The Despot's Demise: Gadhafi Legacy a Lasting Burden for Libya
Few dictators have ruled a country as long and as thoroughly as Moammar Gadhafi. With his death last week, he leaves behind a country without functioning institutions and a traumatized people. Even dead, he will remain a burden to Libya for some time to come. By SPIEGEL Staff
It all ended in a bloody showdown, one the former dictator had foreseen in his own peculiar mix of pathos and paranoia: "The correct action is confrontation," "death is a ... determined adversary," "I have resolved to escape to hell," Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi wrote in a book of short stories in the early 1990s. By then, he had already held onto power for over 20 years -- but that was still merely the midway point in his almost 42-year reign of tyranny.
On Oct. 20, 2011, at roughly 8:30 a.m. local time in the desert city of Sirte, the prophecy finally came true.
In the end, it appears the NATO troops caught wind of Gadhafi in what was to be his final bastion. There, with his still loyal forces, he had held out for two months against Allied airstrikes and an overwhelming rebel onslaught. Now he was aiming to abandon Sirte in a convoy of roughly 75 vehicles and head west -- apparently because he saw no other exit than to flee into the desert.
Though they could have transformed the remaining pickups into heaps of flames with the push of a button, the NATO pilots refrained from doing so. They didn't want to risk stealing the final victory from the Libyan anti-Gadhafi fighters who were already in hot pursuit of his fleeing forces.
'What's Going on Here?'
The tyrant was wounded, but he managed to make it out of his vehicle and take refuge in a drainage pipe on the side of the road, which was made of unadorned cement and measured about one meter (3.3 feet) in diameter. Ironically enough, the man who had vilified his enemies as "rats" was now surrounded and forced to crawl into a hole full of vermin. All that remained to him were a handful of bodyguards at his side and his golden pistol.
Umran Shaaban, a 21-year-old rebel fighter, says that he was not far from the pipe during the decisive moments. He describes how he ended up exchanging fire with and killing two Gadhafi loyalists and how the rest surrendered soon thereafter. He says that one of them said Gadhafi was there and wounded. "As I crawled into the pipe," Shaaban says, "I saw his frizzy hair and immediately rushed toward him."
At this point, Gadhafi was still alive, but he had wounds to his head and chest. "What's going on here?" he reportedly asked. "Don't shoot!" A group of rebels then dragged him out of his hiding place. They stripped him of his golden pistol and posed for pictures. One fighter said they also took one of Gadhafi's shoes, his satellite telephone, a brown cloth and a bag full of amulets. Unsteady images taken from a mobile phone show the dictator reeling, his hair stuck together in clumps from the blood running out of a gaping wound in his left temple. He is ringed by rebel fighters. One pulls his hair while others beat on him. Dazed, Gadhafi wipes blood from his face. A rebel reportedly beat him with a rifle butt.
The rebels then loaded Gadhafi into an ambulance, which took the two-hour drive to the port city of Misrata, one of the particularly contested cities during the Libyan civil war. The ambulance was surrounded by roughly 100 rebel vehicles full of rejoicing fighters and their ceaseless calls of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great."
But Gadhafi never made it to Misrata alive.
Was Gadhafi Executed?
The official account claims that Gadhafi succumbed to his wounds en route. Still, there is some indication that he might have been executed: Images of the corpse show bullet holes in his forehead and temple. Forensic experts say the shots were fired from a short distance. A doctor who examined the body in Misrata says Gadhafi died from wounds to his head and stomach, which were caused by shots fired at close range. One rebel fighter claims that Gadhafi was shot with a 9-millimeter pistol.
On Sunday, Libya's chief pathologist confirmed that the Libyan dictator had died from a gunshot wound to the head. Dr. Othman al-Zintani, however, would not disclose any further details and left open any speculation about Gadhafi's final minutes. Responding to international pressure, Libya's interim government said Monday it would establish a formal inquiry into the circumstances of Gadhafi's death.
After his death, the corpse of the former tormenter was put on display in Misrata. People posed for pictures with Gadhafi's dead body. Stripped down to the waist, it was passed from house to house like a trophy until it finally arrived in the front room of a private residence in the so-called African Market on Friday.
