The Arab Spring has taken its toll on a number of iconic leaders, which has included the likes of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is still fighting to stay in power. None, though, can be compared to the charismatic and often unpredictable Col. Moammar Gadhafi. It’s been just […]
The Arab Spring has taken its toll on a number of iconic leaders, which has included the likes of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is still fighting to stay in power. None, though, can be compared to the charismatic and often unpredictable Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
It’s been just over a year since the Libyan leader was deposed and subsequently executed in cold blood after he was found hiding in a drainage pipe, near his home town of Sirte. His death marked the end of era, which saw Gadhafi rein supreme for 42 years. During that time, the international community often marginalized Libya for crimes committed by Gadhafi.
For the press corps, Gadhafi was more than just another Arab leader; he was a source of entertainment. Over the course of my 25 years of covering the Middle East and North Africa, Gadhafi was often viewed as a welcome distraction from an otherwise mundane story.
In 2003, Gadhafi showed up at the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh with an entourage of cars that stretched on for kilometers. Many in his convoy were Bedouins he had picked along the 1300km journey from the Libyan boarder. Gadhafi preferred to travel by car, particularly when he visited Egypt. It was not uncommon for him to stop at a Bedouin encampment along the north shore of Egypt and shower the inhabitants with gifts and then invite the elders to join him for the rest of the journey.
When his entourage reached Sharm el-Sheikh traffic was at a standstill that neither the infrastructure nor the police were able to cope with. At the opening of the summit, Egyptian authorities made it clear to all the delegations that only the vehicle carrying the head of state would be allowed to drive up to the entrance of the venue where the summit was taking place. Every delegation complied accept for Gadhafi who showed up in the company of about a dozen vehicles. As soon as Gadhafi’s white limo passed through the security gate, the Egyptian guards quickly threw down barricades, but not before the car carrying Gadhafi’s infamous female bodyguards squeezed passed. Suddenly there was mayhem as Egyptian security tried to hold back a bunch of armed Amazonia women who were bent on accompanying their leader into conference.
My most memorable incident with Gadhafi happened late one evening in March 1999. I got a call from the editor at the news desk in Cairo saying there was a rumor that Moammar Gadhafi was about to visit the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. At first I couldn’t believe it, because in all the years I had worked as a photographer I never heard of any Arab leader ever visiting any of Egypt’s antiquities sites, let alone the museum. It seemed like only foreign dignitaries that showed interest in seeing anything other than the airport and presidential palace were from outside the region.
Not sure whether to believe the rumor or not, I decided to just to pass by the entrance of the museum in my car and see for myself if it looked like they were preparing for a high profile visit. When I got there the lights were off; the gate was locked and the museum looked closed. The only thing I noticed was a few of my colleagues lingering around outside the gate with cameras in hand.
After waiting for some time we all decided to give it another 15 minutes and then leave together. However, just as we were about to call it quits, we heard a wail of sirens in the distance and like magic the museum doors were flung open, the lights turned on and security materialized from out of nowhere.
To everyone’s surprise Gadhafi showed up with a very small entourage, which included his chief of protocol, Nuri al Nismari, his favorite female bodyguard, “Fatima” and a few others in his security detail.
Waiting outside the museum to greet Gadhafi was the Egyptian Minister of Information Safwat el Sherif, who looked anything but delighted to be giving a late night tour. It was obvious that he was also told to be there at very short notice.
The tour started with a lot of jostling between the various photographers, but within no time the press left to file their photos. Realizing that it was way past deadlines for most newspapers, I decided to stick it out and see if anything interesting would transpire.
The museum guide took Gadhafi on what was a predetermined tour, stopping in front of a number of objects and giving what was a rehearsed spiel. Gadhafi, though, wanted more information and instead of being rushed through the museum took his time to ask questions, much to the appreciation of the guide.
The guide, obviously thrilled by all the attention, was only more than eager to oblige his guest. Unfortunately, the minister of information was not thrilled and did everything in his power to shorten the visit. At one point Gadhafi asked to go down a corridor that was dark, but before the guide could see about turning on some lights, the minister turned to Gadhafi and said that this part of the museum had no electricity. In the end Gadhafi was taken to the King Tut exhibition and then quickly ushered out of the building by the Egyptian minister.
Once outside, the doors of the museum were closed, the lights turned off and Gadhafi and his small entourage sped off into the night.
Over the years I photographed numerous heads of states from the Americas, Asia and Europe, standing before the Sphinx or climbing down into some tomb, but never did I hear of an Arab leader venturing out of his guest residence.
To the best of my knowledge Moammar Gadhafi remains the only Arab leader in the last 30 years to have visited world famous Egyptian Museum.