Two images serve as bookends to the four-decades-old rule of Libya’s ruler, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The first is the picture taken a few days after the Sept. 1, 1969, coup that brought him to power: it shows a handsome, pencil-thin revolutionary in military uniform, kneeling in the desert sand to pray. The other was taken two days ago: Colonel Qaddafi in bedouin garb as an uprising sparked by the arrest of a human rights lawyer in Benghazi continued to overtake the country, defiantly and incoherently defending his self-styled revolution, vowing to struggle on until death.
Between those two shots lie 42 years of iron-fisted rule, and thousands of photos that show him slowly turning from a young firebrand to a mastermind of international terrorism; from ambitious new ruler, bent on restoring the grandeur of Arab nationalism after the death of his hero President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to international pariah; from would-be philosopher to clownish figure whose demagoguery was derided by friend and foe alike. And, finally, after years of sanctions by the United States and the international community, a much older but equally combative Colonel Qaddafi was seemingly rehabilitated by the West.
After the 1969 revolution, Western leaders initially believed that the new Libyan regime would follow in the kingdom’s footsteps, with a pro-Western bent to its policies. It quickly became clear, however, that Colonel Qaddafi was no ordinary Arab leader who would live by the conventions of international behavior or decorum.
Once Colonel Qaddafi assumed power, his message was unambiguous: he cast himself and Libya as a bulwark against what he perceived as the predations of the West. The brutality of the Italian colonial period — which had lasted from 1911 through 1943 and led to the deaths of perhaps half of the population of Libya’s eastern province — would become for him an enduring obsession. The Italians had destroyed whatever embryonic bureaucratic and administrative structures had been in place before they invaded, so Libya had few elements of modern statehood. And the monarchy — headed by King Idris I, who showed no love for ruling a unified Libya — had for almost 20 years largely left matters as they were when the Italians left.
What was not clear at the start of the 1969 revolution was how tortuous Colonel Qaddafi’s path would become. Fueled by ample petrodollars, he would descend into an increasingly self-contained and self-reverential world, a closed system fed and reinforced by the sycophancy that always surrounds dictators and that brooks no opposition.
In the early 1970s, by nationalizing the country’s oil companies, Colonel Qaddafi provided himself with a healthy dose of legitimacy at home, but also with increasing suspicion from the West. In the mid-’70s, he demonstrated his growing lack of perspective by publishing his manifesto, the Green Book, a slim collection of incoherent ramblings that he offered as the ideological guide to what he saw as Libya’s never ending “revolution.”
Soon the contents of the Green Book became national slogans. “The house belongs to those who live in it,” said one, forcing landlords who owned multiple dwellings to give up their properties (or to hastily arrange marriages to keep them in the family). Another insisted that “democracy is the abortion of an individual’s rights.” Colonel Qaddafi came to be referred to as the Leader or the Guide, the oracle for an unsteady revolution.
Increasingly, however, Colonel Qaddafi’s philosophical musings and his grand ideas for a new society clashed with what was becoming a visibly darker side of the regime. Libyans found themselves in an Orwellian nightmare where even small utterances of protest could lead to disappearances, prolonged incarceration without any form of legal redress and torture. Entire families were made to suffer from the alleged transgressions of one of its members.
Even exile could not provide escape from the terror. In a campaign to kill what Colonel Qaddafi termed “stray dogs,” he had assassination teams gun down dissidents abroad. When, in 1984, Libyan protestors demonstrated in front of their embassy in London, a police officer, who was trying to keep demonstrators at bay, was killed by a bullet fired from inside the embassy. That led the British government to break off diplomatic relations with the regime.
Colonel Qaddafi’s willingness to flout international conventions and his government’s well-documented involvement in terrorist incidents led inexorably to a sustained confrontation with the West and made the Libyan leader a pariah. President Ronald Reagan famously labeled him “the mad dog of the Middle East,” and the image of an irrational Colonel Qaddafi, hell-bent on destroying Western interests at all costs and by all methods, became the world’s lingering image of him. The bombing of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which killed 270 people, was only the final confirmation of his madness and evil.
After Lockerbie, Libya was plunged into isolation and remained there for more than a decade. Colonel Qaddafi ranted and raved, his speeches becoming even more apocalyptic. He blamed American or Zionist conspiracies — or a fifth column in Libya working at their behest — for every little setback his country suffered.
Armed with large ambitions, and large amounts of cash, he struck back at the West — by committing more acts of terrorism, like the bombing of the La Belle disco in Germany in 1986, which killed two American soldiers, and attempting to create and purchase biological weapons and nuclear arms technology. He also supported unsavory liberation movements and causes throughout the world, ranging from small opposition movements in sub-Saharan Africa to the Irish Republican Army. But he was severely hemmed in by the world’s economic and diplomatic sanctions.
In December 2003, Libya finally agreed to give up whatever supplies of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons it possessed. This promise came at the end of a long process of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Britain and the United States, and was one of the conditions Colonel Qaddafi met in order to end the sanctions. It marked the beginning of his rehabilitation into international society.
The regime now sought in earnest to portray Muammar el-Qaddafi to the world as he had always envisioned himself: a global figure of major proportion, a visionary thinker whose ideas about democracy were worthy of serious intellectual contemplation. Among these ideas was Colonel Qaddafi’s notion of Israteen, a unitary state that would house both Palestine and Israel.
The Libyan government paid an international consulting firm to help create a forum to bring well-known public pundits and personalities to Libya to debate with the “leader of the revolution” on the nature of democracy. The appearance in Libya of leading Western intellectuals and public figures — willing to indulge a dictator’s whims and fancies for a handful of petrodollars — fed Colonel Qaddafi’s conviction that the Green Book was still relevant, and that his outworn revolution and his own stature as a world leader were important.
The man who had once personified terrorism thus became our valued ally in the fight against terrorism. We could live with his foibles and occasional ranting in return for his cooperation. So he provided intelligence on Islamic groups in his country, and on at least one occasion accepted a terrorist detainee for interrogation — and American oil companies, along with various other United States businesses, returned to Libya. Colonel Qaddafi had come full circle, or so many believed.
But now that the Libyan regime — like those of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain — is besieged by a popular uprising, the image of Colonel Qaddafi as the vicious monster who will go to any lengths to survive has reappeared. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by security forces and hired mercenaries, even as pro-Qaddafi forces have had to abandon Benghazi and most of the eastern province of Cyrenaica.
On Monday, when the leader went on television with his Green Book in hand, his diatribe was incoherent but familiar. His opponents, he said, were nothing but dogs and cockroaches, and he would squash and kill them.
Gone were the flowery niceties of democratic theory. Back again was the reality of brutal suppression. However, the terrible events of the past week do recall a line from the Green Book, written with perfect sangfroid by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi: “This is genuine democracy, but in reality the strong always rule.”
By Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth and the author of Modern Libya.