As Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi gins up a titanic-sized celebration in Tripoli to honor the 40th anniversary of his coup and his rehabilitation in the West, he's won few hearts and minds among the European public, which still views him largely as a serial human rights violator and 1970s-style Arab dictator.
Especially in light of Mr. Qaddafi's hero's homecoming for the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi – analysts describe a classic moral clash between a broad public and expert view of Qaddafi as an unrepentant bully at home, and the patient Western diplomatic efforts to bring Libya into the comity of nations.
Arab intellectuals and democrats who deride the caricaturing of Arabs in Western media – say the problem with Qaddafi is that he's so erratic and egocentric that such treatment is credible. Huge signs in Tripoli this week laud Qaddafi, reading "May Glory be Yours, O Maker of Glories."
European leaders at today's blowout fete of dancing and fireworks in Tripoli include only the president of Serbia, and the leader of Malta. They will rub shoulders with Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. (Read our blog on Qaddafi's guest list.)
Yet Italy's Silvio Berlusconi was on hand Sunday with an Italian acrobatic jet team that blew green-smoke contrails, and many nations are represented at the deputy and assistant deputy level for Qaddafi's grand party. With an estimated 43 billion barrels of crude oil under its sands, Libya has the largest crude reserves in Africa. Some 20 multinationals have offices there – from Shell to Gazprom.
Coming in from the cold
Having scuppered his nuclear program in 2003 and renounced terrorism, Qaddafi has been gaining a kind of official acceptance in Europe – including in Italy, Britain, Spain, France, and Switzerland. In June, he was photographed at the G-8 summit in Italy amid heads of state, including President Obama.
Two years ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a lightening visit to Tripoli to secure the release of five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for allegedly spreading AIDS. Soon thereafter, Qaddafi came to Paris, where he slept under a Bedouin tent on the grounds of Hotel Marigny off the Champs Elyees, lectured French officials on human rights, and signed the guest book at Versailles inexplicably wearing, Snoopy style, a head-enswathing Russian fur hat. The French public was furious. Qaddafi's rehab continued on Aug. 31, 2008, when Mr. Berlusconi apologized for Italy's colonial-era excesses, and agreed to pay $5 billion in compensation over 25 years, a deal that was also to stop the flow of migrants leaving Tripoli for Italy by sea.
As commercial strictures began to vanish, Libya began cutting deals far and wide. Its bank assets now run to $136 billion, and Libya is slowly shifting away from an "oil-only" economy, according to a June report by the International Monetary Fund.
Human rights concerns
"Qaddafi understands that Western governments care about foreign policy," says Karim Emile Bitar of the International Institute of Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris. "So when he officially renounces terrorism, he is held in higher regard. But it's a position of complete hypocrisy in the West when nothing is said about human rights, about Libya's prison. He's getting a free pass. The West lacks credibility on human rights when it says the only criteria is lining up with our foreign policy."
Soazig Dollet of the North Africa desk of Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) in Paris says that Libya is rated at the 160th position among 173 nations in its annual press freedom review. When Qaddafi came to France in 2007, a French journalist, Memona Hintermann, made public a 1984 incident in Libya when she says that Qaddafi tried to rape her after she waited an hour for an interview with him.
Megrahi's hero's welcome could stall progress
Western powers have requirements for working with states that profess a desire to participate in the international community – and Libya has been meeting those, a diplomatic source in Europe points out. However, the hero's welcome for Mr. Megrahi, despite "extreme clarity" from the West about not celebrating his return, has put a block on that process, the source stated.
In Europe, "There are strong human rights objections in the public to the way his regime acts," says Anthony Dworkin of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "There's a group of security minded officials that support engagement since Qaddafi has made significant changes. And flowing into that are commercial interests. Europe has no settled views on how to balance these three."
Indeed, analysts say Qaddafi aims to parlay rehabilitation into a grand strategy to unite Africa in his new role as head of the African Union (AU), a rotating position. "Tripoli wants to be a bridge for anyone who wants to work with Africa, but it has not managed that yet," says Barah Mikail of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. Qaddafi recently told an AU summit he envisaged an Africa with one army, one passport, no borders, and one leader. At the AU meeting in February when he was elected president of the organization, he said his proper title should be "king of the traditional kings of Africa."