Worldfocus special correspondent Hoda Osman attended a briefing with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in New York this week. She blogs about the experience.
Qaddafi: The Self-Proclaimed Philosopher
As I watched Muammar al-Qaddafi walk into the meeting room at the Council on Foreign Relations, I remembered my shoes getting stolen.
The first (and only other) time I saw the Libyan leader was in N’Djamena, Chad, in 1999. Libya had arranged for a plane to take journalists from Cairo to Chad’s capital for the day to cover a speech he was giving. Tens of thousands of people gathered to watch him speak and security was very tight. The media area was right in front of the stage, but we had to take our shoes off as it was also an area where people were going to pray.
Once he finished his speech, the security was gone in the blink of an eye. We suddenly heard gunshots, people were running all around — and there went my pair of shoes. My cameraman’s shoes were also gone. Bad luck didn’t end there; it suddenly started to rain. We walked with wet, dirty socks until one of the locals guided us to a place where we could buy new Chadian shoes.
Back here in New York, 10 years later, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) event was about to start. The meeting was arranged for CFR’s members and was going to be based on an open question-and-answer format. We were warned that if we couldn’t stay for the whole duration of the meeting, which was scheduled to end at 2:00 p.m., we should move to another room where it was being transmitted to a big screen.
I was sitting in the fourth row and had a live report to do at 4:00 p.m. Qaddafi spoke for an hour and 36 minutes at the United Nations the previous day, instead of the proposed 15 minutes. I contemplated leaving, but decided to stay, knowing that CFR meetings usually started and ended on time regardless of who the speaker was.
Qaddafi is sometimes described as a madman. His eccentricity — and especially his unusual choice of words — may have something to do with that. At the United Nations the day before, he tore up a copy of the organization’s charter and called the Security Council a “terror council.”
He seemed sane to me that day, if his word choice remained eccentric.
One of the terms Qaddafi uses is Isratine, a combination of the words Israel and Palestine. At CFR, Qaddafi explained the reasons behind his support for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He argued that the geography and the demographics of the area make a two-state solution difficult. The Libyan leader pointed out that the Palestinian state was split between Gaza and the West Bank, with Israel in between them. He added that settlements in the West Bank were too intertwined into Palestinian lands, which makes creating a Palestinian state there unrealistic.
Qaddafi suggested creating a “multicultural, multi-religious, multiracial state,” arguing that the lives of Israelis and Palestinians already depend on each other, with many Israeli factories employing Palestinian workers.
Although the one-state solution is not an option being considered in official discussions and negotiations, the idea is not new and there are those who support it. But it’s Qaddafi’s choice of the name of the country, Isratine, that makes his proposal more amusing.
“It Was A Different World Then”
Explaining why in 2003 Libya suddenly decided to give up its nuclear and chemical weapons program after investing so much in it, Qaddafi said things have changed. “At the time, all nations took pride in developing weapons of mass destruction. We were young and excited about the revolution,” he said in his very calm voice, one empty of any excitement.
He went on to argue that this phase has ended. A “strategic assessment” of which countries Libya would use those weapons against made them realize, he said, that the weapons represented more of a danger to Libya itself.
So far, so good, I thought.
“I Am Not An Authority”
Libya has no government and the press belongs to the people. That’s how Qaddafi, who is one of the longest serving leaders of the world, tried to evade giving a sincere answer to a question about Libya’s human rights practices. He said the questioner from Human Rights Watch wouldn’t understand this because she hasn’t read the Green Book which contains his theories about society.
All over the world, anything related to the government is hated and despised, “so we annulled the government,” he said. “I am not an authority,” he claimed. “Whether I am president or not, it doesn’t matter.” It was here that I felt Qaddafi was really insulting my intelligence. He’s been in power for 40 years now and it would be naïve to believe his utopian portrayal of Libya.
“I was a philosopher before I was an officer…I have a philosophy,” he went on.
Qaddafi argued that the system followed by Libya is the ideal one for governance and anticipated that the whole world to eventually evolve and adopt it.
The last question from the audience was about whether the President of CFR, Richard Haass, a Jewish-American, would be as well-received in Libya as Qaddafi was in New York.
“I am surprised by this question,” responded Qaddafi. “Did somebody tell you we discriminate against religions?” Qaddafi half-jokingly said that the question indicates that this must be an issue here in the U.S. or else it wouldn’t have been asked.
At the end, I was thinking: Is he really a madman? Putting aside his eccentric looks and strange choice of words, he seemed like just a typical Arab dictator, but a more irrelevant one. And maybe that’s why Qaddafi feels the constant need to attract attention.
It was 2:00 p.m….and guess what, the meeting did end on time. So, any new information, new impressions? Not really. Was it entertaining? No question about it.