Rami G. Khouri: Libya's Four Lost Decades

Roundup: Talking About History

[Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by The Daily Star.]

If there is a moment, a place, a person, and a legacy that come together to bring sadness to all Arabs, they are upon us this week in the 40th anniversary of the September 1, 1969 revolution that brought Moammar Gadhafi to power. There is nothing to celebrate today in Libya, other than a colossal waste of that country’s human and natural resources over four decades.

This is also a day of calamity for the modern Arab world, not only because of what Libya has suffered and squandered, but also because Libya is only a severe example of the self-inflicted distortions, waste and misfortunes that have defined much of the Arab region since independence. This is also a moment that should spur some quiet reflection by all those in the West who deal with the Arab world with shameless self-interest.

Gadhafi’s Libya is everything we always dreaded we would become, as independent states, societies, governing systems and leaderships. It is hard to know where to start in listing the reasons that the 40th anniversary of Gadhafi’s rule is a hollow celebration. He and his small circle of ruling partners have managed, remarkably, to accomplish virtually every failure that can possibly be envisaged in the world of statehood and governance.

The biggest failure is probably to strangle the country from within, laying siege to his own people by driving away the best and brightest Libyans, and subjecting those who remain to a life of material mediocrity and political indignity. The core of the calamity in Libya – common to the entire Arab world – is the lack of freedom for the ordinary citizen. Libya is a special case, because it combines authoritarianism with eccentricity, waste of massive wealth, and Arab and international derision.

If much of Libya’s human wealth has been forced to flee abroad, most of its material wealth has been wasted in one of the most shocking cases of national self-squandering in the modern world. If we were to conservatively say that Libya has averaged $10 billion of oil exports per year in the past 40 years – with some single year income figures reaching over $45 billion, like last year, for example – we could reasonably ask: what has the Libyan government to show for the $400 billion or so of income that accrued since 1979?

In the eyes of the world in recent decades, Libya has been most widely associated with terrorism. The Lockerbie Pan Am bombing, the Berlin disco bombing and the downing of a UTA French civilian airliner in Africa are only three of the most glaring examples of accusations or convictions against Libya, while many Lebanese assume that Shiite leader Mousa Sadr was killed during a visit to Libya in 1978. Libya paid compensation to the Lockerbie and UTA bombings victims’ families, thus compounding the shame of being found guilty of terror against innocent civilians by engaging in yet more squandering of national wealth...

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