15 FEBRUARY 2011


There he goes again. But this time he isn't funny. He's pathetic.

Just as Ben Ali was fleeing the wrath of his Tunisian people, the aging Libyan dictator went on television blaming the people for their lack of appreciation. With a sunlamp tan -- in a country that has ample sunshine -- his face looked scarred by cosmetic surgery. You could hardly see his mouth move as strange incoherent ramblings came out. His eyes looked almost closed as if he was talking in his sleep, or seeing a nightmare. Among other banal thoughts, he played a futile instigating ploy. Tunisians hated their First Lady, he claimed, because she was originally from Tripoli! He was playing on her family maiden name. Trabelsi in Arabic refers to someone from "Trablous" - the name of the region and capital city in Libya. Thus the incoherent dictator, who has been in power since 1969, was making a bizarre claim that his neighbours hated his countrymen.

It was rambling, a very nervous ramble quite different from the theatrical one he had displayed at U.N. Headquarters in New York in September 2009 when he violated every rule in the book of conferences by speaking for 75 minutes rather than the designated 10, and by bringing in his own interpreter instead of relying -- as everyone else did -- on the two dozen officially trained interpreters. In a thinly veiled excuse, he claimed that his private linguist understood better his accented Arabic. Yet even his own man gave up after 50 minutes of incoherence; his sigh in clear Arabic was heard by everyone with an earphone: "I can't do it; I just can't go ahead." A U.N. female interpreter took over for the rest of the speech -- mostly taken as a comic show.

This time, however, in January 2011, Qaddafi was in a serious ramble, to be followed by an even more delusional one when the Egyptian people, on the other side of the border, rebelled against his occasional friend/occasional adversary President Mubarak. Volunteering to defend accusations about stolen billions by Mubarak family members -- as indicated by an initial Swiss inquiry -- Qaddafi shouted that the Egyptian President, still in power then, was indeed very poor to the point of not being able to pay for his own clothes. "We provide him assistance," he said, blaming Israeli Mossad agents of being behind the protests, conveniently overlooking the open support that Israeli officials displayed for a continued Mubarak role. In fact, many Arab intellectuals believe that Qaddafi himself was at least doing Mossad's work by protecting and financially subsidizing gunman groups like Abu Nidal who mainly murdered Palestinian leaders; also by creating dissent within Arab ranks and diverting attention from pressing Arab issues by staging theatrical gimmicks.

Like Mubarak and Ben Ali, Qaddafi has put his family in the government business, Saif Al-Islam appearing when Hannibal disappears -- and the other way around. Relations with Switzerland were put to the test when his son beat up North African waiters in a Geneva hotel. Oil flow to Switzerland was threatened. An Italian soccer football team had to dress another son in its uniform following a very generous contribution from Daddy. Also, like Mubarak and Ben Ali, he thought he made his deals with Western powers which had boycotted him. Oil companies; reticent diplomats gone mercenary; European Prime Ministers (like Blair and Berlesconi) seeking angles of political (and financial) gain; an all-female guard team; an air-conditioned tent for the cameras; a two-year seat at the U.N. Security Council; a rotating Presidency of the U.N. General Assembly; "King of Africa" stunt; anything to make him feel secure enough in his own country. He focused on Tripoli and neglected the Eastern provinces, like Benghazi, Tobruk, and Darna, with the more conservative and poorer societies.

Yet, by insiders' accounts, Qaddafi is very nervous these days. He called in groups of intellectuals, middle class professionals, and media reporters. For three consecutive days, he harangued them about their loyalty to him. Anything that went wrong, he warned, will prompt him to take revenge on their tribes. He criticized Al-Jazeera. He ordered a clamp down on all Internet outlets and any kind of blogging under threat of imprisonment and ruthless vengeance.

Actually, Qaddafi should be nervous. Looking at the map, he sees himself squeezed between two countries whose popular revolutions have just overthrown their despotic rulers who had indeed held power less time that he did: 32 years in absolute rule compared to 30 and 23. For how long can he hang on?

An indicative joke making the rounds in Libya claims that when he realized that Ben Ali and Mubarak were forced to quit on a Friday, he issued a weekly calendar cancelling Fridays.