Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Muammar Qaddafi (1942 – 2011)

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi gives a speech at Cairo University, Egypt, on 10 March 1999. AMR NABIL / AFP

Former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969 to 2011, was captured and killed by rebel militias on 20 October 2011. It was the result of a popular uprising against his rule, which has been described as grim and eccentric but also as unpredictable.

This came at a time when Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria were engulfed in popular uprisings, also known as the “Arab Spring“.  

In what follows, Fanack will give an overview of Qaddafi’s life, rise to politics, his political system and his eventual demise. 

Muammar Mohammed Abd al-Salam Abu Minyar al-Qaddafi did not come from an elite background. He was reportedly born on June 7, 1942 in a tent in the desert near Sirte, as a member of the Qadhadhfa tribe. His birthday is not known with certainty, as the illiterate Bedouin family did not keep birth records. When he was about ten years old (in 1952) he entered primary school at Sirte, moved to a preparatory (intermediate) school in Sabha in 1959, and, in 1961, entered secondary school in Misrata. In 1963 he entered the Military Academy in Benghazi.

These bare-bones have subsequently been fleshed out with details that, in part, had propagandistic purposes. Authorized biographies emphasized three things: his desert background, the nationalist pedigree of his family, and his politicization at an early age. His family was poor, and he was its first member to learn to read and write; while he was at primary school, he returned to his family only at weekends, sleeping in the mosque on weekdays. He claimed that his grandfather, Abd al-Salam Abu Minyar, was killed fighting the Italians near Khomsin in 1915. When he attended preparatory school in Sabha, he was expelled because of political activities, and while at secondary school in Sirte he is reported to have organized a demonstration against Syria to protest the collapse of the union with Egypt.

What is certain is that some of his school friendships lasted all his life and provided an eventual nucleus for the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). A core group knew each other from secondary and even primary school and from the Military Academy in Benghazi, where they formed the Free Officers’ Movement to plan the overthrow of the monarchy. Qaddafi met Abd al-Salam Jalloud, from the Magarha tribe, at school in Sabha, and they became close friends; Jalloud was the first deputy chairman of the RCC and later became Finance Minister and Prime Minister; Mustafa al-Kharroubi, another future member of the RCC, was reported to be a Sabha classmate too. Another friend from this time was Mohammed al-Zway, the last secretary-general of Libya’s General People’s Congress and thus the theoretical head of state from 2010 until 2011, but he never joined the Army and so he was neither a Free Officer nor a member of the RCC. In secondary school in Misrata, Qaddafi met Umar Mihayshi, another future member of the RCC. Most of the future RCC members, however, came from the time Qaddafi was in the Military Academy in Benghazi. Abu-Bakr Yunis Jabr was one – a future Minister of Defence and head of the Army from 1970 until the civil war of 2011 – and Khouildi Hamidi was another.

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

On 1 September 1969 twelve junior officers from the Libyan army seized power in a bloodless coup. Because it took place on the first or ‘opening’ (al-infitah) day of September, it came to be known as the al-Fatih Revolution. The officers identified strongly with Nasserist Egypt and thus their Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) followed Nasserist tradition. The RCC was a shadowy body at first: it was not until January 1970 that all the names of its members were announced. By then it had become clear that its leader was Muammar Qaddafi, a captain who was promoted to colonel the day after the coup. He and the other members of the RCC came from non-elite backgrounds, many of them from the less prestigious tribes in the region around Sirte.

In a country with a weak sense of local nationalism, the terms of reference of the RCC were to Nasserist Arab nationalism. Their policies were directed towards expelling the Western bases, reorganizing relations with the oil companies, and shifting power from the old bureaucracy. Banks, hospitals, and trading and insurance companies were nationalized, and enmity for Israel led to the expulsion of the remaining Jewish population. But the new regime went much further than Nasser had done.

