Former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has opened up about a meeting he had with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, a few days before the Arab Spring spread to the North African country.
Interviewed on L-Erbgħa Fost il-Ġimgħa last night, Gonzi recounted how he and then Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg had visited Libya at the start of 2011.
At the time, the Arab Spring had already toppled Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, and international focus was about to turn to Libya.
“In the middle of the night, Gaddafi met up with us in a tent somewhere in the desert and told me to tell my European friends that Ben Ali should be reinstated as Tunisian president,” Gonzi recounted.
“My response was that we’re a democratic country, we respect democratic decisions and that this was a decision of the people of Tunisia. I told him I’d get his message across but that this was my position.”
Around a week after Gonzi’s visit, the infamous Day of Rage broke out in Libya, kickstarting a civil war that would eventually lead to Gaddafi’s capture and execution.
Malta was immediately served with a diplomatic headache when two Libyan pilots defected to the island after refusing to bomb civilians in Benghazi on behalf of Gaddafi.
Gonzi recounted how he immediately decided to give the pilots political asylum because “it was the morally correct thing to do”, and how he decided not to return their fighter jets to Libya the next day.
“I felt that the people of Malta couldn’t be complicit with this brutality,” he said.
The day the pilots landed, Gonzi was also informed that a private Tunisian plane was requesting an emergency landing in Malta. Acting upon the advice of an unnamed advisor, Gonzi asked the plane for its passenger list and showed the list of names to the two Libyan pilots.
He said the pilots “froze” when they read the names, warning Gonzi that they were Libyan officials who had come for their planes. The Maltese government therefore turned the Tunisian plane away.
Despite concern that Libya could retaliate by keeping an Air Malta plane hostage, Gonzi said he reasoned that it didn’t pay Libya to make an enemy out of Malta.
“My reasoning was that Malta is strategically well-placed and has a voice in Europe, and that the Libyans weren’t stupid enough not to realise that it doesn’t pay them to keep Malta completely hostile.”
During the interview last night, Gonzi harked back to his first-ever meeting with Gaddafi as Prime Minister way back in 2004, when Malta had just become an EU member state.
“We met under a tent and the first thing he told me was that we made a big mistake in joining the EU and that we should have joined the African Union instead… he told me that we don’t belong in Europe.”
“I told him that we’re a democratic country and that we respect the people’s decisions whether we agree with them or not.”
“His comment surprised me though, because a few years earlier, [former President] Guido de Marco had visited Gaddafi and told him that Malta intends to become an EU member state. Gaddafi had encouraged it back then.”