Hero’s welcome in Libya? Eh, not so much


Remember the "hero’s welcome" that greeted the return of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi to his homeland?

Well, not everyone thinks it was so heroic. In The New York Times over the weekend, Saif Al-Islam El-Qaddafi, the chairman of the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (which, according to its Web site, is pretty much as its name to suggests), says the Western press portrayed the homecoming inaccurately.

There was not in fact any official reception for the return of Mr. Megrahi, who had been convicted and imprisoned in Scotland for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The strong reactions to these misperceptions must not be allowed to impair the improvements in a mutually beneficial relationship between Libya and the West.

When I arrived at the airport with Mr. Megrahi, there was not a single government official present. State and foreign news media were also barred from the event. If you were watching Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network, at the time the plane landed, you would have heard its correspondent complain that he was not allowed by Libyan authorities to go to the airport to cover Mr. Megrahi’s arrival.

It is true that there were a few hundred people present. But most of them were members of Mr. Megrahi’s large tribe, extended families being an important element in Libyan society. They had no official invitation, but it was hardly possible to prevent them from coming.

Coincidentally, the day Mr. Megrahi landed was also the very day of the annual Libyan Youth Day, and many participants came to the airport after seeing coverage of Mr. Megrahi’s release on British television. But this was not planned. Indeed, we sat in the plane on the tarmac until the police brought the crowd to order.

It’s worth noting that El-Qaddafi has long campaigned for al-Megrahi’s release and maintains that he was falsely accused. So he may well think he deserved a hero’s welcome after all.

Either way, the best example of Libyan heroics this week might be the efforts to find a place for its revered leader to lay his head while visiting the U.N. next month. What does an African head of state need to do to find a place to pitch a tent in this town?

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