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Muammar al Qadhafi was born in 1942 to a nomadic Bedouin family, which was part of the Qadhafa tribe. After completing his primary education, Qadhafi attended the Sebha secondary school in Fezzan, Libya, between 1956 and 1961, where he received a traditional Islamic religious education. The political events that took place during his school years—including the establishment of Israel and the defeat of the Arab armies and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (1918-1970) rise to power in Egypt—defined the fundamentals of his political philosophy and worldview. Likewise, his tribal background and Islamic education contributed to his piety and the high value he attached to family ties, egalitarianism, and personal honor.
Between 1961 and 1963 Qadhafi attended the University of Libya after which he joined the Military Academy in Benghazi, which was opened to members of low income classes and offered them an opportunity for upward economic and social mobility. During his stay at the military academy, together with a few of his fellow cadets Qadhafi formed a free officer movement, which four years later would depose the pro-western Libyan monarchy. After his graduation from the academy in 1965, he was sent to Britain for one year of military training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
On September 1, 1969, in a bloodless coup, Qadhafi and a group of seventy young army officers seized control of the government and overthrew the Libyan monarchy. The coup received enthusiastic backing from the Libyan people and the army. The Revolutionary Command Council abolished the monarchy and proclaimed Libya as the Libyan Arab Peoples Republic.
Qadhafi’s Political Ideology and Foreign Policy
While Qadhafi occupied the position of head of state and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he left the day-to-day administration of governmental tasks to his subordinates and devoted his time to his revolutionary views concerning pan-Arabism, Islam, and the struggle against pro-western Arab reactionary forces, imperialism, and Zionism (including support of the state of Israel). Official government statements and the Libyan press referred to Qadhafi as the “Brother Leader,” “Guide of the Revolution,” and “Philosopher of the Revolution.”
Instead of using socialism or western liberalism, Qadhafi gave primacy to his own vision of Islamic socialism and pan-Arab Nationalism. He called his form of government a “direct, popular democracy” and “Islamic socialism.” He formed public committees to increase the opportunities for the Libyan people to exercise direct political participation and supervision of the government.
In 1973 Qadhafi proclaimed his Third Universal Theory, which consisted of socialism, popular democracy, Arab unity, and progressive Islam. His political philosophy appeared in his 1976 Green Book. Qadhafi called for the nationalization and redistribution of domestic industries and large private landholding, including religious properties. He also imposed a system of Islamic morals and outlawed alcohol and gambling. He directed the public committees to supervise the mosques in order to undermine the influence of the clerics who were critical of the Green Book and his nationalization of private property.
Qadhafi advocated Arab and pan-Islamic unity and tried unsuccessfully to form unions with other Arab states including Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. He has also been active in African politics and various pan-African organizations, and he has given extensive humanitarian aid to African states.
Qadhafi’s Support of Revolutionary Movements and Terrorism
Qadhafi also extended financial and military support to several liberation and opposition movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, Black September (another pro-Palestinian organization), and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) among others. His revolutionary committees were engaged in the assassination of some Libyan dissidents living abroad. By the mid-1980s he was widely regarded in the West as the key supporter of international terrorism.
In an attempt to force Qadhafi to abandon his support of terrorist groups, in March 1982 the United States declared a ban on the import of Libyan oil and the export to Libya of American oil technology. During January and March 1986, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) ordered the American navy to attack Libyan patrol boats, and on April 15, 1986, he directed the American air force to attack Qadhafi’s headquarters in Tripoli and Benghazi. The United Nations also imposed upon Libya economic sanctions for Qadhafi’s refusal to allow the extradition to the United States or Britain of two Libyans accused of planting a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
Qadhafi’s Economic Experiment Falters
The 1990s witnessed increasing disapproval of Qadhafi’s revolutionary experiment by Islamic clerics, the middle class, professionals, and students. Moreover, the Libyan economy experienced serious problems resulting from the international sanctions, the decline in the price of oil in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s, and poor governmental economic planning. This economic downturn limited the capacity of the government to provide employment and social welfare benefits to the politicized youth and the urban poor. The economic crisis was made worse by the fact that half of the Libyan population at the time was below the age of 15.
Following years of international isolation and growing socioeconomic challenges, and despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric against the West, Qadhafi’s revolutionary ideals did not come to fruition. Not only did his Arab unity schemes fail, but also the various armed revolutionary movements he backed did not achieve their goals, and the demise of the Soviet Union left Qadhafi more vulnerable to his main archenemy, the United States.
In the wake of these developments, Qadhafi began to redirect Libya’s domestic and foreign policy starting the second half of the 1990s. He initiated economic liberalization measures to revitalize the economy and to attract foreign capital and investments. In his effort to lift the United Nations sanctions, in 1999 Qadhafi pledged to fight Al-Qaeda and offered to open up Libya’s weapons program to international inspection. Through the mediation of South African president Nelson Mandela, Qadhafi gave up the two accused Libyans for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in order to be tried in the Netherlands. In August 2003 Libya formally accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and Qadhafi agreed to pay compensation of $2.7 billion to the families of the 270 victims.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, availed Qadhafi the opportunity to further normalize Libya’s relations with the West. Qadhafi condemned the attacks and extended his condolences to the American people, and he supported the United States’ right to retaliate. As a sign of his abandonment of supporting international terrorism, Qadhafi started sharing information about Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups with British and American intelligence services. In 2003 he allowed international inspectors to dismantle Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. Because of Qadhafi’s moves, the UN sanctions were lifted, and in March 2004 British prime minister Tony Blair became the first western leader in decades to visit Libya to meet with Qadhafi.
- Bearman, Jonathan. 1986. Qadhafi’s Libya. London: Zed Books.
- Bleuchot, Herve. 1982. The Green Book: Its Context and Meaning. In Libya Since Independence: Economic and Political
Development, ed. J. A. Allan. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Burgat, Francois. 1995. Qadhafi’s Ideological Framework. In Qadafi’s Libya, 1969–1994, ed. Dirk Vandewalle. New York:
St. Martin’s Press.
- Deeb, Marius, and Mary Jane Deeb. 1982. Libya Since the Revolution: Aspects of Social and Political Development. New York: Praeger.
- Middle East Reporter Weekly. 1998. Libya’s Qadhafi Turns Attention to Black Africa. (September 19).
- Middle East Reporter Weekly. 2002. Reforms: Libya Opening up at Long Last. (January 19).
- Pargeter, Alison. 2002. Pariah No More. The World Today (London), June.
- Takeyh, Ray. 1998. Qadhafi and the Challenge of Militant Islam. Washington Quarterly 21(3): 159–172.
- Vandewalle, Dirk. Qadhafi’s ‘Perestroika’: Economic and Political Liberalization in Libya. Middle East Journal 45 (2).
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