Yesterday I found myself at the center of a small skirmish outside LSE’s New Academic Building. It turns out that Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s brutal dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, was speaking on “Libya: Past, Present, and Future” (which is all pretty much the same thing at this point). Just to make sure we’re all clear on this, Saif is the same Gaddafi who:
- Earned a PhD from the LSE in 2009, and wrote what must have been a mind-numbing dissertation on The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making?
- Donated £1.5 million to LSE’s government department last fall.
- Defended the seven Libyans convicted for the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie as “innocent.”
- Has repeatedly referred to the families of the Lockerbie victims as “greedy” and “materialistic.“
- Characterized the torture of six Bulgarian medics by the Libyan internal security as “negligence” and “unintentional.“
- Continues to claim the existence of any sort of functioning democracy in Libya.
So anyways, not your everyday humdrum speaker on global markets and the regional effect of oil prices in substandard peak blah blah blah…
But as I arrived with my good friend the Hybrid Diplomat (who has his own account of the madness inside), there appeared to be a fight in progress outside. From what little I could tell, an older man, a younger, larger companion of his, and an LSE security guard were attempting to fend off what appeared to be 7-9 well-dressed men. In the end, they managed to throw the old man into the street, repeatedly kicking him, before they were somehow dispersed by the lone guard. And all this with a very large crowd just watching (I’m ashamed to include myself in that).
I approached the man in the street, who introduced himself as Fathallah, 58 years old, and explained he was Libyan by origin, but was now living in London to escape from the death threats he faced at home. The men who’d beaten him were part of the younger Gaddafi’s coterie of around 40-50 Libyan men, who according to everyone I’ve asked, were essentially a planted friendly audience (scroll down) to Gaddafi once they got inside. But before they did, they managed to attack this man.
Naturally, there were no police in sight. Usually when there are, they are there as protection for the speaker (see Danny Ayalon). But for once it was the protesters in need of that protection. At most, there were nine of them total, holding signs on the other side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and chanting “down with Gaddafi!” They were unable to do so until the police arrived, but when they did, they did so in force.
About half an hour after the initial attack on Fathallah, there were roughly 30 police officers, 4 police trucks, and 5-6 police cars. The large crowd of Gaddafian henchmen that had been shouting back at the protesters was dispersed, and the latter continued to chant and carry their signs. By then, Fathallah was back on his feet shouting, though not without visible back problems.
I found my sympathies take a logic train throughout the whole debacle. Naturally, I’m wholeheartedly opposed to the cruel and particularly insidious authoritarian government of Muammar Gaddafi, so from the start I leaned strongly towards the protesters. Then once they were chanting, an occasional refrain was that we should be ashamed for inviting Saif Gaddafi to speak at all, which I actually don’t agree with.
Taking what’s almost certainly blood money from the Libyan regime is shameful, but allowing someone to speak never is. That’s why that particular message the protesters had was trumped for me by Gaddafi’s attempt to beat a man in response to his opinions. How is this allowed to spread to the West? It wasn’t particularly surprising, as far as LSE goes, but to happen in what’s virtually the town square with no intervention… I’m more than a little disgusted with myself.
What does it mean when the Libyan code of ‘free speech’ gets transplanted into the midwife of democracy?