Post 1969 picture of Libyan Head of State Colonel Moamer Qaddafi
Post 1969 picture of Libyan Head of State Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi, born in 1942, formed in 1963 the Free Officers Movement, a group of revolutionary army officers, which overthrew 01 September 1969 King Idris of Libya and proclaimed Libya, in the name of “freedom, socialism and unity,” Socialist People’s Jamahiriya. (Photo by AFP)

Society was completely Arabized – only Arabic signs were allowed in the streets. Qaddafi was a much more personally devout Muslim than Nasser, and the regime went on to ban symbols of ‘Western moral decay’, such as alcohol, prostitution, pornography, casinos, and nightclubs.

Even so, Qaddafi’s version of Islam was not a traditional one. He preferred a form of belief in which everyone had the right to personal ijtihad, the interpretation and renewal of faith, traditionally matters reserved to scholars.

Although the Free Officers’ Movement provided the members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Qaddafi’s support ran wider than the military.

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The Forum of the Companions of Qaddafi was a group of supporters mainly drawn from former school friends and teachers of Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi. 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.

Despite the emphasis on Arab nationalism and Islam, the revolutionary officers found it difficult to win support among the population. They alienated the middle class with a new policy of creating a bond between political elites and masses, without including traditional tribal and religious leaders. In order to mobilize the population, in 1971 the RCC set up the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), supposedly as a mass organization that it controlled. Any other form of politics, media, and trade unions were banned. However,  the ASU (whose name was modelled on Nasser’s own political organization) was never very popular, and could not enforce the revolutionary socioeconomic edicts of the regime. Meanwhile,  Qaddafi himself emerged more and more as the main arbiter of power.

On 15 April 1973, in a famous speech in Zuwara that he gave after a much publicized period of reflection in the desert, Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi’s Green Book. This theory offered a third way that was neither capitalist nor communist but combined socialist and Islamic theories.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the 1970s
Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in the 1970s.

Political System

the Green Book

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, from 1977, states, ‘The solution to the economic problem, socialism’. The last part, published 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 Qaddafi’s reign, many Libyans used to shrug their shoulders when being asked about the Green Book and said ‘it didn’t bring anything’.

In short, Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi to replace existing and traditional cadres within the tribes with new leaders from lower social classes and allowed Qaddafi to demote or depose hundreds of opposition members (Communists, Baathists, and Muslim Brothers).

Qaddafi poststamp
Qaddafi poststamp / Photo Shutterstock

In March 1977, Qaddafi 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’. 

The “Jamahiriya”

The Jamahiriya was institutionalized in a system unique to Libya. This was designed to put into effect the Third Universal Theory, as outlined in the Green Book, whose first volume was ‘The solution to the problem of democracy: The authority of the people’. In it Qaddafi proposed a system of direct democracy to replace traditional structures such as Parliament, political parties, and referenda. Parliament, it said, is a form of dictatorship because the process of representation removes power from the people by speaking on their behalf, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Political parties are the instruments of this alienation of the population from power, so they should be abolished. And referenda reduce decisions to single one-time yes-or-no votes. According to the Green Book, democracy could be achieved only by creating a structure that reflected the population as a whole rather than acting in its name.

The structure that Qaddafi set up to embody this was a hierarchical structure of people’s congresses and committees: management and control became popular, and the old definition of democracy as “control of people over the government” was replaced by its new definition as “the people’s control over itself”.

The entire population was divided into ‘basic people’s congresses’. These elected a secretariat to form a people’s committee at the municipal level and other people’s committees that oversaw public affairs (e.g., roads, sewage systems, water-supply systems, and public clinics). Every adult also belonged to a group of workers or professionals: labourers, peasants, merchants, students, and craftsmen who were members of trade unions and professional organizations.

The peoples’ committees in turn elected ‘state committees’, which were the equivalent of ministries. Ultimate authority lay with a national General People’s Congress (GPC), which consisted of delegates elected by people’s congresses, people’s committees, trade unions, and professional organizations. The GPC consisted of approximately 1,000 members who chose the secretaries (equivalent to ministers) of the General People’s Committee, which acted as a cabinet. For each field of policy there was a different committee. The GPC was chaired by a general secretary, the Prime Minister.

There were both theoretical and practical deficiencies. It was never explained how this system of delegation differed in practice from the system of representation it supposedly replaced. Sensitive issues such as defence, oil, and foreign policy were difficult to discuss. The new system quickly produced either apathy or decisions of which Qaddafi disapproved. 

