Saturday, 22 October 2011

Interesting times for Great Leaders

...a nice piece by Juan Cole here, where he compares Gaddafi's end to the last days of Jim Jones and the People's Temple Cult. As he says:

Qaddafi [OK, have it your way, JC] had on more than one occasion been offered exile abroad, but sneaked off to his home town of Sirte to make a suicidal last stand. His glassy-eyed minions determinedly fired every last tank and artillery shell they had stockpiled right into the city that sheltered them in order to stall the advancing government troops. This monumentally stupid last stand turned Sirte into Beirut circa the 1980s, as gleaming edifices deteriorated into Swiss cheese and then ultimately blackened rubble. Qaddafi had favored Sirte with magnificent conference centers and wood-paneled conference rooms even as he starved some Eastern cities of funds, and in his death throes he took all his gifts back away from the city of his birth, making it drink the tainted Kool-Aid of his maniacal defiance of reality.

He adds:
Among the attackers were citizen militias from Misrata, the city of 600,000 that Qaddafi had determinedly besieged, subjecting its civilian population to cluster bombs and tank and artillery shells, even bombing it from the air before the UNSC intervened.

He further argues:
It is hard to see how the UNSC desire that the civilian population be protected from him could have been implemented solely on a defensive basis. As long as he had an offensive capability he would clearly deploy it, piling up towers of innocent’s skulls. Once he besieged and murdered the non-combatants of Misrata and Zawiya so mercilessly, all bets were off. He began with 2,000 tanks, which he sent against the demonstrators. When he had almost no tanks left, he was done, reduced to secreting himself in a sewage drain.

In contrast to Qaddafi’s encirclement of Misrata for months and use of cluster bombs in areas where children lived, the Transitional National Council troops advancing in Sirte regularly pulled back to allow local residents to evacuate, attempting to convince them to join the new Libya. Qaddafi never did a similar favor to civilians in Misrata or Zawiya.

Cole ends optimistically:
It would have been better had Qaddafi been left alive to stand trial. The exact circumstances of his death are murky, but it appears that some of his loyalists may have attempted to rescue him from government troops and he died in the firefight or was dispatched lest he be sprung from captivity and serve as a rallying point for the remaining handful of cultists.

Those who expect Libya now to fragment, or to turn into a North African Baghdad, are likely to be disappointed. It is improbable that Qaddafi’s cult will long survive him, at least on any significant scale. Libya has no sectarian divides of the Sunni-Shiite sort. Almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim. It does have an ethnic divide, as between Arabs and Berbers. But the Berbers are bilingual in Arabic, and are in no doubt as to their Libyan identity. The Berbers vigorously joined in the revolution and more or less saved it, and are very likely to be richly rewarded by the new state.

And he expands his argument to the new wave of popular politics in the Arab world.

I think we have lived in interesting times that continue interesting. The present state of affairs probably goes back to the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979, runs through the presidency of Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the great shifts in the Middle East, the rise of China and India and the current crisis of capital in the West. To link all this together into a seamless narrative would be wrong. Some elements are related, some not, except only in the faintest way, but we might at least, as Cole suggests, be coming to the end of the era of the autocratic Great Leader and the personality cult. I started under Stalin and Mao and now have to peer into the telescope to see the tiny mannekin figure of Kim Jong-il, with Kim Jong-un, even smaller, behind him.

But then there is Putin and Bashar al-Assad, and Ahmadinejad, plus one or two others, and as the old joke has it, Don't hatchet your counts till they've chickened. There are so many other mini-cults of personality out there. Perhaps Rihanna will lead us to the Promised Land.


Gwil W said...

Subsequently in Jemen there were chants at dawn: Saleh, you are the next. In Syria there chants at dawn: Assad, you are the next. And in Saudi Arabia Sultan bin Abdelasis, 83, died. And King Abbdulah, 87, is less than robust.

It's difficult to believe that an ex-dictator with $200 billion 'put to one side' would choose certain and humiliating death inpreference to exile but that's how it is very often.

George S said...

Absolute power corrupts absolutely: this does not exclude the corruption of the brain cells. Great Leaders are sure everyone, bar the wicked, loves them and relies on them. Surely, they cannot desert their people who would be nothing without them! Pure altruism.

I have occasionally left a job with the uneasy feeling that I was deserting those who might just possibly need me in the future. That was with pretty minimal power. In fact things just moved on. Magnify that a few million / billion times.

Gwil W said...

General Idi Amin proved to be a notorious exception and lived out his 'retirement' comfortably and without problem in Saudi Arabia. But Idi was cut from different cloth. And British trained. There was a good film made about him. It was called The Last King of Scotland (or something similar). I'm surprised more dictators aren't following his example.

J. Marles said...

Actually, Gaddafi sent his troops to prop up Idi Amin in 1979. They were the last people to back Idi as the Tanzanian army swept in. This shows that Gaddafi's instinct for knowing when a cause was lost was never particularly strong. Amin's first stop in exile was Libya, before moving on to Saudi Arabia.

George S said...

Incidental note: The author of The Last King of Scotland, Giles Foden, is in fact my colleague at the UEA.