The freedom fighter in me | Josie Muscat

Former PN stalwart turned medical entrepreneur Josie Muscat talks about Libya and his investments under the regime he despised.

Libya under Col. Gaddafi was no friendly territory for Josie Muscat, who was once known for his vociferous campaigning against Dom Mintoff’s closeness to the Tripoli regime during the 1970s and 80s.

When addressing a meeting in Zabbar in 1971, Josie Muscat – then a young Nationalist stalwart – launched a hostile campaign against Libyan interference in Maltese politics, and blasted Dom Mintoff for promising to bring help from Libya as he wrestled with Britain to either pay higher rents for military facilities or quit the island altogether.

Muscat had warned Mintoff that allowing Gaddafi to grant Malta some US$3 million to top-up government’s diminishing social security fund, was “golden-bait” for him to secure a grip on the island’s strategic position.

“The Libyans would want something in return. Libya is rich in oil and does not need money. Libya is only in need of soldiers to win the war against Israel. Is that Mintoff’s solution for the unemployment problem?” he had asked.

Reacting to this hostile campaign, the Libyan embassy held a press conference on the eve of the 1971 election, declaring that Libya was not under Russian influence, as alleged by the PN. The PN reacted by a statement “regretting the interference.”

The political circumstances of the time led Muscat towards a self-styled leadership of the so-called Front Freedom Fighters, a sort of extra parliamentary grouping of Nationalist militants, that formed an active resistance against the Labour government of the day.

But Muscat, who from an MP moved on to focus on his medical profession and then as a health entrepreneur, sought Libya for the opportunity it offered and established a medical clinic in Tripoli six years ago.

So what happened to that fearless campaigner who invested some €3 million in a private clinic just a corner away from Aisha Gaddafi’s mansion in the heart of Tripoli?

He shrugs off the notion of a contradiction.

“I was out of politics for a long time and the Libyan regime never interfered in my work. I was totally focused on providing a health service and I did through a small business that expanded over the six years I set up the business,” Muscat says, adding that the clinic was not run with any Libyan partners.

“The beginning was tough but we managed to secure the business without any Libyan partners under the so called Clause 5, which is the only sector – health services – that does not require any Libyan partners”.

As he avoided giving me a clear answer as to whether he was ever asked for kick-backs to be able to operate in Libya, Muscat simply replied that  “when in a foreign country, one has to adapt to the realities and customs of the place...”

Muscat’s main interlocutors in Libya were known Gaddafi loyalists, but according to him, politics was never an issue.

“They never questioned my past, they knew I was out of politics for a long time, my visa was regularly issued and I used to be in Libya three times a month”.

What amazes Muscat is the fact that these interlocutors have now either fled Libya or stayed on to flaunt ‘Free Libya’ regalia on their jackets.

He insists that there was never any interference in the clinic’s business and strongly denied a US embassy cable revealed by Wikileaks last December, that said Aisha Gaddafi – daughter of the Libyan leader – is “reported to have financial interests in the private St James Clinic of Tripoli.”

The clinic was described in the cable as “one of the two most trustworthy medical facilities that supplement the unreliable health care available through public facilities.”

Muscat hit back by describing the cable as “rubbish” and called on the US diplomat to get a job elsewhere and “do his homework correctly before writing such nonsense.”

Although Muscat is chairman of the St James operation in Malta and Libya, his children are in fact the administrators and directors of the facilities.

The clinic remained open in Tripoli throughout the revolution, with a full staff compliment of Polish, Czech, Indian and Filipino medical and nursing staff, while Maltese ran the administration.

“We were shut down for four days immediately after the fall of Bab Aziziya and we evacuated all staff for their safety until the dust settled. But we re-opened and continued giving a service,” he said.

But as a revolution unfolded in Libya, Muscat’s concerns were not only focused on the clinic and its operations in Tripoli, but also on his plans for expanding the operations from a clinic to a hospital.

“After six years, our business was booming and we sought to expand and open a hospital. We had months of tough negotiations, and managed to reach a deal and sign it.”

But Muscat added that it was “either by fortune or misfortune that the deal was signed on 17 February, the same day Libya’s uprising began.”

The hospital was never opened, and Muscat still awaits news of what is to happen to his project.

“At the moment we will continue to operate the clinic, but as to the hospital, we need to wait and see what will happen in the country, as the new interim government settles and reviews the situation”.

Throughout the revolution, a handful of Libyan nationals who held valid Schengen visas managed to make it to Malta, while others lobbied to be allowed entry to Malta and seek medical care in Malta at the St James Hospital.

“These patients paid for their stay, but we never knew who they were, so we had to adopt a separation policy as not to mix Gaddafi loyalists with freedom fighters in the same wards”.

Since the fall of Tripoli, Muscat has made a number of trips to Libya to closely follow the return to normality of his clinic.

