Warming Up to a Dictator

By Mona Eltahawy

Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page A15

When the United States ended a 24-year chill and restored diplomatic relations with Libya on June 28, the first person I thought of was Baha Omary Kikhia. I interviewed her in Cairo more than 10 years ago during one of her many trips to the region to find out what happened to her husband, former Libyan foreign minister turned dissident Mansour Kikhia.

His case has too easily been lost in the lexicon of bloodier and larger crimes committed by the Libyans, such as the 1988 Pan Am bombing, which killed 270 people. But Moammar Gaddafi has been brutal to Libyans, too, and his various eccentricities should not blind us to the police state he has presided over since he assumed power in a September 1969 coup.

He may travel with Kalashnikov-armed female bodyguards, he may pitch tents at home and abroad for talks with officials, and he may pen such "classics" as the short story collection "The Village, the Village, the Earth, the Earth and the Suicide of the Astronaut," but none of these quirks should distract us from his abysmal human rights record. Arbitrary arrests, a muzzled press, a ban on political parties and the squandering of Libya's oil wealth have never been laughing matters for Libyans.

And we should not forget Mansour Kikhia, who disappeared in Cairo in December 1993 while attending a meeting of an Arab human rights organization he had helped found. Kikhia had defected to the United States in 1980 and was a U.S. resident who was four months away from receiving citizenship when he went to Egypt. A four-year CIA investigation found in 1997 that Egyptian agents turned over Kikhia -- who had asked for Egyptian security protection while in Cairo -- to agents of Gaddafi's regime, who spirited the dissident to Libya, where he was executed and buried in the Libyan desert.

My interview with his wife, a U.S. citizen, left me painfully saddened for her and her family and particularly distressed that someone could just disappear in the city that I called home. I could not forget her during an assignment in Tripoli in 1996, when a Libyan government minder shadowed me at every turn and an official with the ministry of information asked me why we were so critical of Libya in the copy we filed at the Reuters news agency. And I will not forget her now, or the many others who have suffered from Gaddafi's regime, just because he is able to say the things he knows the Americans and British want to hear.

Gaddafi , claiming he had seen the light, accepted responsibility last year for the Pan Am bombing, agreeing to pay compensation to the victims' families (I wonder whether he has paid compensation to Baha Omary Kikhia) and to dismantle his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. If that last bit sounds familiar, it should. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair want us to think that Gaddafi's conversion on the road to Washington and London was due to the fear that he would end up in the same jail cell as Saddam Hussein. (Gaddafi's daughter Aicha, a law professor, has joined Hussein's defense team.)

With no weapons of mass destruction to justify a war against a country that never threatened them, Bush and Blair are determined to hold on to their theory that the "war on terrorism" and the invasion of Iraq would bring rogue states in line. But it's an odd argument they're making. In the absence of weapons of mass destruction, and with images of Hussein on trial for war crimes, they have been pushing the "removal of a brutal dictator" excuse for the invasion of Iraq. How do they square this with their astonishing rush to embrace another ruthless dictator?

Gaddafi's behavior of late has been uncomfortably close to brutal. In May -- a mere two months after a historic visit to Tripoli by Blair, who was accompanied of course by executives of British businesses eager to cash in -- a Libyan court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death by firing squad for deliberately infecting some 400 children with HIV. The medics had always protested their innocence and said they had been tortured by the police, with daily beatings, sexual assault and electric shocks.

Expert witnesses called in for their defense included one of the team that discovered the AIDS virus, who said this was an epidemic caused by poor hygiene at the hospital, not by any international conspiracy. Isn't Bulgaria a member of the "Coalition of the Willing"?

Here's the topper. As Libya was engaged in secret negotiations to resume relations with the United States and Britain, Gaddafi tore into Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at an emergency Arab League summit in March 2003, assailing the kingdom's close relationship with the United States. When the Saudi de facto leader insulted Gaddafi back and walked out, the Libyan leader apparently hatched a plot to assassinate him. Isn't that dangerously close to state-sponsored terrorism?

Speaking at Whitehall Palace in London last year, President Bush acknowledged that the United States and Britain had not always been on the right side of democracy when it came to the Middle East. "Your nation and mine in the past have been willing to make a bargain to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability," Bush said, addressing Blair.

It's not difficult to imagine that just such a bargain, along with some good old-fashioned military and oil contracts thrown in, is the driving force behind the resumption of ties with Libya.

The writer is managing editor of Arabic Women's eNews and a columnist for the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

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