Muammar Gaddafi: Revolution Gone Wrong

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In 1969, Libya was awash with oil, but not wealth. The Libyan ruler, King Idris I, was a deeply corrupt pro-Western dictator who allowed foreign oil companies to exploit Libyan resources so long as he personally benefitted from the proceeds. Muammar Gaddafi, the socialist revolutionary, came to power with the supposed mission of redistributing wealth and power to the Libyan people. The anarchy of his dictatorship, and the chaos it left behind, proved to be little better.

Gaddafi was from a poor Bedouin tribal family that struggled to send him to school. However, once there, he proved to be an able student and was particularly influenced by his Egyptian teachers who introduced him to the ideas of Nasser and pan-Arabism. In following the ideas of Nasser, he concluded that nothing was more essential to any potential revolution than control of the army.

Thus, he left university and joined the military, and by 1965 he was an officer. With a group of political sympathisers there, he formed the Central Committee of the Free Officers Movement, named after Nasser’s revolutionary corps. The group pooled their salaries to recruit sympathisers and gather intelligence while staying below the radar of the intelligence services. By 1969, the group felt themselves sufficiently strong to act if the opportunity arose to overthrow the government.

On 1 September 1969, they decided to strike. King Idris had left to Turkey for a medical operation, and so Gaddafi initiated the mission – ‘Operation Jerusalem’. Gaddafi executed a bloodless, seamless coup, taking the Burke Barracks in Benghazi along with keys to the nation’s transport and communication networks all within a day. Having proclaimed a new Revolutionary Command Council, of which he was chair, Gaddafi prepared to reform Libya.

Gaddafi’s reforms were based off three fundamental principles: independence from western powers, unity between Arab states, and socialism. To the Libyan people, Gaddafi initially may have seemed a force for good: he nationalised petroleum production and used the profits to build new infrastructure, provide clean drinking water, make education free, and distribute money to the poor. At one point, the quality of life in Libya was higher than that in Brazil and Soviet Russia.

However, this was not all Gaddafi used the state’s wealth on. Across the mid-1970s, Gaddafi funded terrorist groups across the globe, such as the IRA, the FARC in Colombia, the Abu Sayyaf in southern Philippines, Abu Nidal and countless others, to support them in their revolutionary activities.

But in 1977, Gaddafi’s support of terrorism became unpopular in Libya, with people complaining that the funding could be used instead to aid the Libyan people. Instead of suspending this funding (indeed, state sponsorship of terrorism was one of the most enduring aspects of his regime), he unveiled a new programme of reforms to appease the people.

This reconstitution of the revolutionary government was ideologically based on his ‘third international theory’ outlined in his Green Book (deliberately named to imitate Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’). It was an alternative to capitalism and communism that resolved the contradictions within the two and set out a visionary political philosophy for the future, yet it was as contradictory and nonsensical as what it claimed to replace.

The practical implications of the Green Book were clearly that of a Gaddafi power grab. He argued that parliaments, political parties and other political institutions (such as the Revolutionary Command Council) were inherently undemocratic and that as such the only suitable method of governance was through ‘basic people’s congresses’, with Gaddafi serving as the ‘brother leader’ to guide the revolution. On this basis, Gaddafi decommissioned the Revolutionary Command Council. Meanwhile, he became a dictator in the name of true democracy (curiously similar to the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Marxism-Leninism, which Gaddafi claimed to disavow).

However, Gaddafi’s prophesised utopia failed to materialise. The loss of life caused by ongoing wars in Chad and Egypt, as well as domestic deterioration due to the government’s misallocation of public resources, led the Libyan population to turn against him once more.

Gaddafi once again responded by adopting a far more hard-line approach to his rule. Questioning the constitution and Gaddafi’s Green Book were made capital offences. He used scare tactics, including public executions, to ensure obedience. One particularly notable incident occurred on 5 June 1984, when hundreds of schoolchildren assembled at Benghazi Basketball Stadium to witness the trial and execution of Sadiq Shwehdi, a student accused of plotting to overthrow the regime. One girl volunteered to help the executioners kill Shwehdi, pleasing Gaddafi so much that she was promoted to become one of the most powerful women in Libya. Thereafter she was known as ‘Huda the executioner’.

