The death of Muammar Qaddafi is a cautionary tale. He had the chance to make his native Libya a model country, thanks to its oil wealth, and very deliberately he did not take it. For him, power had nothing to do with such a humdrum purpose as improving the lot of ordinary people, but everything to do with personal aggrandizement. Looking for some way to dignify his ambition, he experimented in turn with Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism, Islamism, expansion into Africa, Soviet freelancing, and anti-Americanism. Violence was the common denominator. Misspent and wasted, the oil revenues sponsored war, invasion of neighbours, and international terror. One abiding mark of his infamy is the Lockerbie bombing.
Qaddafi took care that nobody and nothing could challenge his one-man rule. As his whims developed into daily injustices, the Libyan people paid the highest price. Those who dared to raise their voices were arrested, silenced, and sometimes killed in public. Dissidents disappeared. In one atrocity he ordered the mass-murder of prisoners. Absence of conscience was made both sinister and ludicrous by his poses of grandeur. Medals and orders covered his uniforms. Bevies of girls acted as security guards. At home and abroad on official visits, he insisted on pitching a tent. But outward Bedouin simplicity masked inner dissolute indulgence.
The capture, trial, and hanging of Saddam Hussein first showed Arabs that they could be masters of their fate. The so-called Arab Spring is the principal consequence. In one Arab country after another, people have risen in large numbers to prove that they are ready to oust rulers who have been inflicting needless injustices and cruelties on them. Like so many other Arabs, Libyans revolted earlier this year to demand to be heard. To a man of Qaddafi’s character, reform is indistinguishable from surrender. He chose repression and rage, he cursed and threatened and set about killing. Western intervention alone has warded off what otherwise would have been the tyrant’s vengeance.
Qaddafi was found sheltering in a sewage drain, and then and there met the summary execution reserved for the Benito Mussolinis, Ceausescus, and their like. He deserved it, but the chance has been lost to bring him to court and confront him with his crimes. That might have been exemplary. The future of Libya is uncertain, and the Transitional Council now ruling in Tripoli is more than likely to have rocky months ahead. Libyans have to acquire in a hurry some experience in self-government, toleration, and equitable conduct. To put it no higher, at least they and the rest of the world have a moment of respite and relief.