Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya for 40 years. He is one of the longest serving rulers in the Arab world—and he is a ruler the West has always been prepared to do business with.
When Gaddafi first seized power in a military coup in 1969 he presented himself as a progressive leader modelled on Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Nasser’s radical programme of reform, and his refusal to bow to imperialism, galvanised the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.
Gaddafi’s “socialist republic” was in reality a system of patronage and corruption.
He used the discovery of huge reserves of oil to buy the allegiance of Libya’s tribes, and ruthlessly crushed any opposition.
The resistance organisations that he funded in Lebanon and Palestine quickly earned a reputation for their corruption, criminality and cruelty.
For Britain and the US it was not how Gaddafi ruled at home that drew objection, but his refusal to join other Arab leaders in making peace with the West.
US president Ronald Reagan sent warplanes in 1986 to assassinate Gaddafi.
The missiles missed and slammed into a residential area of Tripoli, killing some 100 innocent people.
The US accused Gaddafi of being behind terrorism, including the 1986 bombing of the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland.
Reagan denounced Gaddafi as a “mad dog” and initiated global sanctions on the country.
But Gaddafi was brought in from the cold after he agreed to scrap what turned out to be a fake programme of weapons of mass destruction.
He also agreed to pay compensation to the families afffected by the Lockerbie bombing, and accepted the false conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi—the Libyan who was framed for the bombing.
In 2004 then prime minister Tony Blair travelled with oil executives for a “meeting in the desert” where he held out the prospect of lucrative deals to the Libyan leader.
Gaddafi was paraded as one of the great successes of the invasion of Iraq, because he was prepared to come into the fold of Western influence.
The meeting transformed him from a “mad dog” into a friendly “regional strongman”.
European leaders rushed to welcome him. Gaddafi, his sons and his inner circle amassed huge fortunes.
Forgotten in this process of normalisation were those living under his rule.
The West may be about to change its attitude to Gaddafi once more.
But, as before, it will not be out of concern for the fate of the people of Libya.