaddafi and Berlusconi are indubitably the most egocentric, obdurate, corrupt, eccentric, vainglorious and conspicuously rich leaders on the planet. These two are clearly cut from the same shroud – they like to think of themselves as the second coming for their respective peoples.

And so it is today that they now face a common dilemma: meet demands to cede power and face the ramifications (legal or otherwise) of their actions, or go down fighting to the last hair plug.

Let’s look more closely at these two characters to understand how their people came to burdened with them.

A military man, the young Gaddafi took control of the country in 1969 following a bloodless coup which sent Libya’s monarch packing. After seizing power, he took a populist approach in an attempt to win over Libyan hearts and minds among the many tribal factions. His pan-Arab, anti-imperialist agenda subsumed elements of Islam along with a more Western mercantile mentality – he allowed small-scale entrepreneurship, but kept control of larger, strategically important companies, including oil-related and media businesses.

Among his famed eccentricities, Gaddafi sleeps in a Bedouin tent guarded by female bodyguards on trips abroad. The international journalist John Simpson once implied that the Colonel would pass wind as freely as he would opinions on the ills of Western society.

His record of ruthlessly crushing dissent and repressing civil society was well established long before any of the actions he has been accused of ordering during the February 2011 people’s revolution. His attempts to rally Arab states to band together in dealing with regional issues were generally rebuffed, so he turned his attention towards pan-Africanism, later influencing the creation of the African Union.

A reflection of these extreme views can be seen in his now-acknowledged sponsorship of terrorism, including his alleged ordering of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Ever the unpredictable, his antics have gained him (un)welcomed media attention during his four-decade rule, including such recent exploits as staging a hero’s ‘welcome home’ party for Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of masterminding the Lockerbie bombing, who was released on ‘medical grounds’; a grand-standing one-hour lecture to the UN on all the ills of the world system; and inviting young Italian women during an official trip to the country to convert to Islam – a gesture he thought would help to cement ties between Tripoli and Rome!

The subject of women leads us neatly on to Silvio Berlusconi, whose now infamous ‘bunga bunga’ parties, involving scores of women as captive audience for his crooning and swooning evenings, were reportedly inspired by Gaddafi’s penchant for travelling ‘en harem’. Speculation is rife where the term comes from – with no apparent Arabic roots, some suggest it came via an old joke about three Westerners being forced to choose between death and bunga bunga, only to discover if they chose bunga bunga that their fate would be “death by bunga bunga!”

But the latest scandal surrounding the mercurial Berlusconi won’t go away so easily. Hundreds of thousands of Italians (spurred on by women’s movements) took to the streets earlier this year to protest against their leader’s intransigence. Italians, who arguably freely elected the man ( his control of the nation’s limited media offering make fair elections unlikely), are finally speaking out, and they are saying “enough is enough”.

And the judiciary might also finally get its chance to catch the playboy politician out. He is currently facing charges of abusing his power in attempts to hide his involvement with a young Moroccan club dancer called Karima Keyek – aka Ruby Rubacuori the ‘heart stealer’.

Italian prosecutors allege that upon learning that Keyek was being held by Italian police on possible theft charges, he used his influence to get her out. Alas Berlusconi remains typically defiant – yes, that word again – denying the charges as “disgusting” and “groundless”. The trial will begin on 6 April.

The Economist takes some pleasure in reporting the antics of “slippery Silvio”, as they’ve called him, and the mysteries of Italian politics. Back in December 2004, following his acquittal on charges of bribing judges, the weekly magazine wrote:

“There is no point debating if the prime minister of Italy might have bribed judges. But the party he leads was created by a friend who was in league with the Sicilian Mafia. That, in its shocking essence, is what two Italian courts decided last weekend. They were giving two separate judgments, one on Silvio Berlusconi and the other on Marcello Dell’Utri, once head of Publitalia, the cash generator in Mr Berlusconi’s media empire, and the man who conjured up his party, Forza Italia, in 1994.”

As recently as January 2011, under the title ‘A party animal’ The Economist took another swipe at the Teflon-PM: “The solution to this crisis that might suggest itself in most other countries was flatly ruled out by the prime minister on January 18th. ‘Resign?’ he asked journalists. ‘Are you mad?’ Once again, he seems bent on facing down claims that would persuade most normal public figures that the time had come for retirement, perhaps to a monastery.”

This article triggered a flurry of readers’ letters. One – by Nevios, presumably an Italian commentator  – underscored the strengthening case that leaders driven by megalomania can easily slip into dictatorial behaviour in an attempt to hold onto power with the sort of defiance (of the facts on the ground) that only the delusional could entertain.

Nevios writes:

“I am thunderstruck by Berlusconi’s ability to deny and repel every [bit of] blame he receives by half the world. He stresses his innocence and moral purity and behaves as though everything were going just perfectly! He is becoming more and more like a dictator, covering up every misdeed that concerns him, limiting the freedom of the press… This is why I thank The Economist, and the foreign newspapers in general, which informs [sic] us objectively and thoroughly about what is going on in Italy.”

In a decade or two from now, how will the world remember the defiant posturing of Berlusconi, Gaddafi and their ilk? Or will we have so many new dictators that the class of 2011 will become a footnote in the annals of delusional leaders?

 

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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