In order to maintain momentum, in 1978 Qaddafi announced the establishment of a revolutionary authority that was to be separated from the political authority of the people. It took the form of revolutionary committees consisting of enthusiasts for his policies. Qaddafi and the remaining members of the RCC resigned from the GPC, leaving it to manage affairs while revolutionary doctrine was developed and maintained by the revolutionary structure. 

The revolutionary committees were supposed to stimulate political awareness but they quickly grew into a state within a state with revolutionary courts replacing the existing legal system. All this left little space for public political expression, so alternative views found an outlet in mosques and religious activity (see Politics of Libya).


Support for Liberation Movements

Palestinian PLO leader Yasser Arafat kisses Libyan leader Colonel Mouammar Qaddafi
Palestinian PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) kisses Libyan leader Colonel Mouammar Qaddafi(L) during a parade, 26 August 1978 in Tripoli, Libya. (Photo by – / ARCHIVES / AFP)

Khalifturaf, ‘Be different, then they know you’, says an Arabic proverb. In Qaddafi’s case, this went beyond the eccentric personality cult at the centre of his regime to the adoption of unpredictable international policies.

Publicly, he emphasized some consistent themes: opposition to Israel, support for the revolution against conservative regimes, dislike of imperialism, and desire for regional unity. 

But the reality was less coherent. In the 1970s and 1980s he supported numerous foreign rebel and opposition movements, including the IRA, Palestinian groups, the Sahrawi liberation movement POLISARIO, the Filipino Moro Liberation Front, and the American Black Muslims. But he quickly abandoned causes when they were no longer convenient or he fell out with their leaders: Arafat’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel led to the expulsion of Palestinians from Libya, and Libyan rapprochement with Morocco led to the expulsion of Western Saharans. 

His support for left-wing rebels in Latin America convinced US President Reagan that he was a ‘mad dog’. Reagan broke diplomatic relations with Libya four months after taking office and shot down Libyan planes in the Gulf of Sirte in August 1981. In 1982 Reagan imposed a trade embargo on Libya. This included oil and cut Libyan revenues by a third. Qaddafi’s meddling in the civil war in Chad eventually led him to occupy the Aouzou strip in northern Chad, which reportedly contained uranium deposits. Before the Chadians expelled the Libyan troops in 1987, between 8,000 and 10,000 Libyan troops had been killed.

Union Efforts

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi speaks during a press conference
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (C) speaks during a press conference on November 25, 1973 at the Hilton hotel in Paris after a meeting with French President Georges Pompidou for discussions. (Photo by – / AFP)

Because the Libyan national identity was weak when Qaddafi took over and because he and his close supporters were enthusiasts of Arab nationalism, Qaddafi repeatedly tried to create unions between Libya and other countries. Brief theoretical unions were set up with Egypt and Syria (1971, Federation of Arab Republics); Sudan; Tunisia (1974, Arab Islamic Republic); Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania (1989, Arab Maghreb Union, a planned free-trade bloc).

All these attempted unions came to nothing, and, in frustration, Qaddafi adopted an activist policy in sub-Saharan Africa. He supported Idi Amin in Uganda, Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Empire, and liberation movements in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa. In the 1980s, Libya supported rebel leaders such as Foday Sankoh of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor of Liberia’s National Patriotic Front. Taylor and Sankoh received military training in Libya and succeeded in overthrowing the incumbent governments of their countries. More generally, Qaddafi tried to increase Libyan influence in sub-Saharan Africa through missionary work by promoting Islam through the Islamic Call Society. Libya paid for development aid to African governments to improve infrastructure, agriculture, and drinking water. African students received scholarships to study in Libya.

In 2002 Qaddafi helped set up the African Union to replace the Organization of African unity. In 2007 and 2009, when he was chairman of the African Union, Qaddafi proposed establishing the Pan-African United States of Africa. In 2008 a meeting of more than 200 African kings and traditional rulers in Benghazi crowned him ‘king of kings’ of Africa.

