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Love to the Death

Qadhafi’s malignant narcissism and his political project
Qadhafi’s malignant narcissism and his political project

In the late 1960s, the CIA set up the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior (CAPPB). The new subdivision was tasked with profiling the psychologies of world leaders, both friendly and hostile to the US, in order to give accurate assessments of how influential individuals might behave in any given situation. Clearly there would be a great advantage in confidently predicting the behavior of foreign leaders, but the discipline now known as political psychology has not exactly proven reliable in the intervening period.

It is highly likely that the notoriously erratic Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi, has been subject to classified CIA profiling during his extensive reign in a bid to second guess his actions. Over the past 40 years Qadhafi has put on innumerable outlandish and far-fetched performances, cementing his reputation as an eccentric. After having been labeled “mad dog of the Middle East” by President Ronald Reagan, he became most famous, in the West at least, for his insistence upon conducting all high-level diplomatic meetings in a Bedouin tent—including one in which he audaciously aimed the sole of his shoe at Tony Blair, British prime minister at the time—and an esoteric dress sense that has made it easy to paint him as a figure of fun. However, there is more to such seemingly oddball behavior than meets the eye—the tent for instance is considered by Qadhafi as an easy shorthand to impress his tribal origins upon his interlocutor, just as his natty robes are meant to demonstrate his man-of-the-people status.  In recent weeks, since Libya has become the latest country to fall victim to the swathe of popular protest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, Qadhafi’s behavior has been highlighted as ever-more bizarre—witness his curious appearance on state TV, brandishing an umbrella while sitting in a golf buggy—but in fact, it is entirely in keeping with his long-standing method of authority.

Seasoned journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, who was famously close to Anwar Al-Sadat, is among several observers of Middle East politics to put forward the notion of the politician as actor. Sadat—like his predecessor as Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser—excelled as an orator and always presented himself meticulously, in the knowledge that his image and the force of his personality was an invaluable tool in maintaining authority.

Colonel Qadhafi, a confessed disciple of Nasser, also knows the value of performance. Like many self-styled leaders of nations he is at the helm of an intricate personality cult and the proper name for his brand of authority—borrowed from dubious exemplars such as Stalin, or more recently, Saddam Hussein—is charismatic. Indeed, Qadhafi’s longevity suggests that not only does his pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric typify all the trademark ambitions of the cult leader—i.e. to unite a people behind a common commitment to undying loyalty—but also that he is a master of the technique.  As such, the relative stability of Libya over the past four decades has been rooted in Qadhafi’s successful embodiment of legitimate power in the country. He is simultaneously at the head of the Libyan political community and the very essence of the Libyan political community, a feat achieved by virtue of excessive force of personality—to both strike fear and instill faith in the hearts of Libyans.

Fear is the key word here, and it is the overbearing threat of summary punishment that epitomizes Qadhafi’s authority. The true story of Hisham Matar, the Libyan novelist, demonstrates the terror of Qadhafi’s regime. Matar, whose father was considered a dissident by the regime, spent his school years in Europe plagued by feelings of paranoia—to the extent that he was unable to share his true identity with his closest friend, a Libyan boy from a family loyal to Qadhafi. His tragic and touching story is tinged with the twisted and farcical logic of authoritarianism, an arena in which it becomes essential to say one thing and do another in order to survive—this forced performance is true for every actor in the piece.

It is within this context that Qadhafi the actor has made his recent, apparently grossly out-of-touch, statements concerning the widespread unrest in his country. He has gone as far as to insist that “all my people love me. They would die to protect me.” This, despite reports that foreign militia have been hired to intimidate and even massacre anti-Qadhafi rebels, is a symptomatic contradiction within the cult of personality. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, took the opportunity to label the Libyan leader “delusional and unfit to lead.” He may well be unfit to lead, but he is perhaps no more deluded than he was over 40 years ago, in 1969, when the 27-year-old army colonel led a coup d’état  to topple the former king of Libya, Idris. Soon after the putsch, which had zero connection to any kind of popular uprising, the newly appointed chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Qadhafi, made the following statement: “The revolution is a popular revolution… as far as possible from a military coup… The people is the teacher, the people is the pioneer, the people inspired the armed forces… and… the people is the ruler… the master… the king of kings.”

The self-evident narcissism of a charismatic leader, as well as the common abdication from morality, leads to the frequent assumption of some kind of mental imbalance. Dictators are of course in a uniquely inaccessible position for the psychiatrist, but the work of Jerrold Post, who was the founding director of CAPPB, attempted to solve the problem of personal access. Post compiled classified psychological assessments of a whole gamut of political strongmen in the second half of the twentieth century by analyzing their public output and interviewing people who had come in to contact with them.  He contends that distance from the subject makes it possible to create an unbiased profile, and in this way, for 20 years, he furnished the US government with analyses of the world’s major despots. Post, now teaching at George Washington University, recently shared his perspective on Qadhafi with the BBC. “Qadhafi finds it inconceivable that his beloved people could be rising up against him,” said Post, but this assessment that the leader is in effect wholly deluded fails to take into account the deliberately contradictory essence of totalitarianism.

Qadhafi’s power has always been rooted in the illusion of popular support, even undying loyalty. Observers of Qadhafi’s political evolution, and the unique project he has implemented in Libya, have noted a sophisticated development of ideology which merits comparisons to the theorizing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is the subject of speculation as to whether Qadhadi was directly influenced by Rousseau, but his Jamahiriya experiment—which has seen the entire country transformed into a supposed nation of direct democracy—articulated in the pages of his famous Al-Kitab Al-Akhdar (Green Book), shares unmistakable similarities with the French philosopher’s musings. The very existence of this rigorous—if not wholly coherent—political concern on the part of Qadhafi, lends more support to the idea that despite his obvious eccentricities (the permanent sunglasses, the coterie of blonde female “bodyguards”) there is method to his ravings.

There is a theory that suggests the over-representation of political strong-men in the Middle East is down to cultural factors in the region that encourage malignant narcissism in authority. It is said that the characteristics of pan-Arab nationalism—of which Qadhafi has been an inconsistent supporter—lends particular support to a charismatic father figure. But Qadhafi’s elaborate political experiment in Libya can be seen to show that the strongman phenomenon is not a culturalist one. The unique conditions in Libya, and the singular application of the Jamahiriya is the setting for Qadhafi’s apparently delusional character.

The crucial practical feature of the Libyan Jamahiriya is the fact that it has effectively eradicated all forms of political representation and ultimately centralized all political influence in the whims of the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”—the title Qadhafi adopted in 1979. As bizarrely counter-intuitive as it may seem, removing the political infrastructure of the nation made it easier for Qahdhafi to rule. Though his official position is that of a mere figurehead—which puts into perspective his recent comparison of himself to Queen Elizabeth II—in effect, he has to contend with no government and no opposition, only a loose knit and utterly impotent network of perfunctory “committees.” To remain at the top the cult leader can simply do what he has being doing—until recently—and whip up an aura of fear with his grandiose displays, relying on an ever-present coercive force.

The ghastly truth is that the Libyan people really do love their leader to the death, because Qadhafi has systematically and ingeniously placed them in a position in which love or death are the only options available. The current turmoil in the country—which at the time of writing looks likely to descend in to all-out civil war—is extremely unlikely to end with anything approaching a just or orderly system in place, thanks to the efforts of the past 40 years to wipe-out any coherent opposition. It is equally unlikely that Qadhafi will go quietly, being so ineffably caught–up in his own personality cult that, in the end, he has truly embodied his role.

Published: Friday 11 March 2011 Updated: Monday 14 March 2011

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