My Christmas with Gaddafi's spokesperson
Moussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi’s spokesperson, who became familiar to the world through his appearances in the Rixos hotel justifying the Gaddafi regime, was reported captured last week.
Currently there is no news of his whereabouts, or whether he is dead or alive. If it’s the latter, his fate is not promising.
It doesn’t seem highly likely that those who dispatched Gaddafi to his grisly end will be very forgiving to someone who, as the dictator’s minister of information, was seen as the public face of the regime and who spread Gaddafi’s inflammatory messages.
But why should I care about the fate of a Gaddafi loyalist and whether he is tortured or not?
Because only last Christmas, Moussa was in my home with his German wife and new baby. I cooked them a traditional roast dinner and we played with the baby. Moussa was very hands-on, changing nappies and rocking the baby to sleep.
Perhaps more surprisingly, we toasted the Tunisian uprising over several glasses of good red wine, to which Moussa was always extremely partial.
My partner John was Moussa’s PhD supervisor at Royal Holloway, University of London and, over the six years that it took for Moussa to complete it, we got to know him quite well. He was sociable and likable and his wife, a German woman from a Quaker background whom he had met first at an Exeter University Christian meeting, was intriguing. Moussa wrote his own PhD (in contrast to the allegations surrounding Gaddafi’s LSE-educated son Saif) and never offered donations to the university or presents to John.
Indeed, I always formed the impression the couple didn’t have much money. When we met up it was usually at our house over a meal, although once they took us to a restaurant on London’s Edgware Road. We would talk about the Roman glories of Libya, and about their holidays (they were cycling enthusiasts) and, more latterly, when Julia and he married and the baby was born, how she could fit in with Libyan society.
For several years it was clear Moussa was delaying his return to Libya, but about 18 months ago he was summoned back by his family, apparently to work in their communications industry. When we met up last Christmas—he was back on a visit to the UK—he was talking about trying to set up journalism courses and teach western journalistic concepts in Libya. From his thesis he seemed to be an idealist, believing in the power of digital technology to free individuals.
He certainly saw himself as a moderniser, following the pathway Tony Blair had opened up to end Libya’s pariah status. So when he suddenly appeared as Gaddafi’s spokesperson, it was something of a shock.
It is true that John had become aware, in the last year before Moussa left England, that our friend’s brother was somehow part of the regime. We knew Moussa was from Sirte and was from the same tribe as Gaddafi, but we had no idea he was closely related, a cousin, as some recent reports have suggested. So it was painful to see him in Tripoli and hear his attempts to spin the regime, performances that earned him the title “Comical Moussa”, after Saddam Hussein’s spokesperson who was nicknamed “Comical Ali”.
Charmed by Moussa
Reading the reports from the Rixos hotel, it was clear some of the journalists were as charmed by Moussa as we had been. Several mentioned how pleasant he was to talk to, how he would reminisce about pubs in Exeter he had drunk at. Several noted how he and his German wife gravitated to the western journalists rather than Gaddafi’s heavies, who increasingly occupied the hotel.
During that time we were in Philadelphia. Moussa stayed in contact, occasionally phoning and sometimes skyping. There were one or two occasions when I listened in to John, who, after discussing the details of his student’s PhD, would end up arguing with Moussa about the regime and suggesting how he could make contact with people who could help him get out.
John always assumed Moussa had been strong-armed into this position and would jump ship as soon as he could, and even as things were reaching their climax in Tripoli, Moussa seemed to be hinting that he wanted to talk to people independently. John tried to put him in contact with diplomats.
If we were horrified by his role in this first phase of the war, the fact that he was part of the entourage, and that he suddenly disappeared from the Rixos hotel only to reappear still speaking up for the Gaddafi loyalists, felt like the most shocking betrayal. We never spoke to him directly again after that point and Julia disappeared from view too. We were desperately worried about her and the baby.
Moussa’s language changed utterly. He started to talk, like Gaddafi , of “rats” and “dogs”, encouraging people to resist to the death. This was someone who we felt had the chance to exercise influence, or escape and publicly humiliate the regime. Instead, he had fled with Gaddafi.
I know there are readers who will condemn our naivety. Why didn’t we check out his connections with Libya properly? Why didn’t we realise he was connected with one of the closest members of Gaddafi’s circle? There are many reasons: his surname had been Mansour in England, for one thing, the surname Ibrahim only appearing when he became Gaddafi’s spokesperson.
There was nothing to suggest any loyalty to Gaddafi; on the contrary, he was critical. He seemed, with his German wife, to have espoused a very ordinary kind of western life and for a long time we had thought he would settle permanently in Europe. He was just one of many hundreds of Libyan students in the UK and one of a group of PhD students who were interesting to know but with the added bonus of being charming, clever and entertaining. We became closer to him than any others.
Seduced and trapped
Yes, there were odd periods when he disappeared, summoned back to Libya, but we always assumed it was his family who were holding the purse strings and getting fed up with his long-lasting thesis and increasing westernisation. John always felt Moussa was ambitious and destined to rise high. But if we had been asked to predict where that ambition would be fulfilled, it would have been unequivocally in the anti-Gaddafi camp. Maybe he was seduced by being on the world stage and then trapped by his close family allegiance.
We know now that Julia made it out of Libya two weeks ago, but imagining Moussa’s situation over the past few weeks has been surreal. How on earth would someone like that be coping with war? How could he possibly have been alongside someone so clearly deranged as Gaddafi, defending him? Has he been dreaming, while holed up, of those Exeter pubs and cycling holidays along the Thames? And now with the horrendous pictures of Gaddafi’s death come further disturbing imaginings of prison and torture.
All those campaigns I have supported against the use of torture suddenly feel personal. But I never expected to know someone who might be affected. Perhaps Moussa asked for his fate. But, having known him, it’s hard not to wish it could have been different.—