The Graffiti activist’s comment that he had printed and distributed posters showing Lawrence Gonzi with Muammar Gaddafi during an anti-genocide protest march – because he was only 20 and that was all he knew – is ludicrous but it hits a raw nerve. Sheer ignorance, even of this country’s recent past by the more presumptious among a rising generation of supposedly educated would-be opinion formers, is prevalent. The past starts and ends with one’s own selective memory and is inevitably conjugated in the present tense.
I was in Libya on a student working holiday aboard a merchant ship – the Malcom Pace – in August 1969, just a few days before Colonel Gaddafi’s coup d’etat while King Idris was abroad for medical reasons. It was a fairly quiet place there with just a few soldiers guarding the royal palace. There were no shortages of essential products that one could see, no commotion except the hustle and bustle of the market place, which was thriving. It was a somewhat “westernised” ambience, one could eat and drink what one liked, even dine at the Uaddan Hotel, with its plush carpets, and watch a show on its grand open-air stage; nothing sleazy, although there was even a night club of sorts, the Mocambo.
Of course, there still was a lingering Anglo-American presence, hence the hint of Italian neocolonial or western “servility”, mosty notably the Wheelus air base, which would soon be shut down and most foreigners, including many Maltese who had lived there, shown the door.
The next time I went, a year later, it was at the invitation of President Gaddafi, in celebration of the September 1, 1969 revolution. I remember Major Abdelassalam Jalloud’s self-congratulatory and ideologically visionary press conference in a state building, which once used to house the Maltese club, and also a markedly changed atmosphere.
Not only was the military presence more conspicuous but, more so, were the full colour posters plastered all over Tripoli showing Col Gaddafi in an ultra-Nasserite gesture with his arms outstretched embracing North Africa and the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, megalomania already at its best. I had a specimen of this “mission statement” published in my front-page news report in the then daily Il-Ħajja shortly afterwards.
The framed photographs of King Idris el-Senussi, which had graced many a shop, from the barber’s to the grocer’s, in Tripoli almost as much as in Benghazi, were all gone but President Gaddafi was everywhere. The names of streets were now only in Arabic. The Uaddan’s plush carpets had been stripped to the bare concrete floor, its doors flung wide open, none of the former allure remained, indeed nothing at all was left inside the one time five-star hotel complex. Drinks at the then Libya Palace Hotel, where we were housed, consisted largely of a sweet, non-alcoholic coloured and watered down syrup.
A green flag replaced Libya’s more colourful independence one, now being identified, at least symbolically, with the outsted monarchy and a future for democracy.
I never returned to Libya but Malta always retained diplomatic relations (which it had enjoyed since Independence in 1964) with Col Gaddafi’s new and revolutionary republic, neutral and non-aligned as it was held to be after 1969.
When I interviewed the then Leader of the Opposition, Dominic Mintoff, at the then Freedom Press, in Marsa, on the eve of the June 1971 election, he went out of his way to laud closer relations with Libya and the Arabs as an ideal, using an old “Maltese” religiously-motivated expression which I had not heard before nor have I heard since and of which he rightly disapproved (as I did “Alla ħanin, Mawmettu ħanżir” (“God is kind, Muhammed a pig”).
The Anglo-Maltese “defence and finance” negotiations of 1971/72 were a great occasion for deepening Maltese-Libyan relations: Malta badly needed oil and, possibly, alternative options. President Gaddafi, like Mr Mintoff, wanted to see Nato kicked out and kept at bay. Never before the Mintoff-Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici period had Maltese-Libyan relations been so close or witnessed such deepening to the point that, as befitted “blood brothers”, the latter even called Col Gaddafi, in the nick of time, to tell him American planes had crossed Maltese air space and were approaching Tripoli.
Inter alia, President Gaddafi would address two mass meetings in Malta surrounded by his own heavily-armed bodyguards and telling us what to do. When it came to the crunch in 1980, however – it seems we were on the verge of striking oil – his navy threatened to blow up the rig unless the Italian operating company left, which it promptly did. In a temporary reversal of fortunes, which saw a scuttling to Rome, “aġir tal-akbar għadu” (the behaviour of the worst enemy), Mr Mintoff had called it but then we made up somehow and the past resumed.
Such antics were not quite repeated after 1987 as Malta tried to claw its way back into a western European legitimacy but good diplomatic relations with Libya continued to be a priority for successive Nationalist administrations ever since, sometimes to a fault. This friendship, whether felt or convenient, continued to be a raison d’etat: it did not mean the Maltese approved of the terrorism, internal and external, which Libya was generally wont to apply and represent. On this score, silence usually prevailed on all sides, the Maltese apparently “terrorised” by self-interest and non-interference. What could they change? Thousands of Maltese would find employment and opportunity in oil-producing Libya, as they still did until last week and as they may well do again soon, possibly in larger and better measure.
This depends on the oucome of the current tragedy – victory for the rebels or massacre by the regime.
If the Libyan uprising comes out on top, ushering in freedom and democracy in a stable country, as I believe it will, Libya would have ever so much talent, enterprise and well-being going for it.
That would open up new, considerable opportunities for Libyans at home and in emigration in a wide-ranging variety of development sectors – social, economic, educational, infrastructural, services of all kinds - as well as for Malta and the Maltese, who could have a more reasonable and rational neighbour to do business with, possibly even on the oil front.
As Mr Mintoff would say, the future beckons. The heir to the throne, Muhammad el-Senussi, has said in Rome he would be returning home, to a free and democratic country. “His” flag certainly has made a prominent comeback. His grandfather’s last Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Bakkush, who knew Malta, I used to meet regularly at the UNHCR office in Cairo in the 1980s as he helped coordinate assistance for Libyan refugees in Egypt. The monarchy, he used to say, was not quite democratic but paternalistic, well-meaning and benevolent, a decidedly preferable alternative to what followed it.
A status quo ante is never possible. Much water has passed under the brige during 42 years of generally idiosyncratic, flamboyant and feudal-tribal-nepotistic dictatorship, which made a practice of repression and indeed torture of opponents, thus badly bruising claims to modernity and development.
Some of the more gruesome details were revealed a few days ago in La Repubblica by one of its reporters in Benghasi.
A new, free and prosperous Libya, emerging from a bloodbath, would need the young as much as the old to pull through, guided by a past as well as by a future, and every assistance it could get, including ours.
General Charles Gordon’s last stand against the Mahdi in Khartoum succumbed to delays in reinforcements from William Gladstone’s Administration in London and the victorious Mahdi’s army put into place an early form of political Islam. In Islamic fundamentalism, and the prospect of mass illegal immigration, lurk the main dangers to our shores and the region but, equally, one must not dismiss the attraction and challenge of a newborn Libya, a beautiful country, redeemed by the blood of courageous freedom-seeking youths and others matured by time and experience.
This complementary combination working in unision could very well lead to an opposite response to that being feared in some quarters – freedom not fundamentalism, repatriation not emigration and why not. In the face of all traditional fatalism, the same could apply to Tunisia and Egypt, the sooner the better.