Page last updated at 08:54 GMT, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

How Libya's UN diplomats split in two over Gaddafi

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, United Nations

Anti-Gaddafi demonstrators in Derna, Libya (23 February 2011)
Reports suggest thousands have been killed or injured in the Libyan protests

This was the week that the upheaval in the Arab world finally reached the United Nations - and Libyan diplomats took up position on opposite sides of the barricades.

The Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings had done nothing to disturb the placid calm here. On all things revolutionary the Security Council maintained a discreet, diplomatic and deafening silence.

So the apparent defection of the Libyan UN mission had all the force of an earthquake.

It started with rumours that the ambassador was going to resign in protest at the violence his government was inflicting on civilian demonstrators.

I got to the Libyan embassy just in time to see the envoy march into the foyer and take up a position next to a portrait of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi riding a white stallion.

MID-EAST UNREST

To the amazement of the UN press corps, he denounced the Libyan leader for waging what he said was genocide. He appealed to the UN to protect civilians in his country, in part by enforcing an Iraq-like no-fly zone.

"We don't represent the regime, but the people!" he cried. "Gaddafi should go!"

This was deeply personal stuff.

"We're aware that this will put our families back home in danger, but they're in danger anyway," said one of the Libyan diplomats who had come out with his boss.

It was also, of course, deeply political. The UN mission was joining a wave of defecting diplomats jumping from what looked like a regime on its way out.

Libya's deputy permanent representative to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi
Breaking silence - Ibrahim Dabbashi has called for Colonel Gaddafi to go

The only snag was that the man leading the revolt was not actually Libya's UN ambassador, Abdurrahman Shalgham. It was his deputy, Ibrahim Dabbashi.

"Where is the ambassador?" we asked.

"I don't know, but I don't think anyone can stay silent about what's happening in Libya," answered Mr Dabbashi. He added that he was requesting an emergency session of the Security Council.

That was good enough for certain Western council members, uncomfortable about staying silent in the face of the monumental events shaking the Middle East.

Russia and China were reluctant followers. Their line is that Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are internal Arab affairs that do not concern the UN.

But they could hardly be seen to refuse a request by the Libyan mission. So Mr Dabbashi marched into the chamber to make his case.

Confusing to surreal

It was then that the actual ambassador, Mr Shalgham, showed up.

He was not noticed at first in the crush of media outside the council. A short stocky balding man, looking shaken but determined. But word quickly seeped through the crowd.

"That's him."

"Who?"

"The ambassador."

Libya's UN ambassador, Abdurrahman Shalgham speaking to the media

I am not one of those who will kiss Gaddafi's head and feet during the day only to denounce him at night
Ambassador Abdurrahman Shalgham

Then he spoke, and what had been confusing started to become surreal.

"I'm with Gaddafi," he said. "We're old school friends."

But while he strongly opposed the bloodshed in Libya, he was not with his deputy's decision to refer the matter to the Security Council.

Moreover, he seemed convinced that following his appeals to senior government officials, the violence would soon stop.

"In 24 hours," he said. "Colonel Gaddafi will make a clear and brave decision."

Western diplomats seemed as bemused as we were. "We thought Mr Dabbashi was in charge," they shrugged.

But flush with the triumph of getting the UN to address at least one of the revolts in the Middle East, they said it did not matter which Libyan ambassador called the meeting.

The two did not appear hostile to each other. Mr Shalgham said he understood the emotions behind Mr Dabbashi's position, but for him loyalty was the greater duty.

"It is not our custom to leave Gaddafi alone now," he said. "I am not one of those who will kiss Gaddafi's head and feet during the day only to denounce him at night."

He then delivered a rambling speech to the council, on the one hand admitting mistakes and calling for reform, on the other warning about the danger of extremists and Islamists in Libya.

It was difficult to pin down where he stood. But he was tearful when he discussed the news from home with other ambassadors.

After speaking, Mr Shalgham left alone, his face ashen.

By then Colonel Gaddafi had delivered his belligerent speech signalling an escalation in violence, not the calm and dialogue for which the ambassador had been hoping.

In the end it was the deputy who had the final say, speaking from the official press stakeout.

Unrepentant and fired up, he warned that Colonel Gaddafi's speech was a code for his forces to commit genocide. "I hope I am wrong," he said. I am sure he did.

But I was less sure whether the ambassadors were engaged in a kind of political theatre playing to different galleries at home and abroad, or whether the upheaval in Libya's UN mission was simply a reflection of the power struggles and uncertainties in the troubled country it represents.

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