Libya: The Losers

Marco Salustro/Corbis
Supporters of Muammar Qaddafi protesting in Tripoli, Libya, March 2, 2011

The truly strange thing in your lives is that you not only fail, but fail to learn your lesson…. No matter how much your beliefs betray you, this is never accepted by you. You are distinguished by your inability to recognize the truth, no matter how irrefutable.

—Muammar Qaddafi, Escape to Hell, and Other Stories*

Compared to the office of his intelligence counterpart in Cairo, a luxury suite featuring plasma screens, crystal vases, and a jacuzzi, Tuhami Khaled’s was modest. For protection from aerial bombing, the head of Colonel Qaddafi’s internal security service did his business on the ground floor of its headquarters, an ungainly, antenna-studded tower on busy Sikka Street in central Tripoli. But like the chief of Egypt’s Mukhabarat, Khaled enjoyed a separate entrance and an attached bedroom where he was reputed to cavort with women seeking favors from the regime.

The bedroom’s occupants one day recently were two elderly men shuffling about in slippers and house robes, taking their meals seated on the tiled floor. Hadi Mbairish and Muhammad Abdu were being kept in custody here by revolutionary Libya’s new rulers. The captives were both generals, comrades of Qaddafi since before the 1969 coup that brought him to power. As members of a six-man operations control room for state security, they ranked among the top commanders of the fallen regime, responsible for seeing the Brother Leader’s orders executed on the ground.

Frail and ashen in complexion, General Mbairish chaired the group. During Libya’s revolution he is known to have issued handwritten instructions to “burn the vermin,” meaning the rebels. General Abdu, his ebony face chinless and spectrally gaunt like an African mask, headed Qaddafi’s military police. This was the force formally in charge of Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, notorious for the 1996 massacre by machine gun of some 1,200 inmates, and more recently a holding pen for thousands of Tripoli’s ordinary citizens suspected of rebel sympathies. The massacre was covered up for years; members of the victims’ families traveled monthly to the prison from the far corners of the country in order to deposit gifts they assumed would reach the men inside. The arrest of the Benghazi lawyer who bravely championed these families proved the immediate spark for the revolution.

The generals insist that their captors have treated them kindly, and think they will be vindicated in court. “They will understand that we only followed orders,” says Mbairish hopefully. “This is just a summer cloud.” His colleague mumbles that whenever any prisoner in his charge was sick, it was he who made sure they went to the hospital. The generals give no sign of contrition or even awareness of the magnitude of the crimes for which they certainly bear some responsibility. They tried to resign, they say, but were refused.…

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