How can you adequately describe someone like Muammar Gaddafi? During a period that has spanned six decades, the Libyan leader has paraded on the world stage with a style so unique and unpredictable that the words “maverick” or “eccentric” scarcely do him justice.
His rule has seen him go from revolutionary hero to international pariah, to valued strategic partner and back to pariah again. He has developed his own political philosophy, writing a book that is – in the eyes of its author, at least – so influential that it eclipses anything dreamt up by Plato, Locke or Marx.
He has made countless show-stopping appearances at Arab and international gatherings, standing out not just with his outlandish clothing, but also his blunt speeches and unconventional behaviour.
One Arab commentator recently called him the “Picasso of Middle East politics”, although instead of Blue, Rose or Cubist periods, he has had his pan-Arab period, his Islamist period, his pan-African period, and so on.
Early promise. In the heady days of 1969 – when he seized power in a bloodless military coup – and the early 1970s, Muammar Gaddafi was a handsome and charismatic young army officer.
An eager disciple of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt (he even adopted the same military rank, promoting himself from captain to colonel after the coup), Gaddafi first set about tackling the unfair economic legacy of foreign domination. For Nasser, it was the Suez Canal. For Gaddafi, it was oil.
Significant reserves had been discovered in Libya in the late 1950s, but the extraction was controlled by foreign petroleum companies, which set prices to the advantage of their own domestic consumers and benefited from a half share in the revenue. Col Gaddafi demanded renegotiation of the contracts, threatening to shut off production if the oil companies refused.
He memorably challenged foreign oil executives by telling them “people who have lived without oil for 5,000 years can live without it again for a few years in order to attain their legitimate rights”.
The gambit succeeded and Libya became the first developing country to secure a majority share of the revenues from its own oil production. Other nations soon followed this precedent and the 1970s Arab petro-boom began.
Libya was in a prime position to reap the benefits. With production levels matching the Gulf states, and one of the smallest populations in Africa (less than 3m at the time), the black gold made it rich quickly.
Rather than persevering with the doctrines of Arab Nationalism, or following the glittering excesses of Gulf consumerism, Col Gaddafi’s innately mercurial character led him and Libya on a new path.
Born to nomadic Bedouin parents in 1942, Muammar Gaddafi was certainly an intelligent, resourceful man, but he did not receive a thorough education, apart from learning to read the Koran and his military training.
Nevertheless, in the early 1970s he set out to prove himself a leading political philosopher, developing something called the third universal theory, outlined in his famous Green Book.
The theory claims to solve the contradictions inherent in capitalism and communism (the first and second theories), in order to put the world on a path of political, economic and social revolution and set oppressed peoples free everywhere.
In fact, it is little more than a series of fatuous diatribes, and it is bitterly ironic that a text whose professed objective is to break the shackles imposed by the vested interests dominating political systems has been used instead to subjugate an entire population.
The result of Col Gaddafi’s theory, underlined with absolute intolerance of dissent or alternative voices, has been the hollowing out of Libyan society, with all vestiges of constitutionality, civil society and authentic political participation eradicated.
The solution to society’s woes, the book maintains, is not electoral representation – described by Gaddafi as “dictatorship” by the biggest party – or any other existing political system, but the establishment of people’s committees to run all aspects of existence.
This new system is presented diagrammatically in the Green Book as an elegant wagon wheel, with basic popular congresses around the rim electing people’s committees that send influence along the spokes to a responsive and truly democratic people’s general secretariat at the centre.
The model that was created in reality was an ultra-hierarchical pyramid – with the Gaddafi family and close allies at the top wielding power unchecked, protected by a brutal security apparatus. In the parallel world of the Green Book, the system is called a Jamahiriyya – a neologism that plays on the Arabic word for a republic, Jumhuriyya, implying “rule by the masses”.
So the long-suffering Libyan masses were dragooned into attending popular congresses vested with no power, authority or budgets, with the knowledge that anyone who spoke out of turn and criticised the regime could be carted off to prison. For a system that was designed to end oppression and dictatorship, a set of very draconian laws was enacted in the name of upholding security.
They include laws allowing collective punishment, death for anyone who spreads theories aiming to change the constitution and life imprisonment for disseminating information that tarnishes the country’s reputation. Tales abounded of torture, lengthy jail terms without a fair trial, executions and disappearances.
Many of Libya’s most educated and qualified citizens chose exile, rather than pay lip service to the lunacy.
Adventures abroad. Unchecked by any of the normal restraints of governance, Col Gaddafi was able to take his anti-imperialist campaign around the world, funding and supporting militant groups and resistance movements wherever he found them. He also targeted Libyan exiles, dozens of whom were killed by assassins believed to belong to a global Libyan intelligence network. If more conventional governments were prepared to shrug off his human rights violations at home and persecution of dissidents abroad, supporting groups that used terrorism on their own patches was a different matter. A bombing of a nightclub used by US soldiers in Berlin in 1986, blamed on Libyan agents, proved a decisive moment.
