Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: The ‘People’s Revolution’ (1969 – 1977)

 Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the 1970s Libya history
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the 1970s

Although the Free Officers’ Movement provided the members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Gaddafi’s support ran wider than the military. The Forum of the Companions of Gaddafi was a group of supporters mainly drawn from former school friends and teachers of Gaddafi who provided a reservoir of personnel to staff civilian posts (such as diplomats, administrators, and university professors). Both were less formal than the RCC and lasted through his period of rule. The RCC itself remained formally in existence until March 1977, when it was abolished and incorporated into the General Secretariat of the General People’s Congress, which became the Revolutionary Leadership in March 1979.

The progressive decline in importance of the RCC as an organization came about because its members did not always agree with Gaddafi. The first coup attempt was in December 1969. It did not involve RCC members directly, but they too soon started to break away: four of them left of their own accord in the 1970s. One was killed in a car accident, another was executed for trying to organize a coup.

At the same time, Gaddafi realized he was having little success mobilizing the population. The Nasserist-style single party, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), that was founded 1971 did not elicit popular support and could not enforce the revolutionary socioeconomic edicts of the regime. On 15 April 1973, in a famous speech in Zuwara that he gave after a much publicized period of reflection in the desert, Gaddafi outlined a new political system. It would be designed according to revolutionary principles, abandoning the Egyptian model. There would instead be a People’s Revolution that would recast state structures according to a new Third Universal Theory outlined in the first part of the Gaddafi’s Green Book. This theory offered a third way that was neither capitalist nor communist but combined socialist and Islamic theories.

The Green Book has three parts. The first, published in September 1976, is titled ‘The solution to the problem of democracy, the authority of the people’. The second, in 1977, states, ‘The solution to the economic problem, socialism’. The last part, in June 1979, contains ‘The social basis of the Third Universal Theory’. This last volume offered guidance on the field of sports, male and female relationships, and family matters.

An enormous cult was fabricated around The Green Book. Slogans from the Green Book, such as ‘Profit is stealing’, ‘Partners, not wage labourers’, and ‘Committees everywhere’ were found throughout the country. Every visitor to Libya took a copy home. The book was translated into 84 languages, including Hebrew. It was the Green Book Studies Centre’s task to distribute and promote the work. Pupils in school had to learn the book by heart. Even so, it was not always popular, and many Libyans quietly dismissed it. During the last ten years of Gaddafi’s reign, many Libyans used to shrug their shoulders when being asked about The Green Book. They called the book ‘blah blah’, saying ‘it didn’t bring anything’.

In short, Gaddafi proposed popular control of the revolution from below by creating people’s committees in state institutions, local governments, businesses, schools, and universities. Eventually, there were more than 2,000 of these committees.

‘True democracy exists only through the participation of the people, not through the activities of their representatives’, was another slogan. In September 1976 a new body was established, the General People’s Congress, to replace the RCC and act as the national organization of the committees. This structure allowed Gaddafi to replace existing and traditional cadres within the tribes with new leaders from lower social classes and allowed Gaddafi to demote or depose hundreds of opposition members (Communists, Baathists, and Muslim Brothers).

In March 1977, Gaddafi announced ‘Authority of the People’, dissolved what was left of the RCC, and renamed Libya the Great Socialist Libyan Arab People’s Jamahiriya, being an Arabic neologism that conflates the idea of jumhuriya (republic) and jamahir (masses). The best translation of jamahiriya is ‘state of the masses’.