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by William H. Benson

February 23, 2012

     Machiavelli, the sixteenth century Italian writer and thinker, wrote in his book The Prince the following: “Private citizens who become princes purely by good fortune do so with little exertion on their own part; but subsequently they maintain their position only by considerable exertion. They make the journey as if they had wings; their problems start when they alight.” In other words, for a prince the hard work is not latching on to power, but maintaining his grip upon it thereafter.

     One prince who exercised extreme power over a country was Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

     South of Italy and across the Mediterranean Sea lies the north African country of Libya. There Gaddafi worked out the cruder and finer points of a dictatorship that lasted in Libya for forty-two years. On September 1, 1969, in a bloodless coup, Gaddafi led a group of military officers that overthrew King Idris I, abolished the monarchy, and pitched aside the old constitution.

     To entrench his power he kicked out the Americans from their air base, drove out the multi-national oil companies, nationalized oil production, provided free education, refused to assume any debt, and most importantly, he crushed any opposition. Voices of dissent were silenced. People disappeared.

     One strange thing he did was change the names of two months. August, a reference to Caesar Augustus, he changed to Hannibal, and July, in honor of Julius Caesar, he changed to Nasser.

     Borrowing from Mao Tse Tung’s revolutionary tactics, Gaddafi wrote out his political manifesto, entitling it, not a Red Book as did Mao, but the Green Book. In it Gaddafi argued for lodging power in committees, rather than in tribes, sects, parties, or classes. Then, fueled by visions of apocalyptic revolution and worldwide destruction, he turned his sights upon international affairs, sponsoring a series of despicable international terrorists strikes.

     The New York Times journalist, Anthony Shadid, visited Libya and came away shocked. “It was one of those places,” he said, “I had no sense of. I had been there once before. It was a surreal experience. It happened back in 1995. It was a country that felt to me beyond traumatized. I mean its civil society had been wiped out. Almost every institution that would have knit the country together Colonel Gaddafi had destroyed.”

     On February 18, 2011, just a year ago, the end for Gaddafi began. On that day protestors followed the lead of those in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets, and demanded the overthrow of Gaddafi’s government. It was another scene in the “Arab Spring.”

     Gaddafi’s forces fought back, but the National Transitional Council, the NTC, soon had the support of NATO and American missiles, aircraft, and drones. In the month of August, actually Hannibal, Gaddafi fled Tripoli, but not on elephants, and found refuge in Sirte. In October he was among those who fled Sirte in a motorized convoy, was captured, and killed. Four days later he was buried in an undisclosed grave in the desert.

     Last weekend, the Libyan people celebrated the one year anniversary of the revolt. They have much to cheer about: Gaddafi is gone. Yet, conditions in the country are chaotic. “The NTC is neither trusted nor in control. The country is run by hundreds of militias which refuse to give up their arms or submit to the NTC’s authority. It’s everyone for himself.” What color of book will emerge as the legitimate one? Another green, or red, or perhaps yellow or blue? It is a question where the country will go.

     Beyond the east shores of the Mediterranean Sea is the country of Syria, and there the revolt that started as part of the Arab Spring has turned vicious. Bashar al Assad’s forces killed an estimated 5000 defiant protestors and innocent civilians by the end of 2011, and the past few weeks the killings have accelerated. He knows that should he lose this fight, his fate will be the same as that of Gaddafi’s. Dictators do not normally retire to a country estate.

     This struggle for power reminds me of Shakespeare’s quote from his play Julius Caesar: “O, that a man might know the end of this day’s business. But it sufficeth that the day will end, and then the end will be known.”


     Anthony Shadid, the American journalist I mentioned above, died last Friday, February 17. He was fleeing Syria when he suffered an asthma attack, brought on by an allergic reaction to his guide’s horses. He was forty-three, an American casualty in this Arab Spring that has now lasted a full year.