Case Study #7: Citizen Activism and Col. Muammar Gaddafi

In late 2009, the leader of Libya, Col. Muammar Gaddafi (sometimes spelled “Qaddafi”), visited the United States for the purpose of addressing the United Nations (UN) general assembly. His visit to the United States motivated an outburst of citizen activism, from which PR practitioners can learn about many of the principles of citizens acting on behalf of a cause or belief and pressuring the government to aid in their efforts.

Background

First, a brief look at the history of American–Libyan relations, specifically those with Col. Gaddafi, provides important context for this case of citizen activism. In 1979, the United States embassy in Libya was attacked by a mob and set on fire, causing the withdrawal of all U.S. government personnel. Col. Gaddafi directly and publicly claimed responsibility for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in which 270 people died over Scotland, including many Syracuse University students returning home from a study abroad program. Diplomatic relations with Libya were not reopened until 2006. However, much hostility remained over the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and Libya’s other support of terrorist activities.

Col. Gaddafi was known for taking a Bedouin tent with him on foreign visits. A recent occasion in which this tent was problematic was when he requested to erect it on President Sarkozy’s grounds in Paris in 2007, a move that caused consternation and reportedly “flummoxed presidential protocol service” (Sage, 2007).

Gaddafi erected this tent when he traveled to Belgium for official talks in 2004 and again when he visited Rome in 2009, using the tent to receive official guests. However, these European nations do not consider themselves as personally affected by the terrorist actions of Gaddafi in Libya. These European countries have lower problem recognition with Col. Gaddafi than do Americans. The level of involvement that Americans experience is higher than that of Europeans, both from the burning of the U.S. Embassy, severed diplomatic relations, and the Libyan terrorist downing of flight 103. High levels of both problem recognition and involvement, coupled with a feeling that one can personally impact the situation (known as low constraint recognition) all contribute to the rise of an activist public.

To further complicate matters with America, general outrage ensued when Scotland decided to release from prison the terrorist who was responsible for bombing Pan Am flight 103. The convicted terrorist, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was released just weeks before Gaddafi’s UN address to the general assembly. Al-Megrahi received a hero’s welcome upon return to Libya, while the families of many American victims watched the news stories vented their outrage in television interviews, letters to the editor, tweets, and blogs.

Activists are Heard

When Gaddafi and his associates began planning his trip to speak at the United Nations, to take place on September 22, 2009, they also began looking for a place to erect the Libyan tent. The Libyan embassy owns property in suburban New Jersey, where Gaddafi planned to stay and erect a tent. However, after public demonstrations outside the property, the town of Englewood, New Jersey, blocked Gaddafi from erecting the tent. Residents protesting Gaddafi’s potential stay in the Libyan mission spoke frequently to the news media. Syracuse University alumni also appeared on broadcasts voicing their outrage at Gaddafi visiting the very state of that university.

Gaddafi petitioned to assemble the tent in Central Park, but New York City planning and other governmental officials also rejected that request. Finding no home for the tent, the Libyan delegation resorted to subterfuge, impersonation, and using intermediaries to find a temporary place for Col. Gaddafi in the United States.

At this point, Gaddafi’s delegation impersonated Dutch officials and attempted to rent space for Gaddafi’s tent on the roof of a Manhattan townhouse, but that deal fell through. Gaddafi used intermediaries to rent a Bedford, New York, estate owned by Donald Trump. Aerial photos taken from helicopters buzzed on the news media as the Bedouin tent was constructed on the 113 acre estate, known as “Seven Springs.” As Gaddafi wound up his 90-minute address to the UN general assembly, outrage was growing in Bedford. Citizens and media began to congregate at the front gate of the estate, and media helicopters circled. Bedford town attorney Joel Sachs said a stop work order was issued on the tent just after 5 P.M. because it is illegal to build a temporary residence without a permit. News anchors commented on the power of citizen activists. Helicopters provided visuals of the tent being deconstructed that played across media outlets for the rest of the day.

Clearly, Gaddafi underestimated the power of activist publics operating within a representative government to prevent him from engaging in the “normal” activities of a dictator. The day following the stop work order on the tent, after it was taken down, work began again to build the tent. However, Gaddafi did not visit the tent, as is his usual custom, to receive state visitors or other official visits. Perhaps Gaddafi had finally understood the message issued by activist publics and governmental officials at their behest. The battle over where Gaddafi could pitch his tent was easily won by civic activists, demonstrators, and governmental officials who acted on behalf of residents in their districts. Perhaps the case of erecting a tent is a small one, but it demonstrates that a committed group of organized activists can push their way into the media agenda and influence world events, such as the terms by which international diplomacy are conducted.

References

Karacs, I. & Sengupta, K. (2001). Gaddafi has admitted his role in Lockerbie bombing. https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/gaddafi-has-admitted-his-role-lockerbie-bombing

Sage, S. (2007). Consternation as Muammar Gaddafi seeks to pitch his tent on Nicolas Sarkozy’s lawn. Times. https://archive.libya-al-mostakbal.org/LibyaInThePress/November2007/times_adam_sage241107.html

Attributions

This chapter was adapted from Public Relations, published by Andy Schmitz in the 2012 Book Archive, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.