The sponsorship of terrorism continued throughout the 1980s too. This included shooting unarmed protesters outside the Libyan embassy in London, firing missiles at US planes after they had refused to vacate the Gulf of Sidra, and setting off a shrapnel bomb in La Belle nightclub, killing three people and injuring another 299. While not all of these attacks were directly attributable to Gaddafi, the Libyan state was certainly complicit. 

Following the final incident in 1986, Reagan described Gaddafi as “the biggest terrorist in the world” and “the mad dog of the Middle East.” He ordered the enactment of Operation El Dorado Canyon, an attempted assassination of the Libyan leader. His home was flattened by a missile strike, but Gaddafi survived unscathed.

The Libyan public appeared unmoved by the prospect of their leader’s death. Gaddafi, disturbed by this, seemed to moderate his policy to appease the people in 1987 and 1988. He ended the war with Chad, and adopted some of Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms by allowing private businesses to return to Libya. Meanwhile, Libyan terrorism abroad had ceased briefly.

Then on 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, owing to a planted explosive in the cargo hold, killing 270 people and destroying twelve homes. At the time, Lockerbie was the deadliest act of terrorism ever committed against the US and led to the largest investigation in the history of the FBI. After a four-year investigation, it was determined that a Libyan agent had planted the device. The UN resolved to impose severe sanctions on Libya which were estimated to cost them as much as $900m, globally isolating them.

Now an international pariah, Gaddafi became increasingly erratic. This included outlandish dress and a personal ‘Amazonian’ security force of beautiful women he frequently abused. His government also became ever more Draconian: any opposition, real or suspected, were put to death. Unsurprisingly, the people reacted. He became one of the most hated men in the Middle East, and his rule was threatened by the increasing number of defections and insurgencies across Libya.

That his pariah position was untenable had become clear to Gaddafi. As such, he attempted to reintegrate Libya and himself into the international fold. Following 9/11, Gaddafi condemned the terrorists and even provided the CIA with valuable information of the movements of al-Qaeda. In 2003, he confirmed his commitment to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction, followed up by his pledge to give up all chemical and biological weapons a year later. Tony Blair even welcomed Gaddafi back to England and encouraged Western investment into Libya. Moreover, in 2008, Gaddafi opened the Libyan borders to all Africans, resulting in the immigration of 1.5 million Christian Africans into the country. By September 2009, Gaddafi’s dream of becoming an international statesman was coming true.

However, in February 2011, a wave of peaceful protests, part of the Arab Spring, engulfed Libya, calling for Gaddafi’s resignation and the release of political prisoners. In response to this, Gaddafi turned his weapons upon his own citizens. NATO voiced its support for the Libyan people. In October 2011, having fled from city to city whilst still proclaiming the Libyan people’s love for him, Gaddafi was caught by rebels and killed outside Sirte – his hometown.

Gaddafi’s death failed to bring democracy or stability to Libya. The legacy of his systematic opposition to political institutions was that no viable ones could be built up to replace the power vacuum left by the absence of dictatorship. Anarchy and conflict continue to reign. This is not to say the situation was better under Gaddafi, but the opposite: the ill effects of his ill government have far outlasted Gaddafi himself.

Solomon, H., and Swart, G., “Libya’s Foreign Policy in Flux.” African Affairs 104, no. 416 (2005): 469–92.

Szczepankiewicz-Rudzka, E., “Patterns of Libya’s Instability in the Aftermath of the Collapse of Gaddafi’s Regime.” Politeja, no. 42 (2016): 227–46.

Twist, H., “Gaddafi’s Legacy Is Anarchy.” The World Today 69, no. 5 (2013): 38–38.