He talks about his admiration towards the Libyan people who managed to succeed in their uprising and oust Gaddafi and his regime.

“I remember watching the news and closely following the uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt, and one of my Libyan nurses had told me that it would never happen in her country...”

Muscat says that he smiled when he heard that statement, and remembered his days in politics and militancy.

“I was a freedom fighter, and that streak will never die in me,” he says, adding that the times of his resistance were like a flashback to him when he recently visited Misurata that is catering for the injured in the ongoing battle for Sirte.

“I have seen civilians and fighters with horrible injuries and I have met humble doctors who are doing their best under the circumstances to save lives.”

The main hospital in Misurata was completely destroyed by the Gaddafi forces who didn’t hesitate to bomb it and kill the innocent patients inside.

“I have seen huge cannons which loyalist troops used to fire some 30 rockets at a go onto houses and apartment blocks, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, and it was only thanks to NATO airstrikes that cannons of this sort were muzzled”.

Muscat talks to me about Dr Alfaqiet, whom he describes as “the most humble man I have ever met” who runs the Misurata makeshift hospital.

“This man performs miracles, and works in a primary school that was converted into a hospital, with tents outside for triage and classrooms serving as wards”.

He shows me an email he received from Dr Alfaqiet detailing all the important equipment he urgently needs for the hospital.

“I am working to raise the funds for this equipment, but I have already ordered it from the United States. If I don’t raise the money, I will pay for it myself and have it shipped over at once. These machines can save lives, and nothing is more important to me than human life...”

Muscat explains that he engaged in talks with the Maltese government, and agreed to provide 10 beds for Libyan casualties.

“The agreement is that we take patients as soon as they are out of ITU, which only Mater Dei Hospital can provide”.

The hospital beds and medical care Mater Dei and St James Hospital are providing to Libyan casualties comes at a very high financial cost.

“While the Maltese taxpayer is currently footing the bill for the casualties admitted to Mater Dei Hospital, when the patients are referred to St James Hospital, this service is so far humanitarian.

“Nobody has said a word on who will pay, whether it would be the Maltese government, the NTC or what...”

For the time being, Muscat prefers not to go into the cost of his ‘humanitarian’ operation, but launched a balanced attack on both government the Medical Association of Malta and the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses over the recent controversy related to the admission of Libyan casualties to Mater Dei Hospital.

“I believe that government was correct to offer medical help to the Libyans, but why is it that this country always forgets its size and limitations? We have a limited number of beds at ITU, and we cannot forget that...

“As for MAM, I find it utterly disgusting and shameful for a professional union to speak out in a way that the message they sent out was one that triggered a wave of protest for having Libyan casualties in Malta.

“Why do we continue to be so territorial and short-sighted in this country?” Muscat asks, as he continues to lambast the medical association for another recent outburst regarding nurses doing medical work.

“In today’s reality, elsewhere except in Malta, nurses have developed their profession to be considered as nurse practitioners, and are allowed to prescribe certain medicines... but here we threaten the nurses with criminal action if they even try to do medical work. When will we ever grow up and stop being so hard-headed and territorial?” he asks.

But back to the Libyan casualties, Muscat asks why is it that the medical association insists to guard its territory, rather than take note of the disaster in our neighbouring country?

Even though Muscat is sceptical about the once touted idea of having a field hospital in Malta to treat Libyan casualties – as he believes such a hospital should be organised in Libya – he hits out at MAM for resisting the proposal as this would bring foreign doctors to operate in Malta.

“What a poor mentality... I wonder what MAM would do, should – God forbid – calamity strike in Malta, with the country having no choice but to resort to foreign doctors. I mean, who are these people?”

According to Muscat, the effect of the wrong tone and message sent out by MAM over the Libyan casualties has to some extent damaged the way many Libyans are now looking at Malta.

“Last week I had to patiently explain to high officials in Misurata, that we are accepting casualties according to what we can offer, after they told us that we were conveniently choosing patients.”

“I had to explain the ITU limitations at Mater Dei, and our economies of scale until they understood, but many still are not looking at us in a good light...”

Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have taken a lot of casualties, while Germany, Italy and the UK have also taken some, but in comparison to these European countries, we have done more if you take size ratio into consideration.

As he juggled between the interview and overseeing the signing of a new African footballer for his Zabbar football team in a room next door, Muscat returns to his clinic to conclude our interview by saying that Libya’s future is to be decided by the Libyans, and nobody else.

“These people have their culture, their tribes, their religion and realities, and are capable of reconstructing a free nation on their own. I honestly believe that the revolution was not sparked for tribal reasons as some conveniently say, but this was a national liberation.

“I augur that Libya will settle down, with free elections and its future be far different from the mess that ensued in Iraq or in Afghanistan,” he said.