For a while, it seemed times had truly changed. There was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, ex-arms supplier of the IRA and the planet's former nuisance-in-chief, in a red armchair under a tree outside his patterned tent on the palm-dotted grounds of what was once an Egyptian royal palace in Cairo.
His guest at the Bedouin tent was Ireland's premier, Bertie Ahern. The subject of their 20-minute discussion, behind 15ft walls and armed guards at the Qasr al-Salaam (Palace of Peace) could almost have come from the agenda of an Anglo-Irish bilateral meeting - live cattle sales to Libya after the BSE scare, and the progress of the Northern Ireland peace process.
The veteran Libyan showman was, say sources, cordial and "surprisingly knowledgeable", especially about the latter. A few days earlier, the colonel and his entourage had swept into Cairo, travelling by armour-plated motorcade across the north African desert from Tripoli.
After a seven-year absence from the world stage, the Libyan caravan arrived in Cairo to wary but real optimism from the West. The two-day EU-Africa summit, the spin-doctors said, was a chance for Libya to show a new face to the world, to prove it was ready to push ahead with warmer relations after the lifting of sanctions last year. And for a while, all was going well. But then the colonel got up and spoke.
Within seconds, the Guide of the Glorious Revolution and self-appointed champion of all Africa was back to his old maverick form. His presence in the summit conference hall on Monday night was - say European sources - announced by the loud click of his steel-heeled leather boots on the wooden floor as he marched in, gown billowing, while Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was in full flow with his opening speech.
The host President had reportedly begged him not to rock the boat during Egypt's international jamboree, the first EU-Africa summit. The colonel ignored him and launched into a speech declaring that Europeans - who profess concern about hunger in Africa - were using eggs, honey and cocoa in shampoo products instead of eating them.
The 62-year-old strongman was not embarrassed by the suspiciously youthful monotonic hue of his own black locks. "Capitalists have changed eggs and honey into shampoo," he said. "You use cocoa fat as cream for your hair. This is misuse of God's blessings."
Europe, he said, had a long record of looking at Africans as if they were apes, of looting African resources and of imposing their culture on others.
"Africa is not a ping-pong ball to be hit once by Europe, once by the US." Hitting the stride befitting the author of the revolutionary three-volume Green Book, he blamed capitalism for the evils of Third World pollution. "We do not need democracy, we need water pumps."
To ill-stifled sniggers from the delegates, he recalled a visit he made to Piccadilly Circus 34 years ago in which he offered to help two lost-looking girls. Unable to comprehend the dashing future Libyan ruler, the girls threatened to call the police, an example, the colonel felt, of the sort of rudeness that would be impossible in Africa.
Unconcerned by, or perhaps oblivious to diplomatic protocol, he singled out by name Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Portugal's Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, who had addressed the conference before him. It was, said the Libyan leader, "hard to believe people with such a colonial past can say they are genuinely concerned about Africa today".
The EU has been calling for an end to conflicts in Africa, but Colonel Gaddafi had armed himself with a statistic he clearly felt would provide a crushing retort to the gusts of patronising and vacuous Euro-guff. "Every day they kill six bulls in Spain," he said mysteriously.
But no one in the West wants to see a return to the Eighties, when Tripoli was Public Enemy Number One, chief suspect in the attacks on Vienna and Rome airports, and the hand behind the killers of PC Yvonne Fletcher, shot in London outside the "Libyan People's Bureau" in 1984.
At least five European leaders queued to see the colonel during the two-day summit.
After a 15-year freeze, Britain resumed diplomatic ties with Libya last July after Tripoli's decision to co-operate with the handover of two Lockerbie bombing suspects and to pay £250,000 to compensate PC Fletcher's family. The Lockerbie trial agreement led to the part-suspension of UN sanctions. Senior British officials may soon visit Tripoli before the start of the Lockerbie trial in The Hague next month. * EU countries yesterday agreed in principle to take steps to ensure that money stolen by African leaders and deposited in European banks is returned to the countries from which it was taken.Reuse content