Friday, February 18, 2011

Ghadafi in VW at Green Square

The man who taught Moammar Gadhafi to drive a car, and helped him seize power, has learned hard lessons about how revolutions can go awry.

Omar Hariri, 67, speaks with sadness about his leadership role among the conspirators who toppled the king more than four decades ago in the coup that transformed his shy classmate into the Arab world’s most flamboyant dictator.

Now, as a grandfather figure for a new generation of revolutionaries, Mr. Hariri inspires the forces battling the Gadhafi regime – and warns them to avoid the hasty decisions that soured the earlier rebellion.

“We don't want to make the same mistakes,” Mr. Hariri said. “This time, we will have a clear plan: elections; term limits; political parties.”

A dignified figure in his charcoal suit, buttoned over a fine wool sweater vest, Mr. Hariri walks the streets of rebel-controlled Benghazi like a practised politician, shaking hands with admirers and waving at the young men who lean out the window of a beat-up sedan to scream slogans against the regime.

This relaxed stroll around the neighbourhood would have been impossible for him two weeks ago. He has endured various kinds of arrest and detention almost continuously since 1975, when he was caught organizing a plot against Colonel Gadhafi.

Even in better days, as he went through officers’ school with the young Col. Gadhafi, he describes a friendship that always verged on open rivalry. He bought a cheap, white Toyota in their student days, and Col. Gadhafi quickly demanded a turn at the wheel. (The future leader soon bought himself a Volkswagen.) Among their tight circle of co-conspirators in the military, he said, Col. Gadhafi was known as an introverted, somewhat arrogant figure who read more books than the other officers and insisted on the ideas he learned in their pages. He chided his classmates for speaking in English instead of Arabic, and spoke about grand visions for the Arab world.

“He was the kind of person who wouldn't accept any discussion,” Mr. Hariri said. “He was a narcissist; he wanted to command the revolution. He wanted it all.”

At several stages in the planning for the 1969 coup, he said, the conspirators tried to put together a plan for running the country after they toppled the king. Col. Gadhafi refused to hear such discussions, treating them as signs of disloyalty.

“He was in my car, and I told him, ‘Okay, getting rid of the king is easy. But what are we going to offer the people?’ He said, ‘If you talk like this, we cannot work together.’ ”

The grey-haired former officer sighs deeply telling this story. This was a key mistake of the revolutionaries in those days, he says: They failed to articulate a strategy for a new Libya and did not build any safeguards into their new system.

“This time, the people will be our safeguards,” he said. “They will elect a new president and he will serve for a limited time. He could be removed if he does not serve the people. And, of course, we will need a parliament, and a multiparty system.”

He has also learned from the bungled attempt to correct his own mistakes, when he organized an attempted coup against Col. Gadhafi. He was then serving as secretary-general of the revolutionary cabinet, he said, and started having conversations with other officers about removing their erratic boss. Two officers informed Col. Gadhafi about the plotters, who soon found themselves rounded up by their leader’s personal security detail. About 300 men were arrested, he said. Four died under interrogation, and 21 were condemned to death. “My name was the first on the list of those who must hang,” he said.

Instead of executing them immediately, however, Col. Gadhafi let his rivals languish on death row. Mr. Hariri says he spent 4½ years in solitary confinement in a cell barely large enough for him to lie down. The chamber lacked ventilation, he said: “Even the keyhole was plugged up.” Every time the door rattled, he expected the hangman.

He never knew precisely why Col. Gadhafi commuted his death sentence; perhaps their old friendship had some weight, he said. For whatever reason, he was released in 1990 and placed under house arrest in Tobruk.

He remained under close surveillance by the security forces until Feb. 17, when the revolution started. It was not initiated by prominent figures of the older generation, he said, but began spontaneously when Tunisia and Egypt inspired the youth. “Children of Facebook!” he declared, in English, with a broad smile.

But the revolution needed adult supervision and turned to figures such as Mr. Hariri. “We counsel them,” he said. “Right now I am telling them freedom is costly, and nothing is more precious than Libyans’ blood.” Journalists have described seeing Mr. Hariri receiving a hero’s welcome from crowds of young men, saluting him with bursts of Kalashnikov fire.

He no longer describes himself as a revolutionary leader; his own revolutions have slipped into history, he says. But knowing Col. Gadhafi better than any of the young men now fighting him, he offers a prediction: The regime will eventually collapse, he says, but Col. Gadhafi will not go quietly. Like some others here, Mr. Hariri says the revolutionaries need the international community to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, and perhaps even use cruise missiles or other air power to attack military installations that remain loyal to Mr. Gadhafi. “Otherwise, he will die in office and kill so many.”

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