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The unpredictable Qaddafi


By Kimberly L. Sullivan


The Montréal Review, March 2011



"Qaddafi, the Oil and Lockerbie" by Werner Horvath, oil on canvas, 90 x 60 cm, 2003




Muammar Qaddafi became Libya's leader following the overthrow of a monarchy, and now 42 years later, he refuses to release the reins of power in the face of a new popular uprising. One might wonder why the coup that Qaddafi organized in 1969 was an easy success, while the revolt in 2011 did not go nearly as smoothly. The fact is that there are a number of fundamental differences between the two events that explain why they did not play out in the same way.

When Qaddafi and his fellow military officers mounted their coup in 1969, Libya's King Idris was linked to corruption involving the misuse of his country's oil revenues. Not surprisingly, he was hugely unpopular among his people. Meanwhile, Qaddafi and his fellow revolutionaries were young military officers who came from backgrounds that the people could identify with. They were organized by the charismatic Qaddafi whose military training helped him strategize for a quick, largely bloodless victory. One successful tactic that the coup leaders employed was to take over Libya's radio station so they could get the revolutionary message out to the people. They even scheduled the overthrow to begin at night during a time when King Idris was out of the country. In the end, the goals of Qaddafi's coup were achieved with very little resistance and no international involvement. By the time the rest of the world realized what was going on, it was done.

This present Libyan revolution is very different. Certainly, Qaddafi is perceived as a dictator with ample detractors in Libya, but he has created a government over which he has nearly complete control. In addition, this revolt lacks organization, strategy, and leadership. Evidence of its disorganization can be seen in news reports of rebels who don't know how to operate their weapons properly. A recent photo out of Libya showed an insurgent wheeling himself through the streets on a scavenged office chair with a rifle across his knees. It appears that this was more a revolt of opportunity than of planning. Qaddafi's opponents saw what had happened in nearby Tunisia and Egypt and thought the time was ripe for them, too. Perhaps they would have been correct in a country with a leader who wasn't as entrenched or ruthless as Qaddafi, but he's spent 42 years leading that country, and it could be argued that his identity had become one with his nation.

It's ironic that this modern attempt at revolution in Libya was precipitated by a popular revolution in Egypt, because that's partly what sparked Qaddafi's desire for an overthrow of King Idris back in 1969. When Qaddafi was a boy, he studied the Egyptian revolution of 1952 in which the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown and President Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power. Qaddafi grew to idolize Egyptian President Nasser and strongly supported his calls for eliminating the influence of Western nations from the Arab world. When President Nasser led the revolution against the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, he called his supporters the Free Unionist Officers Movement. It was no coincidence when Qaddafi used the same name for his military officers during their coup against the Libyan monarchy in 1969.

Qaddafi's 42-year reign reflects far more than just one leader's ability to cling to power in the face of constantly shifting conditions. I see a man's lifespan superimposed on the history of a nation. Libya has evolved through various stages in the past four decades, and I would suggest that some of those changes were the direct result of Qaddafi's shifts in perspective as he grew older.

When he first took over Libya, Qaddafi was only 27 years old. He quickly implemented a number of socialist changes on Libyan society that were based on a three-part book he wrote called The Green Book . One could argue that the changes he instituted in the 1970s reflected the idealism of the young man he was at that time. He also embraced the notion of a united Islamic Arab nation, in keeping with the ideas of his hero, Egyptian President Nasser. Although he sought cooperation for his goal, other Arab leaders were unwilling to go along with the sweeping changes he endorsed. He couldn't even count on Egypt's support since Nasser passed away in 1970 and his successor, Anwar Sadat, did not turn out to be an ally of Qaddafi's.

During the 1980s, Libya became increasingly linked to international terrorism, including the bombing of a Berlin nightclub and the explosion of a passenger jet over Scotland. These actions can be seen as the bold strides of a man who has grown confident in his power and position and doesn't fear others' scorn. Of course, these actions led to increased international sanctions against Libya in the 1980s and 1990s, and the country's economy was badly damaged as a result.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Qaddafi's approach shifted again. He improved his relationship with the international community by renouncing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and he began giving licenses to Western oil companies for drilling. As a reward, sanctions against Libya were lifted, and the country was granted greater access to foreign goods and money. It looks like these actions were in keeping with an older, more seasoned leader who had learned the value of cooperation. No man has the same priorities at age 67 that he had at age 27, and a leader is no exception.

If Qaddafi had continued to follow the model for a typical lifespan, he might be expected to name a successor within the next decade and initiate a transfer of power in preparation for the days after he is gone. However, the revolt in Libya seems to have caused him to retrench himself, thereby possibly altering his trajectory. Add that to Muammar Qaddafi's characteristic unpredictability, and the ending of this story remains uncertain.


Kimberly L. Sullivan writes fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya (Lerner Publishing, 2008) and Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia (Lerner Publishing, 2008).

Kimberly L. Sullivan's web site: www.kosbornsullivan.com


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