Muammar Gaddafi's demise in Sirte last October was the ugliest of any of the dictators toppled by the uprisings of the Arab spring. Tunisia's and Egypt's deposed leaders – 24 and 30 years in power to Gaddafi's record 42 – got away with gilded exile and a humiliating trial respectively; Yemen's veteran president was pushed into retirement. Regime change in Libya was always likely to be brutish. The events that led up to the Brother Leader's bloody end are quite a story.
Lindsey Hilsum was in all the right places to tell it now – in Benghazi when the revolution erupted in February 2011; in Tripoli when the regime fell in August; and in the ruins of Misrata to see Gaddafi's rotting corpse on display in a vengeful parody of a traditional lying-in-state. Sandstorm is an impressive combination of vivid reporting and cool analysis from the veteran Channel 4 foreign correspondent. But what makes her book so useful is that she zooms out from the day-to-day drama to explain how Libya was different: its tribal society, small population, vast oil wealth, nonexistent or stunted institutions, routine repression and, above all, the wacky, capricious ruler who presided over it for so long.
Gaddafi came to be seen in the west as a vicious buffoon with a penchant for comic-opera uniforms, female bodyguards and ranting speeches – as well as for antics such as arming the IRA, giving anti-colonialism a bad name by bankrolling some of Africa's most noxious tyrants, and carrying out the Lockerbie bombing.
Libyans concentrated on what he did (or failed to do) back home in the Jamahiriya – his own Arabic neologism for "state of the masses". His utopian vision was set out in the unreadable Green Book – full of ideas that were "derivative and discredited". Hilsum describes doomed efforts by brave opposition activists to overthrow Gaddafi as well as the notorious massacre in 1996 of 1,270 prisoners in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison. Relatives of those victims mounted the protest that sparked the Benghazi uprising.
Sandstorm looks closely at the years after 2003 when Gaddafi, rattled by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, surrendered his WMD arsenal. The old pariah became a valued new ally in the west's "war on terror", cooperating with the CIA and MI6 to hunt down Libyan jihadis. Later, some of these emerged, reborn as Islamist democrats, Tripoli's new rulers – along with embarrassing documents about rendition and torture.
For Britain and other western countries, Gaddafi's open stance meant business opportunities galore, especially contracts in an oil industry recovering from years of sanctions. Hopes were invested in the efforts of Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's LSE-educated and supposedly reformist-minded son, whose star faded as returning Libyan exiles found that for all the smooth talk he was not able to deliver fundamental change. For, Hilsum writes, as it emerged from isolation the Libyan regime became "less of a dictatorship and more of a mafia state". US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks made this clear.
So a peaceful transition was never an option. In a fateful speech in February, Saif pledged to defend his father's regime "to the last bullet" against the "greasy rats" who had the temerity to oppose it. Days later, when troops shot down demonstrators in Tripoli, one man Hilsum interviewed saw the light: "It dawned on me that it would not be like Egypt or Tunisia. Gaddafi wouldn't stop. Those countries had pseudo-democracies but we had nothing. So we quickly took the path of armed conflict."
Hilsum gives a riveting account of the battle for Tripoli, with activists risking their lives to pass intelligence to Nato, whose targeting – contrary to regime propaganda – was largely accurate, and too cautious for many Libyans. But there is disappointingly little about decision-making in western capitals or how it was coordinated with the wealthy and ambitious Qataris, who maintained their own lines of communication to Islamist rebel brigades rather than the National Transitional Council. Part opportunism, part luck, this was intervention "lite", conducted without the risk of putting "boots on the ground" (except for small numbers of deniable special forces). It seems unlikely to be repeated anywhere else – and certainly not in Syria – as the Arab spring runs its increasingly grim course.
Alex Crawford, a special correspondent for Sky News, made headlines covering the uprising in Zawiya and riding with the rebels into Tripoli, scooping the massed battalions of the BBC. She won praise for her nerve and determination and writes candidly in Colonel Gaddafi's Hat (HarperCollins, £14.99) about the irreconcilable conflict between an addictive job and her children and husband at home. Hers is a fast-paced story that captures the excitement and fear as well as the boredom of the hotels where journalists were forced to stay to be lied to by regime minders.
Ordinary Libyans play a bigger role in Tripoli Witness (Gilgamesh, £9.95), by the British-Lebanese journalist Rana Jawad, who worked undercover for the BBC Arabic service. Jawad had noticed over the years that Libyans had "no sense that change was possible or that they could do anything to alter the direction of their lives". Gaddafi's international rehabilitation did not make much difference to them: behind the gleaming new towers on Tripoli's waterfront the streets were still potholed and filthy, the health and education systems catastrophic. It was, she writes, "the memories of the dead, the oppressed and the shunned that ultimately sparked the Libyan uprising". It's no surprise that the new dawn has been marred by revenge killings.
All three books – part of a steady stream on the events of the last year across the Middle East and north Africa – agree that Gaddafi's largely unlamented departure brought exhilaration, an unfamiliar sense of empowerment and profound uncertainty about the future. In Arabic, "revolution" (thawra) rhymes neatly with "chaos" (fowda). But that's another – unfinished – story..
Web application development by Burgess Powers