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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sits in front of flags of African Union members
Despite his history, Gadhafi is a man the West must deal withImage: AP

40 years of Gadhafi

September 1, 2009

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi marks the 40th anniversary of the 1969 coup which brought him to power on September 1 with controversy raging around him, as it has done for much of the four decades of his rule.


Gadhafi, Africa's longest-ruling leader, is no stranger to outrage and divided opinion but as Libya prepares for its biggest-ever party, the country's "Brother-Leader" finds himself in a position which a decade ago would have been unusual, if not unthinkable.

Many of those countries - particularly those in the West - who once refused to talk with him, even those who once conducted military action against him, now realize that Gadhafi is a man they can and must do business with in the rapidly changing geo-political landscape.

While they do not want to court too openly a man who runs a police state and who was, until recently, an international pariah, they do not want to offend a country that has huge oil and gas reserves and billions of petrodollars to spend.

Both Gadhafi and his country have a troubled and controversial past but Libya - with such business and strategic opportunities on offer - holds out the promise of a lucrative future for those who can turn a blind eye to its leader's on-going talent for division.

Divisions clear on anniversary guest list

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi
Ghadafi has divided opinion for four decades as leaderImage: picture alliance / dpa

Those leaders attending Gadhafi's huge bash on Tuesday - and perhaps even more so, those who are staying away - embody the balancing act the Libyan leader has been performing since coming in from international isolation in 2003 when he renounced weapons of mass destruction and took responsibility for acts of terrorism.

On the one hand, there are those who still bear the pariah status Gadhafi himself once proudly held. A host of controversial African leaders from Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to Sudan's indicted Omar al Bashir are expected to be joined by the likes of Venezuela's showman President Hugo Chavez at the celebrations.

On the other hand, wary Western leaders, caught in a diplomatic quandary, have withdrawn from what is seen as Libya's international coming-out party but will still send representatives in a sign that while Gadhafi cannot be seen to be celebrated at the highest level, most Western countries see the need to keep him onside.

As a result, compromise guests will be sent by some. Spain is sending its foreign minister, Italy its defense minister while France will send a secretary of state. Britain, angered by the rapturous homecoming given to the Lockerbie bomber, Abdul Baset Ali al Megrahi, earlier this month, is sending no one.

German stance atypical for Western nations

Germany is one of the few countries which has attempted to keep business and politics apart in its dealing with Libya.

Libya is one of Germany's strongest trading partners in northern Africa and Germany is the second-largest consumer of Libyan oil in Europe after Italy. It has long been accepted that the economy is the driving power in German-Libyan relations.

Sawsan Chebli, a Libya expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), believes that the economic aspect of German-Libyan relations is the most important as far as Berlin is concerned and that Germany would not allow its business interests to interfere in what she called a "very conservative" foreign policy stance towards Tripoli.

Gerhard Schroeder with Ghadafi in 2004
Gerhard Schroeder met Ghadafi as chancellor in 2004Image: AP

"In economic terms, relations between Germany and Libya are excellent," Chebli told Deutsche Welle. "Ever since Ghadafi made the announcement in 2004 that Libya would compensate the families of the victims of the La Belle nightclub bombing, relations have been getting better and better. Germany wants very strong economic ties with Libya, that’s the most important part of the relationship for Berlin."

A recent example of this came in April when a German delegation of ministers and business managers headed by Economics Minister Karl-Theodor Guttenberg met with Libyan officials in Tripoli. The reason behind this meeting was to discuss joint cooperation between the two countries in the area of oil and gas exploration as well as ways to extend projects already being undertaken by German companies in the Libyan oil and gas fields.

Germany finds itself in competition with France and Italy when it comes to Libya’s natural resources but Chebli said there were limits to how far Germany would go to secure deals.

"The oil and the economic ties are very important but Germany isn’t prepared to sell its soul for this," she said. "If the Germans would do this, if they gave Ghadafi the sign he needs, then they would get a very big slice of the pie because Germany is very popular in Libya."

"Berlin does enough to keep up with France and Italy but it could do a lot more if it turned a blind eye politically. But Germany won’t do this. In this way, Germany is a real exception to many of the European and Western nations in how it deals with Ghadafi and Libya," she said.

Berlin keeping Ghadafi at arm's length politically

Germany will not be sending a high-level cabinet minister to the 40th anniversary celebrations. Niklas Wagner, a spokesperson at Germany's Foreign Ministry, told Deutsche Welle that the German government will be represented on an ambassadorial level only.

This, according to Chebli, is another example of the relationship between Germany and Libya on the political level.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, shares a word with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi
German leaders won't get as close to Ghadafi as SarkozyImage: AP

"Politically, there is certainly room for improvement," she said. "However, there isn't a very strong political will to do this from Germany’s point of view. Germany’s foreign policy is quite conservative and if relations were to get to the level of those between France and Libya or Italy and Libya, then Germany would have to justify this to the public. This would be very difficult for Germany because Libya is an autocratic state with no political parties and Ghadafi is a dictator whose record in human rights is a real issue."

"So there are no frequent phone calls to Ghadafi from Merkel or Steinmeier as there are from Sarkozy or Berlusconi and no invitations for him to set up his tent in Berlin - and there won’t be," Chebli added. "This would be the sign Ghadafi needs to be legitimized by Germany and Berlin isn’t ready to do this."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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