US President Ronald Reagan ordered air strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for the two soldiers and one civilian killed and the dozens of wounded, although there was no conclusive proof beyond intelligence “chatter” that Libya had ordered the attack.
The US retaliation was intended to kill the “mad dog of the Middle East”, as Mr Reagan branded him, but although there was extensive damage and an unknown number of Libyan fatalities – including, it was claimed, Gaddafi’s adopted daughter – the colonel emerged unscathed.
His reputation may even have been enhanced among opponents of Washington’s heavy-handed foreign policy.
The bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 was the next significant escalation, causing the deaths of 270 people in the air and on the ground, the worst single act of terrorism ever witnessed in the UK.
Gaddafi’s initial refusal to hand over the two Libyan suspects to Scottish jurisdiction resulted in a protracted period of negotiations and UN sanctions, finally ending in 1999 with their surrender and trial. One of the men, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, was jailed for life, but the other was found not guilty.
A new detente?
The resolution of the Lockerbie case, along with Col Gaddafi’s subsequent admission and renunciation of a covert nuclear and chemical weapons programme, paved the way for a significant warming of relations between Tripoli and western powers in the 21st century.
The domestication of the erstwhile “mad dog” was held up as one of the few positive results of US President George W Bush’s generally disastrous military intervention in the Arab world, his invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The argument went that Col Gaddafi had watched the fate of fellow miscreant Saddam Hussein, hanged by Iraqis after a US-instigated legal process, and had learnt a sobering lesson. It is perhaps more plausible to argue that the Libyan leader played his WMD card when he saw the benefits of forging strategic partnerships with the US and European powers.
He certainly paid little heed to Mr Bush’s so-called “freedom agenda”, which held that the US no longer held common cause with dictators and despots and that democracy and human rights were just around the corner. It was after all more or less business as usual between Washington and the other authoritarian Arab rulers whom the US called friends and allies.
With international sanctions lifted, Tripoli was back on the international political itinerary, allowing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among other luminaries, to drop in at Col Gaddafi’s famously luxurious Bedouin tent erected in his palace grounds.
In true nomadic style, the tent also went with the colonel on trips to Europe and the US, although in New York state it fell foul of stringent zoning regulations on the estate of tycoon Donald Trump and had to be hastily dismantled again. Distaste about the alleged architect of Lockerbie’s readmission into the world leaders’ club lingered in many circles, not least among the US victims’ families and their supporters.
But that did not stop business deals being struck with a succession of western defence manufacturers and oil firms. Ironically, it was on the Arab front that Col Gaddafi kept his black sheep status alive.
Throughout the 2000s, the normally staid proceedings of annual summits of the Arab League were almost guaranteed to be disrupted by the Libyan leader’s antics, whether it was lighting up a cigarette and blowing smoke into the face of his neighbour, or tossing insults at Gulf rulers and the Palestinians, or declaring himself “king of kings of Africa”.
The UN has also witnessed the colonel’s eccentricity. At the 2010 General Assembly, he gave a rambling speech more than an hour-and-a-quarter longer than his allocated 10-minute time slot, tearing out and screwing up pages from the UN Charter as he spoke.
When the winds of revolt started to blow through the Arab world from Tunisia in December 2010, Libya was not at the top most people’s list of “who’s next”. Colonel Gaddafi fitted the bill as an authoritarian ruler who had endured for more years than the vast majority of his citizens could remember. But he was not so widely perceived as a western lackey as some Arab leaders accused of putting outside interests before those of his people. He had redistributed wealth – although the enrichment of his own family from oil revenues and other deals was hard to ignore and redistribution was undertaken more in the spirit of buying loyalty than promoting equality.
He sponsored grand public works, such as the improbable Great Man-Made River project, a massive endeavour inspired, perhaps, by ancient Bedouin water procurement techniques, that brought sweet, fresh water from aquifers in the south to the arid north of his country. There was even something of a Tripoli Spring, with long-term exiles given to understand that they could return without facing persecution or jail. When the first calls for a Libyan “day of range” were circulated, Col Gaddafi pledged – apparently in all seriousness – to protest with the people, in keeping with his myth of being the “brother leader of the revolution” who had long ago relinquished power to the people.
As it turned out, the scent of freedom and the draw of possibly toppling the colonel, just as Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali had been toppled, was too strong to resist among parts of the Libyan population, especially in the east. Some of the first footage of rebellion to come out of Benghazi showed incensed young Libyans smashing up a green monolith outside an official building representing the spurious liberation doctrine that had kept them enslaved since the 1970s, the Green Book. It was probably inevitable that Col Gaddafi would fight back with everything in his armoury in order to hold on to power. There is nothing in his past to suggest he would do otherwise. But his days of flamboyant appearances in New York, the capitals of Europe and the Arab world, are now behind him. So too the spell which he once cast over Libyans with his fraudulent “universal theory – BBC