Alleged actions abroad

The revolutionary committees began to operate abroad, running death squads that attacked opposition exiles in Athens, Bonn, London, Milan, and Rome. The climax came in 1984, at the Libyan embassy in London. While Libyan exiles protested outside, a shot was fired from inside the embassy killing British police officer Yvonne Fletcher.

In 1986, the United States accused Libya of involvement in Palestinian attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna. In April 1986, when a bomb exploded in a Berlin nightclub, injuring over 200 and killing two, Reagan sent US warplanes to attack Qaddafi’s residences in addition to military facilities in Tripoli and Benghazi city. The raids killed 130 people, wounded two of Qaddafi’s sons, and allegedly killed an adopted daughter.

Policemen and firemen look at the scene of devastation in Lockerbie
Policemen and firemen look at the scene of devastation in Lockerbie, 22 December 1988, after a 747 Pan Am Jumbo jet exploded and crashed over the town 21 December on the route to New-York, with 259 passengers on board. All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed as well as 11 Lockerbie residents. In 2003, Libya admitted responsibility for the deaths of the 270 victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing. (Photo by ROY LETKEY / AFP)

The 1980s ended with the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 and of a French UTA aircraft over Niger in 1989. More than 400 people were killed in these two attacks. In November 1991 the US and British governments accused two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, of committing the Lockerbie bombing, and the UN Security Council demanded their extradition. This began a decade of international isolation.

Reforms Versus Restriction in Freedoms

While Libya’s international reputation became pro-Western, internally it remained a very oppressive state. As early as 1988 Qaddafi had made a point of criticizing the revolutionary committees for their repressive behaviour and issued laws allowing freedom of expression. But these were more posturing than real changes. There were several high-profile examples of human-rights abuses in the 1990s. One was a massacre in 1996 at Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli, in which, Human Rights Watch estimated, 1,270 prisoners were killed. Another was the rigged trial of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who worked at a public hospital in Benghazi and were accused of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV-tainted blood in 1999; they were found guilty in 2004 and sentenced to death but were released after European diplomatic protests in 2007.

The Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor on trial in Tripoli
The Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor on trial in Tripoli.

These well-known cases took place against a persistent background of the mistreatment of individuals, particularly members of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. International human-rights organizations documented consistent mistreatment of those who were arrested, including the use of severe torture. Migrant workers especially were subjected to human-rights abuses.

The Qaddafi government repeated its commitment to the protection of human rights in the early 2000s. Two human-rights groups were established, the Qaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations (1998) and the Qaddafi Foundation for Development. Both organizations were headed by Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who carefully fashioned an image as a defender of liberty. He sponsored a visit to Libya by Human Rights Watch and intervened to have the Bulgarian nurses released and promoted an investigation into the Abu Salim massacre. But it became apparent that this was part of Saif al-Islam’s positioning himself to take over from his father, and the actual changes were few.

From International Sanctions to End of Isolation (1992 -2004)

At the second Afro-Arab summit in Sirte, Libya, 10 October 2010
At the second Afro-Arab summit in Sirte, Libya, 10 October 2010, from left: Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia), Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen), Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt). Photo: AFP /KHALED DESOUKI

In April 1992 the UN announced sanctions against Libya, unless the two Lockerbie suspects were extradited. This was not immediately effective, because Qaddafi had already taken precautions to protect his currency reserves, and Libya continued to export oil at an increased rate. But there was increasing unrest inside Libya, particularly amongst the Banu Walid tribe, some of whose members were executed for their role in an alleged coup. There were riots in Misrata and Tobruk in 1993 and attempts on Qaddafi’s life by Islamists in 1995 and 1998.

Although the international support for the embargo began to crack in the late 1990s, the decade coincided with the emergence of a new factor in Libyan politics, the emergence of Qaddafi’s children as political actors. Muhammad, the son of Qaddafi’s first wife was the first to reach the age of twenty, in 1990. Five others followed, over the next seven years.

