Sic Transit Muammar Gaddafi

22 October 2011

Sic Transit Muammar Gaddafi

By Gwynne Dyer

When I was in school I used to wonder who Gloria Mundi was and how she had died, but it turned out to be my defective Latin. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi means “Thus passes the glory of this world.” But still, it kind of fits, doesn’t it? Sic Transit Muammar Gaddafi.

Being Muammar Gaddafi must have been a bit like being Mick Jagger. You’ve been playing the same role since you were very young, and everybody loves you for it, at least to your face. You have actually become the standard by which all others aspiring to the same role are judged. And after a while, you start to believe that you really are Mick Jagger, and not just that guy from Dartford who can sing pretty well.

I’m not denying that there were differences between the two men. To the best of my knowledge, Mick Jagger never ordered anybody to be killed. (Neither did Keith Richards, at least to the best of his recollection, and he swears that he remembers everything.) Mick Jagger also has better taste in clothes than Muammar Gaddafi had, especially in his later years when he took to wearing his mother’s embroidered drapes.

Sorry, that was unkind. They were actually ceremonial robes befitting the King of Africa, which Gaddafi claimed on occasion that he was. It was just that his mother liked very heavy, gaudy drapes, suitable for an African king (or his vision of an African king), and his seamstress had a heavy-duty sewing machine, so why not?

Another difference between Jagger and Gaddafi is that Mick is unlikely to end his life being bombed by the French air force, dragged out of a storm drain, man-handled into the back of a pick-up truck, and showered with the curses of the men around him as he bleeds to death. It becomes clearer with every passing day that it is better to be a rock and roll hero than an Arab dictator, which doubtless explains Jagger’s career choice.

Am I being insufficiently serious here? Should I not be condemning Gaddafi’s crimes, and lamenting the fact that he will never stand trial for them, and speculating on Libya’s future after 42 years of one-man rule? Isn’t that what pundits are for?

Perhaps, but what would be the point? There are hundreds of other columnists who are writing exactly that stuff, and none of them knows any more about Libya’s future than I do. Gaddafi’s crimes have been detailed in your friendly neighbourhood media at least once a week for the past six months. Nobody really thought he was going to live to stand trial. So let’s talk about something interesting instead.

The interesting question is this: would Gaddafi have ended up as a delusional egomaniac and a mass murderer if he had not had absolute power over an entire country for his whole adult life? The answer is almost certainly no. It was the power that made him that way.

He came from a bedouin family who lived in a traditional herder’s tent, but he was sent away to boarding school. His family hired a tutor for him towards the end of high school, which may explain how he got into the Libyan military academy. His education was spotty and did not equip him for complicated intellectual endeavours, but he was not an ignorant man. Millions like him have led productive and blameless lives.

We do not know whether Gaddafi played well with others when he was a little boy, but he was certainly popular with his fellow junior officers when he overthrew King Idris at the age of 27. Contemporary reports portray him as an intensely serious young man, charming when he needed to be but dedicated full-time to the “Arab cause.” It’s a profile that he shared with millions of other young idealists in the Arab world.

So how did he end up as a dangerous but ridiculous monster? Those millions of others didn’t. If some other young officer had led the 1969 coup d’etat and made himself the sole ruler of Libya for the next 42 years, Gaddafi might well have ended up as a kindly retired army officer spending his time with his grandchildren. And quite possibly that other young officer would have become the monster.

Lord Acton said it 120 years ago: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” By implication, he is saying that Mummar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and the other mass murderers who have tormented the Arab world over the past decades were shaped more by circumstances than by some intrinsic evil in their character.

If Acton’s analysis is right, then countries where the rule of law is supreme and civil society is strong should not produce such monsters, because they do not allow any individual to have absolute power. If that were always true, then Hitler, for example, could not have achieved absolute power, but it is USUALLY true.

So the remedy is obvious, in the newly free countries of the Arab world and elsewhere, too. Democracy is good, but you also have to build strong civil institutions and an independent judiciary. It’s just a lot easier said than done.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Another…choice”; and “He came…lives”)