Colonel Muammar Gaddafi cuts the figure of a stereotypical dictator, but the truth of this human being is, of course, far more complex. He ruled over Libya for more than four decades, and while reviled in the Western media, Gaddafi serves as a figure both loved and hated in his home country throughout history. His story, his life, his rule, and the nature of his death speak volumes of who he was and the nature of the enemies he made.
Early Life of Muammar Gaddafi
Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi was born in a tent in the deserts of Tripolitania in Western Libya. The youngest of four children and the only son to Aisha bin Niran and Mohammad Abdul Salam bin Hamed bin Mohammad, Muammar Gaddafi was born into a nomadic Bedouin family of Arab descent. They were poor and subsisted by herding camels and goats.
His exact birth date is unknown, as the Bedouin did not keep records. His early life and family history were subject to the negative effects of colonialism, which played a major hand in shaping his worldviews. Before he was born, his paternal grandfather was killed during the Italian invasion of 1911. When he was born, Libya was an Italian colony, and it played host to many major actions throughout the desert campaigns of the Second World War. After the war, Libya was occupied by French and British forces.
Libya gained its independence in 1951 as the United Kingdom of Libya under the autocratic rule of King Idris, a pro-Western monarch.
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Education was not free, and Gaddafi’s family was poor. Nevertheless, Muammar was sent to school. He was a hard-working child and recognized the financial strain that his schooling brought on his family. He applied himself and advanced six grades in only four years. During the evenings, he would sleep on the floor of a mosque, and on the weekends, he would walk 20 miles to visit his grandparents.
Following his success at the primary school level, Gaddafi was enrolled in a secondary school, which was a luxury neither of his parents had received. His family moved to south-central Libya, where his father worked as a caretaker for a tribal leader.
While at school, Gaddafi was exposed to many ideologies, and many of his teachers were Egyptian. He found great respect for the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and sympathized with his beliefs and policies. Gaddafi emerged from his schooling with solid political views and supported the ideas of Arab Nationalism and Socialism. He rejected the ideas of colonialism, neo-colonialism, Western imperialism, and Zionism.
Gaddafi became politically active, and in October 1961, he led a demonstration against Syria’s secession from the United Arab Republic. In 1963, Muammar Gaddafi joined the military and started training at the Royal Military Academy. He was deeply unhappy with the British influence, and while working within the military, he started organizing a revolutionary group called the Central Committee of the Free Officers Movement.
In 1966, he was assigned special signals training in England. He also learned English during this time. He later stated that he disliked England, and his experience made him realize the value of his own country’s culture.
1969: Gaddafi Seizes Power
King Idris’ rule had become deeply unpopular in Libya throughout the 1960s. Corruption had weakened his leadership, and Arab Nationalism was on the rise. Libyan people started objecting to the pro-Western stance of the government, and riots broke out in Tripoli and Benghazi. Following the defeat of Egypt in the Six-Day War, many Libyans sympathized with Egypt, and protests in solidarity with Egypt became widespread.
There were various revolutionary groups in the military, and the CIA suspected that there would be a coup attempt. They did not, however, expect it to come from Muammar Gaddafi’s Free Officers Movement. While the king was abroad, Gaddafi launched his plan, occupying airports, police stations, government offices, and other key installations. They met little resistance in what later became known as the “One September Revolution.” Crown Prince Sayyid Hasan ar-Rida al-Mahdi as-Sanussi was arrested and forced to relinquish government control. In its place, Gaddafi proclaimed the Libyan Arab Republic and emphasized “freedom, socialism, and unity.”
The next few years saw Gaddafi consolidating his power. The central committee of the Free Officers Movement became the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) which immediately began purging the government of monarchists. His early rule was fraught with danger, and in 1970, Gaddafi survived two coup attempts.
Libya’s transformation into a respectable economy needed a significant boost in several key sectors. Gaddafi’s new government launched a “green revolution” to transform the agricultural sector. Farms were built, and irrigation systems were installed along the Libyan coast.
However, Gaddafi’s attention to the oil industry transformed the country’s economy completely. All foreign oil producers in the country had 51% of their operations nationalized. By 1979, Libya’s per capita income was higher than industrialized countries like Italy and the UK.
The money generated through this enterprise went towards social welfare programs such as improving healthcare, education, and housing. Malaria was eradicated. Compulsory education was implemented along with adult literacy programs and free university education.
These programs proved immensely popular with the Libyan people, and Muammar Gaddafi quickly became a beloved figure.