In 1998, Libya agreed to a trial of the Lockerbie suspects in a neutral country, under Scottish law. In return, the UN sanctions were suspended. The trial took place in the Netherlands, beginning in 2000. In 2001, al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in Scotland, and Fhimah was acquitted. Subsequently, other theories about the attack were circulated, blaming the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and East German intelligence, but the Lockerbie trial started the process of undoing the isolation of Libya.

After 11 September 2001, Qaddafi was among the first Arab leaders to condemn the attacks on New York and to stress his enmity for Osama bin Laden. Libya joined the global fight against terrorism. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Qaddafi took further steps to cooperate with the western powers, fearing that he might be the next target and realizing the need to lift the Libyan economy by ending sanctions. 

In 2003 Qaddafi admitted Libyan responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the Lockerbie and UTA flight victims. Shortly thereafter, UN sanctions against Libya were lifted. In 2004 Qaddafi declared that he would renounce the Libyan programme for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the US lifted most of its economic sanctions and restored diplomatic ties.

The 2011 revolt against the Qaddafi Regime

Libyan anti-government protesters wave their old national flag while holding signs “Our demand is freedom” (R) and “Greetings to all the heroes” (front-L) during a protest against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in the western city of Zawiya on February 27, 2011.AFP PHOTO/STR

The human-rights lawyer Fathi Terbil, representing the families of the Abu Salim victims, was arrested in Benghazi on 15 February 2011 after more than a month of protests that had broken out in the Cyrenaican cities of Benghazi, Bayda, and Derna about political corruption and the delay in construction of housing units. His arrest sparked the protest that led to the rebellion against Qaddafi

At the end of January, the government responded with a 20 billion euro fund for investment and local development. It also released a group of prisoners who belonged to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, hoping to ease tensions. But on 1 February a human-rights activist, Jamal al-Hajji, was arrested in Benghazi after calling, on the Internet, for demonstrations in support of greater freedoms in Libya, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Propaganda for rebellion on the Internet continued, culminating in calls for a ‘day of rage’ against the regime on 17 February. Protests took place in Cyrenaica (Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Derna, and Bayda), as well as in Zintan in the Berber-dominated Jebel Nafusa, in the west. A rising in Misrata followed on 24 February 2011. These were brutally repressed, and the protesters became violent in their turn. On 20 February, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi made a long rambling speech that showed that his previous display of reformist liberalism had changed into outright support for reactionary repression. The government used aircraft to attack protestors; the 24 February uprising in Misrata was almost crushed by airpower.

On 26 February the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1970 invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This froze the Qaddafi family’s assets and restricted travel by the inner circle. It referred human-rights abuses to the International Criminal Court. On 27 February the Benghazi rebels formed a National Transition Council (NTC) to act as the ‘political face of the revolution’, and on 5 March it declared itself to be the ‘only legitimate body representing the people of Libya and the Libyan state’. Mahmoud Jibril was appointed to chair its executive board.

On 17 March UN Security Council Resolution 1973 declared a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized NATO-led air strikes to protect civilians, which provided cover for Libyan rebels to capture extensive areas, before they were forced back by Qaddafi’s better-armed forces. The rebels then asked various Western countries for arms. France, Great Britain, and the United States began aerial bombardments in support of the rebels. With this assistance, NTC forces pushed west across Libya, and other groups rose in the Jebel Nafusa region. The aid was particularly valuable in protecting Misrata, which was subjected to a fierce siege that began on 20 March. By late April, it was reported that over 1,000 people in the city had been killed and about 3,000 injured. NATO air support protected a maritime lifeline from Malta, and rebel forces lifted the siege by mid-May. On 29 March the main European governments, the US administration, and allies from the Middle East recognized the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate government of Libya.

This began the final stages of the war, as NTC troops began an offensive along the coast, capturing the city of Tripoli on 21 August. Qaddafi and his close circle escaped to Sirte, which they announced as their new capital. His wife and three of his children fled to Algeria. Sirte was finally taken by NTC-aligned militias on 20 October, and Qaddafi was captured and brutally killed on the same day.

On 23 October the National Transitional Council, which the UN had recognized as the legal government of Libya on 16 September, announced the official end of the Libyan war. Even so, resistance continued in some areas, particularly Bani Walid.

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