In a totalitarian regime, you never know the mistakes that are made. But in a democracy, if anybody does something wrong, against the will of the people, it will float to the surface. The whole people are looking.
—Hosni Mubarak in an interview from Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World by Milton Viorst (Knopf, 1994)
Late last March Muammar Qaddafi, whose official title is Brother Leader of the Great Libyan Arab People’s Jamahiriya, hosted a summit meeting of Arab heads of state. Leaders of the twenty-two Arab League member countries had gathered dozens of times since the first such meeting in 1964, but never before in Libya. Given Qaddafi’s penchant for rambling incoherence and his regime’s reputation for shambolic management, delegates rather dreaded the event, particularly since it was to be held not in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but in Qaddafi’s bleak little hometown of Sirte, three hundred kilometers away.
Yet the summit passed without a hitch. Qaddafi kept his speech tactfully short. The food, provided by a Turkish caterer, was ample and edible. As for the summit’s outcome, it was much as always. The final declaration blasted Israel, swore to liberate Jerusalem, and spoke of the urgency of Arab unity. Slightly more in the spirit of the age, it alluded to enhancing youth participation in society and called for adopting an initiative by the Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to declare 2010 the Year of Youth. The leaders also stressed the need to
establish the culture of openness and the acceptance of the other, and to support the principles of fraternity, tolerance, and respect of human values that emphasize human rights, respect human dignity, and protect human freedom.
In short, the usual fluff.
One thing that did prove jarring was the music. At every pause in the speech-making throughout the two-day event, a single strident martial tune blared ceaselessly at full volume from every loudspeaker throughout the gleaming marble-and-glass conference center, the rousing violin chords of the finale fading directly into its opening trumpet blasts in an endless, maddening loop. This was “Burkan al-Ghadab,” an anthem from the hopeful 1960s heyday of Pan-Arabism, sung lustily by the greatest Egyptian heartthrob of the time, Abdel Halim Hafez:
O volcano of rage
uniter of Arabs
Boil upon the plains
Foam upon the sands
Engulf them from the hills and the cannons and the trenches
There was no escape from the noise. “If this goes on a second longer I will boil up with rage,” muttered a member of the Mauritanian delegation, clutching his ears. “We should storm the control room,” suggested an Egyptian journalist.
Nine months later Faida…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.