An air-conditioning unit hung on the wall. The body lay on a thin mattress on the floor. The head was tilted a bit to the left, and the arms were laid close to the body, which was only covered by a pair of brown pants. At the entrance, people fought to get in. In a mix of voyeurism and the need for certainty, everybody wanted to get one last look of the body and take a picture of it.
The people are silent. They don't talk about what they've been through, about what they've seen. One of them has clearly experienced a lot despite his youth. Beneath his polo shirt, his left leg is wounded and only half of his right leg is there, its stump covered by a fresh, white dressing. Two men are supporting him. He gazes at Gadhafi's corpse. He had fought against Gadhafi, and the dictator had made him a cripple. But, now, he is the one who has survived -- not Gadhafi. He is the victor. Crouching next to him is a man wearing a uniform. He spreads two fingers into a victory sign and holds them up to the dead dictator's face.
With all the hatred that has been bottled up over the years, such events are understandable. But they also squander a major opportunity. Since the dictator will never stand trial, there will likely be no fundamental coming to terms with the past. Likewise, the way the revolutionaries have treated Gadhafi's corpse has also cost them a bit of the moral superiority they enjoyed vis-a-vis the old regime.
'Significant Damage' to Germany's Standing in the World
These are the rebels who dared to rise up against Gadhafi eight months ago, the rebels politically represented by the National Transitional Council. They have attained their goal. But France, the United Kingdom and the United States, which led the Europeans in the campaign against Gadhafi's regime, can also feel like victors. With their airstrikes, the Allies blocked the massacre that Gadhafi threatened to inflict on the residents of Benghazi in February.
In March, to provide a legal basis for its military intervention in Libya, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which authorized the international community to establish a no-fly zone in Libya and to "take all measures to protect civilians and meet their basic needs." Ten members approved the resolution and five abstained, with Germany finding itself in the rare company of Brazil, India, China and Russia. Germany's abstention was widely viewed as an affront.
The public face of Germany's refusal to back the resolution was Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. And one of his loudest critics was one of his predecessors in that position. In an interview with SPIEGEL from late August, ex-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer condemned the move as "a one-of-a-kind debacle and perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany," adding that it had " significantly damaged" Germany's standing in the world.
The Western powers generously interpreted their mandate and served as the rebels' de facto air force in the battle against Gadhafi. They clandestinely provided the rebels with military advisers and, most likely, also weapons -- with the discernable goal of bringing about regime change in Tripoli.
A War Backed by Most of the Middle East
Off the record, such action is justified by the Allies as being the only real way to fulfill the resolution's demand for "all measures to protect civilians." And success has shown that they were right. But only one factor allowed the campaign to enjoy a political triumph: the fact that -- in sharp contrast to the war launched against Iraq in 2003, which was justified with lies and not backed by a UN resolution -- this time around, London and Washington could be confident that they had almost the entire Middle East behind them. Indeed, even the Arab League approved the no-fly zone against Gadhafi's military forces, as did the states belonging to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In fact, two countries from the region -- Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- even participated in combat operations.
In any case, since last Thursday, only one thing has been certain: the "Brother Leader," the "Guide of the Revolution," the megalomaniac and feared dictator who was long a pariah and then a partner of the West is now history.
When news of Gadhafi's death started making the rounds, all of Libya erupted into a collective state of rejoicing. In the Radisson Hotel in Tripoli, the receptionists were dancing on their reception desks, and an endless stream of people flowed into the celebration -- whether they were men wearing uniforms or jeans or women veiled or unveiled. They clapped, they sang, they laughed. "Finally, we are truly free," one yelled. And they continued to shout Gadhafi's insulting nickname: "Shafshufa! Shafshufa!" ("crazy hair"). Some even made their way downtown to what was formerly known as "Green Square" but has now been redubbed "Martyrs' Square" wearing red lipstick and wigs in mockery of the people they had feared for so long. Indeed, Libya seems to be celebrating a sort of carnival -- but it's also a bit like an exorcism, an attempt to drive the evil spirits away.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles