Injured pride could explain Libyan actions

Moammar Gaddafi is known to be unpredicatable Reuters

Middle East expert Reinhard Schulze says Libya's actions towards Switzerland are a measure of the Gaddafi family's importance and of national pride.

This content was published on July 25, 2008

The professor of Islamic studies at Bern University believes the political crisis between Switzerland and Libya – triggered by the arrest in Geneva on July 15 of a son of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi - is likely to continue for some weeks.

The Swiss foreign ministry has expressed concern about the detention of two Swiss nationals in Libya. Tripoli also ordered the closure of Swiss companies in Libya and ceased issuing travel visas for Swiss citizens.

There are about 40 Swiss expatriates – most of them have dual nationality - in Libya.

Tripoli wants an official apology for the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife. They were charged by a Geneva magistrate with inflicting physical injuries against two of their staff.

swissinfo: How serious is this situation?

Reinhard Schulze: The situation is serious because it is a crisis in bilateral relations. The possibilities to find a solution are very limited. I think the crisis will keep on for quite some weeks.

swissinfo: How can this very strong reaction from Libya to Hannibal Gaddafi's arrest be explained?

R.S.: The Libyan government starts from the assumption that the members of the Gaddafi family enjoy immunity in principle. Metaphorically speaking the family is portrayed as sort of representative of the Libyan nation.

Actions such as the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi in Geneva, be it only for two days, may be seen or interpreted as an attack on the legitimacy of the ruling family and consequently as an insult on the honour of the whole Libyan people.

swissinfo: What about the situation for Swiss companies and people within Libya - we already have two arrests of Swiss citizens - is it going to be difficult?

R.S.: The situation is very difficult because the Libyan government tries to speak in the language of the western world. They claim there is an independence of the criminal prosecution system from any executive power.

The two Swiss citizens who were arrested in Libya will be accused of having violated Libyan immigration laws and this allows the government to say, 'sorry we cannot do anything for you as the criminal prosecution is not under government control'.

It is not unlike the situation in Switzerland where the government also says there is no political possibility to influence the criminal proceedings launched by the authorities in Geneva.

swissinfo: How far is Libya likely to go with its actions?

R.S.: This is very difficult to say. It's typical of the Libyan government to try to stage the conflict by using internal institutions. For example it is the port authority or the General National Maritime Transportation Company that issued the threats, warnings and boycotts of the oil exports.

It's not the government and it's not the national oil corporation that oversees Libyan oil production. The Libyan government tries to keep out of it and to stage the problem within Libyan society.

swissinfo: The Swiss sent over a diplomatic delegation. How effective can such missions be?

R.S.: I think they can be effective if the Swiss delegation tries to use the morals that are now expressed by the Libyan government. And if they say it is not an attack on Colonel Gaddafi personally.

It is difficult, but they have to show that the Geneva justice authorities work independently from the federal government.

swissinfo: What are the lessons that can be learned from the crisis?

R.S.: Libya is a country that has tried in the last months and years to reconstitute something like trust. They wanted to have international acceptance for their policy. But it is becoming obvious that trust is one thing and that Libya is another thing.

For Libya the situation may become much more difficult than for Switzerland because economic relations with Libya depend on the amount of trust that can be invested in the relationship.

Damage will be caused to the trust in Libya - in the country, the system and the political and economic freedom that would allow good commercial relations.

swissinfo-interview: Isobel Leybold-Johnson

In brief

Libya is an important economic partner of Switzerland and its main supplier of crude oil.

Political contacts between the two countries also returned to normal after the UN-imposed sanctions were lifted in 2003.

Libya is one of Switzerland's five key export markets on the African continent.

In 1997 Tripoli banned Swiss citizens from entering Libya to protest against Switzerland's refusal to grant a student visa to a son of Colonel Gaddafi. In return the Swiss authorities tightened entry regulations for Libyan citizens. The conflict was solved in April 1998.

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"Hannibal" Gaddafi and his pregnant wife Aline were charged by a Geneva magistrate with inflicting physical injuries and using threats and force against two of their staff. They are on bail and have left the country.

In response, Libya has since recalled some of its diplomats from Switzerland, reduced the number of flights there and stopped issuing visas to Swiss citizens.

On Thursday the head of Libya's state-run General National Maritime Transportation Company said that all the country's oil shipments to Switzerland had been stopped. No confirmation of this has yet been received by Swiss officials.

Two Swiss nationals have been detained in Libya on immigration offences. The Swiss foreign ministry has expressed concern at the "alarming conditions" in which they are being held.

On Saturday Swiss President Pascal Couchepin told Blick newspaper he was ready to meet Gaddafi in order to resolve the crisis, adding that the goal was to find solutions and not to apportion blame.

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Libya and its leader

The son of an itinerant Bedouin farmer, Moammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969, following a bloodless coup in 1969 against King Idris I.

He is now the Arab world's longest-serving leader and retains a firm grip on Libya.

Once regarded as a pariah by the West, the maverick Gaddafi started to come back into the international arena after Libya settled the Lockerbie bombing claims and agreed to stop developing weapons of mass destruction.

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