There are, obviously, more deserving recipients of one’s sympathy than the factotums of deranged dictators. Even so, as the situation in Libya has escalated from protest to insurrection to civil war to international conflict, it has been difficult to completely repress flickers of compassion for Ibrahim Musa, who has suddenly become a global star in his role as primary spokesman for Libya’s beleaguered leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Spin doctoring is a dark art in which, almost by definition, your successes languish unheralded and your failures prompt widespread contumely. Even by those forbidding measures, however, Musa’s task is a thankless one. There may be people who believe that his boss isn’t a ridiculous, murderous crank whose demise – political and/or mortal – would benefit his long-suffering countryfolk immeasurably, but it is safe to estimate them in a minority. As Musa fills the screens of the BBC, Sky, CNN, Al Jazeera and others, insisting – among other patently risible propositions – that Gaddafi’s forces are not targeting civilians, that the revolt is at any rate due to the distribution of hallucinogens by Al Qaida, he metastasises from anonymous press flack to a multimillionfold equivalent of a door-knocking evangelist: someone who barges into your home and urges you to believe the incredible.
Musa is 36 years old, and a member of the Qadhadhifa – Gaddafi’s tribal power base. His excellent English is at least partly a result of his time living in the UK, where he studied at Exeter University and Royal Holloway College in London, completing a PhD in media studies at the latter (before assuming his current position, he had established a media studies centre in Tripoli). He clearly cares about his appearance, sporting a raffish bottom-lip beardette and flaunting sharp suits and loudish casual shirts, invariably worn without a tie. His thinning scalp must be a source of considerable personal distress.
Leaving aside the moral difficulties with what Musa is doing – performing as the mouthpiece of an unreconstructible tyrant, and everything – he’s acquitting himself pretty well. When assuming his master’s bellicose, orotund voice, or showing foreign journalists around Libya’s more recent historical ruins, Musa keeps a necessarily straight face, just occasionally betraying a twinkling hint – a smirk, a sigh, a twitching eyebrow – of wry self-realisation. He realises, you sense, that he’s the sock puppet of a maniac. It’s also reasonable to suppose that Musa has learnt from a recent western intervention in an Arab dictatorship. In 2003, Iraq’s Minister of Information, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, became a global laughing stock, derided as “Comical Ali”, for his somewhat optimistic assessments of the war’s progress. Musa represents a younger generation of spokesman, who understands the unforgiving, instant and planet-spanning nature of the modern media. If Musa survives the coming weeks, and purchases a convincing hairpiece, he’ll be well placed to contract himself out to wobbling despots across the region.