Notorious for his diatribes, Col. Muammar Qaddafi didn’t hold back during the rebel takeover of Tripoli on Aug. 20. “The rebels are fleeing like rats from the mountains,” he announced in an audio recording broadcast on state television. “The donkeys of the gulf have given them weapons to destroy our air conditioners.”
Qaddafi’s fixation on air conditioners not as weird as it sounds. In a desert country like Libya, where summer temperatures soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping cool is a pretty big deal. The highest recorded temperature in history was measured in 1922 in El Azizia, Libya, and was 137 degrees. In July, a heat wave that pushed temperatures into the triple digits sent Tripoli residents to the Mediterranean in droves, despite the NATO bombings.
The importance of air conditioning in desert countries is not lost on the US military, whose budget for cooling the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan approaches $20 billion, according to a former Pentagon official interviewed by NPR. The cost mounts when you factor in all the infrastructure necessary to establish climate control in dangerous and austere territory.
In the old days, desert architecture had features that channeled wind through the home. Now, many Libyan buildings adhere to European or American design standards and require the use of air conditioners to keep them tolerable.
The first modern electrical air conditioner was invented for commercial use in 1902 by Willis Carrier in Syracuse, New York. Eventually, air conditioning found its way into homes and cars, growing exponentially in the 1950s and never looking back. Now, especially in the Middle East, it is considered a necessity rather than a luxury.
Power shortages in the weeks leading up to the rebel advance on Tripoli were a source of tension in the city, as the temperatures rose and air conditioners became as erratic as Qaddafi, the man President Ronald Reagan called the "mad dog of the Middle East.” Some areas only had four hours of electricity a day.
The Libyan government blamed NATO for attacking electricity lines and denies that rolling blackouts have had anything to do with Qaddafi’s weakening hold on power. But you need electricity to run an air conditioner, and without them, all could be lost for the Colonel.