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Qadhafi: My part in his downfall

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1 March 2011 15:02

Christopher Herbert is based in New York and has worked in public relations and consulting for Middle East-related businesses. He has a Master's degree from Harvard on Italy's colonisation of Libya.

In 2009 I was hired by a public relations firm in New York to manage the visit of Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi to the UN. This experience gave me a plethora of cocktail party conversation and brought me much closer to the centre of the dysfunctional Libyan state than I ever wanted. 

How did I get this job' I had received a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies a few years previous. In my drive to pursue a unique course of studies, I ended up writing my thesis on the Italian colonisation of Libya and its long-term political and economic impact. I had spent the summer of 2004 in Egypt and had even tried to enter Libya; at the time, Libya was on my bucket list of travel destinations. 

Be careful what you wish for.

Five years later I found myself in a room in the labyrinthine Libyan UN Mission in midtown Manhattan. It was the weekend before Qadhafi's arrival. I had been visiting the mission each day as Libyans trickled into New York. Some of my more mundane duties included, but were certainly not limited to, the following: I arranged the pickup of Qadhafi's cars from JFK airport (two bomb-proof BMWs and one forest green Mercedes stretch limousine with the thickest glass I have ever seen); I worked with the Mission staff to schedule Iftar and Suhur meals (it was Ramadan) at the hotels where many of the diplomats were staying; I struggled to find a place for Qadhafi to stay (he didn't use elevators and wanted a ground floor luxury suite in Manhattan); I transliterated lists of Libyan names from Arabic to English (bypassing the system that has given the Libyan leader at least 22 different possibilities for spelling his family name).

On this particular Saturday I was being instructed by a man named Nuri al-Mismari, the head of Libyan Protocol, on how Qadhafi should be referred to in the news media.

Nuri (what everyone called him) was a tall and almost albino man who wore a strangely built maroon suit with piping, along with omnipresent sunglasses. He claimed to detest New York. After patting my stomach in a vaguely threatening way, we sat down and he told me that Qadhafi should only be referred to in one way: 'His Excellency Brother Leader Muammar Qadhafi, Leader of the Revolution'. He even spelled out the odd variation, G-H-A-D-H-A-F-I for me. In the end, 'Brother Leader' seemed to suffice.

My amazing adventures in New York with Brother Leader and his entourage dim in comparison to the carnage going on throughout Libya today. I use my iPhone Al-Jazeera English app to learn of developments in Libya; because Al-Jazeera English is unavailable in most parts of the US, we Americans have become enterprising in getting connected with AJE (it was via AJE that I first learned, about 5 minutes before the BBC reported it, of Mubarak stepping down). 

I logged on a few days ago expecting to see b-roll clips of Qadhafi, and perhaps a few clips of his most notable son, Seif al-Islam, interspersed with scenes of fighting and carnage in the streets. I saw all of this...and then I saw a familiar face that really gave me a surprise. There on my little iPhone was Nuri, speaking in an interview, declaring that Brother Leader was insane and that he and his team of advisers (female bombshell bodyguards included) really would fight to the death. You can see Nuri's spot during this clip (2:07 in).

Well, it turns out that Nuri defected from Libya in November and was then accused by Libyan officials of embezzling millions of euros. This man seemed to know when to get out. Many other Libyans I worked with in New York have followed suit. Just four days ago the Libyan Ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, disavowed any allegiance to Qadhafi and called for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to try him.

It is obvious that Qadhafi's hold on his nation is now tenuous. Much as the Egyptian military realised with Mubarak, Qadhafi is more of a liability to Libya at this point than he is an asset. Assuming that Qadhafi's end is near, what does it mean for Libya' I will outline the possibilities in my next post. 

Photo, of Muammar Qadhafi in New York in 2009, courtesy of the United Nations.

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