The Popular Revolution
On April 16, 1973, Gaddafi launched the “Popular Revolution,” which was similar in aims to the Cultural Revolution in China. He created an ideology called the Third International Theory as the basis for the Popular Revolution. In this ideology, he rejected both the United States and the Soviet Union as being imperialist and proposed an Islamic super-state of third-world countries to guide Islam against the imperialist activities of its enemies. Despite this, he retained much better ties with the Soviet Union than with the United States.
Gaddafi wrote his ideology down in his “Green Book,” in three short volumes that outlined the beliefs and policies to guide Libya and the Libyan people. Not everybody was happy, however. Increased spending on foreign aid angered many who were close to him in the RCC. One of his colleagues in the RCC, Umar Muhayshi, along with a few others, began plotting a coup against Gaddafi in 1974. In 1975, their plot was uncovered, and Muhayshi fled while many of his co-conspirators were arrested and executed. The military was then targeted and purged of anti-revolutionary elements.
Protests also erupted as anti-Gaddafist students clashed with police and pro-Gaddafist students, while privately owned Islamic colleges and universities were shut down in an attempt to control religion in the country and eradicate conservative anti-Gaddafist clerics from office.
During this time, complex foreign relations saw Gaddafi falling out with Egypt and finding new friends in Uganda (under Idi Amin), Pakistan, and Zaire. In 1973, Israel shot down Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114, which strayed into Israeli airspace during a sandstorm. Gaddafi blamed Egypt for not doing more to prevent the disaster. He also blamed Egypt for not including Libya in the planning for the 1973 Yom-Kippur War.
In 1977, Gaddafi dissolved the Libyan Arab Republic and replaced it with the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which was officially a direct democracy. Although the government worked hard to provide amenities to all Libyans, especially with housing, many civil liberties were stripped, and the media came under the direct control of the revolution.
Enemies of the state and the revolution plotted against Gaddafi from within Libya and outside its borders. Gaddafi took drastic action, using hit squads to assassinate many dissidents living in Europe.
Growing Conflict with the West
The early 1980s were marked by an economic downturn in Libya, as the oil price crashed and revenues were slashed. Gaddafi struggled to maintain his security after a series of failed military interventions and the hardline approach taken by the new Reagan administration, which openly provoked conflict with Libya. The US held military exercises in the Gulf of Sirte on the border of Libyan territory and ended up shooting down two Libyan jets.
The US then threw many accusations of connections to bombings, assassinations, and even attempts to assassinate Ronald Reagan. None of these accusations were ever proven beyond a doubt. The US military again held military drills in the Gulf of Sirte, and this time they sunk two Libyan vessels. After the US accused Gaddafi of the 1986 bombing of a disco in Berlin, the US decided to launch airstrikes into Libya, which killed over a hundred people, including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter.
In 1988, Gaddafi was accused of the Lockerbie Bombing in which a civilian airliner was destroyed, killing 270 people. Sanctions from the international community followed, and despite pursuing a Pan-Arab mission to unite many Arab countries, Libya found itself increasingly isolated. Revolts and riots gripped the country, and Gaddafi was increasingly threatened in his own country too. In the late 1990s, Gaddafi turned over the alleged perpetrators, and the UN lifted many sanctions against Libya despite international protest.
Last Years of Muammar Gaddafi
In the 2000s, Gaddafi adopted a more diplomatic stance and attempted to improve relations with Europe. He also championed the idea of a united Africa and a military alliance between African states to rival NATO.
In Libya, Gaddafi implemented economic reforms that saw the privatization of many industries and the opening up of trade with former enemies. He nevertheless continued his anti-US rhetoric.
In 2011, revolts hit the country, influenced by the Arab Spring that had seen the removal from power of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Gaddafi’s response to these protests was a violent crackdown, the brutality of which alienated him from many in his own government. The revolts turned into rebellion and then into a full-scale civil war. Accusations of war crimes saw sanctions again imposed on Libya, and NATO conducted an airstrike that killed Gaddafi’s youngest son and three of his grandchildren.
On October 20, 2011, rebel forces in Sirte killed Muammar Gaddafi after NATO warplanes bombed his convoy. His body was flung about on display along with his cadres. He was eventually buried in an unmarked grave in the desert.
Muammar Gaddafi was a complex figure whose support ebbed and flowed throughout his rule. He implemented successful policies, but his grip on power was realized by a dictatorship. His legacy around the world is certainly not uniform. In the West, he is widely perceived to have been a ruthless dictator, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, he is widely seen as a popular figure representing the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. He is also known for his erratic behavior and was dubbed the “Mad Dog of the Middle East.” He was an expert in offending foreign dignitaries. He made no attempt to hold his tongue and lambasted his enemies to their faces. He even wore an image of a dead Mussolini when he visited Italy.
After his passing, Libya descended into chaos with open slave markets and another civil war that lasted another six years.