Megrahi’s death – An end to a century of mistrust?

Western politicians should no longer refer to Lockerbie when dealing with Libya’s new leadership.

Video grab of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hugging convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in Tripoli
Gaddafi was compelled to hand over Megrahi to a Scottish tribunal because of economic damage from sanctions following the bombing - even though there was no conclusive evidence linking Megrahi to Lockerbie [Reuters]

Cambridge, United Kingdom – Libya’s relationship with the West has long been fraught with many paradoxes. Despite being almost entirely dependent on Western expertise and markets to produce and conusme its oil, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi pursued virulently anti-Western foreign policies.

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In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in what was the deadliest “modern-style” terrorist attack of the 20th century. Since then, rather than searching for the genuine causes of the tragedy, the US and UK wielded Lockerbie as a diplomatic weapon against Libya. The debates around the prosecution and punishment of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi – the prime suspect in the Lockerbie case – have embodied the enigma embedded in the relationship. With Megrahi’s passing on Sunday and the elections for Libya’s constituent assembly scheduled in less than one month’s time, the time is ripe to wipe the slate clean.

The colonial past

Libyans’ mistrust for Western diplomacy, is over a century old. In 1911, Italy invaded then-Ottoman Libya without any real provocation. After Mussolini came to power, Italian colonialism embraced ethnic cleansing of the Cyrenaican Bedouin – over 300,000 out of a total Libyan population of less than 1.5 million were killed. In WWII, Italy joined the Axis powers. In 1942, Britain conquered Libya and governed it for eight years. After failing to obtain UN approval to divide Libya into three trusteeships, the British drew on tacit American support to implant their client Idriss al Sanussi as King of a United Libya.

Independence and oil

From 1951 until the export of oil in 1961, Libya balanced its budget by leasing its territory to the US and UK to use as air bases in the Cold War. Throughout the 1960s, American and British companies quickly came to dominate Libya’s oil scene and King Idriss tried repeatedly to modify the initially favourable terms he had offered them to promote exploration. After Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s seizure of power in 1969, he aggressively challenged the prevailing international system of profit sharing between producing countries and foreign companies which allowed the companies to control the “posted price” of crude.

Despite victoriously upending this vestige of the colonial order, Gaddafi bit the hand that fed Libya. In 1970, Libya produced 3.4 million barrels a day of crude. Since 1974, after Libya wrested away strategic control of its oil industry from the Western companies, production has never topped 2 million barrels a day. In the 1980s, Gaddafi invaded Chad, became a major sponsor of international terrorism and further scared off the foreign investment needed to maintain the competitiveness of Libya’s industry.

From 1992-1999, Libya was literally cut off from the world… the economic damage from the sanctions compelled Gaddafi to… turn over Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

Lockerbie as political football

In the wake of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – both of whom had long standing personal grievances with Gaddafi – decided to isolate Libya from the international system. They and their successors used Lockerbie as a pretext to pass crippling UN sanctions. From 1992-1999, Libya was literally cut off from the world. International flights into and out of the country were forbidden, GNP dropped by over a third, oil infrastructure rusted and many Libyans grew up nursed by Gaddafi’s anti-Imperialist rhetoric.

The economic damage from the sanctions compelled Gaddafi to back away from his support for international terror and to turn over Abdel Basset al-Megrahi (and his co-suspect Lamin Fhima, who was later acquitted) to face a Scottish tribunal at Camp Zeist in Holland. Conclusive evidence has never existed that Megrahi was actually involved in Lockerbie. To this day, many experts believe that he was indicted on fraudulent evidence from a Maltese shopkeeper and that the CIA bribed witnesses.

Negotiation and reconciliation

In 2003, Libya agreed to formally accept responsibility for the bombing, pay over two billion dollars in compensation to victim’s families and voluntarily surrender its WMD program. This initiated a limited detente with the West. Yet, the relationship remained plagued by mutual suspicion and backsliding was common.

Gaddafi hoped to receive a warmer embrace from Western leaders and a greater flood of investment. Western diplomats hoped for significant internal political change as a precursor for warmer relations. In August 2009, Megrahi was released on humanitarian grounds from Scottish prison due to a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer. He was accompanied back to Tripoli by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al Islam. Cynics claim that the Scots released him to help BP secure a favourable contract.

American anger over the Scottish decision further poisoned US-Libyan relations and facilitated erratic behaviour like Gaddafi’s declaration of jihad against Switzerland in 2010. Libyan diplomats felt Western countries had no right to chastise them any longer over Lockerbie or feting Megrahi because they had already paid two billion in blood money. Furthermore, they claimed it was not the Libyans fault that the Scots had decided to release him.

Time to bury the hatchet

As long as Megrahi lived, he symbolised a century of mistrust. With his passing, a new era of cooperation may blossom. In Libya today, French, American and British flags abound. Young people dream of mastering a foreign language. Many members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) have been educated abroad and are eager for more Western capacity building assistance. Libya has officially requested that the UN monitor and provide experts for its elections scheduled for June 19. Yet, despite all of these positive developments, minor diplomatic blips have shown how surprisingly easy it is for the relationship to slide into old patterns of mistrust and recrimination.

Western governments and companies must respect that there is a uniquely Libyan way of doing things and imposing Western norms of conduct – even those meant to be in Libya’s best interest – will simply not work. Libyans must stop seeing conspiracies behind every move in international diplomacy. Western politicians should bite their tongue and not engage in any grandstanding about Megrahi’s passing.

In fact, they should no longer refer to Lockerbie when dealing with the new Libyan leadership. Furthermore, the sensationalist Western media should stop fueling the fire in an attempt to make the Megrahi controversy fresh again. Lockerbie is a decades-old sore. The time has come to stop picking the wound and let it heal.

Jason Pack is a researcher of Libyan History at Cambridge University and president of