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The myth of Gaddafi the radical

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
He claimed to be a champion of the oppressed but, says Phil Marfleet, the Libyan leader was a tyrant whose policies increasingly mirrored those of the states he said he opposed
Issue 2267

Muammar Gaddafi was always strong on radical rhetoric. He said he supported “the people” and “revolution”. He claimed to oppose imperialism and unconditionally backed the Palestinians. In the 1970s and 1980s these repeated messages seduced many on the left internationally and Gaddafi was able to cultivate the image of an intransigent Arab nationalist who supported struggles for change worldwide.

He was in fact a ruthless dictator who crushed every form of dissent in Libya and proved an unreliable ally for most of the international causes he claimed to support.

Gaddafi came to power in a coup in 1969 that removed the strongly pro-Western King Idris. He and his fellow army officers proclaimed their adherence to the principles of Arab nationalism and especially the model pursued by President Gamal Abdul Nasser in neighbouring Egypt. This aimed at independence from the imperialist power blocs—“neither East nor West”—combined with economic development in the interests of the people. It called for Arab unity and support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

Nasser had come to power a generation earlier during a period of mass struggles against British occupation. Under pressure from a highly mobilised population, he introduced land reform, nationalised industry and removed the British military presence. In 1956 Egypt won a historic victory in the Suez war with Britain, France and Israel.

Change in Libya was far more limited. There had been no upheaval against the colonial power like that which preceded Nasser’s accession to power in Egypt. And Gaddafi was not under pressure from an angry and expectant mass movement.

By the time of the Libyan coup, the radical phase of Arab nationalism was largely over. Nasser’s regime was in crisis, with Egyptian students and workers calling for renewed change. Gaddafi drew on the earlier radical reputation of Nasser but he and his fellow officers secured power without mass struggles.

From the beginning Gaddafi was authoritarian, elitist and contemptuous of the people.

To the outside world he posed as a great democrat. Indeed the Green Book, which he produced in 1976 to promote his political “third way”, argues “the problem of democracy in the world is finally solved”.

While past attempts at direct democracy had been “utopian” he had developed a system of “popular congresses” and “people’s committees” for Libya, which would allow true direct participation.

The model was imposed and Gaddafi duly emerged as general secretary.


It soon became clear that the popular congresses were a means for Gaddafi and his coterie of military men and relatives to maintain control over the population at large and over Libya’s increasing oil wealth.

The huge increases in oil prices that followed the Arab-Israel war of 1973 allowed Gaddafi to secure the means to introduce welfare reforms, so that most Libyans had improved access to health services and education.

But none of these policies emerged from democratic discussion—all were imposed.

And oil revenue also went to expanding the armed forces, as Gaddafi built a military machine directed to ensure his own control.

In the late 1970s he introduced further means of repression—“revolutionary committees”. Composed of loyalists, the committees operated at first in schools and universities and later in the state bureaucracy, echoing developments in China during the Cultural Revolution.

By the early 1980s Gaddafi commanded an army of some 60,000 in a country of just 4 million people. Young people who resisted conscription were press-ganged into service, according to Amnesty International. Gaddafi also created a large apparatus of police and informers. Some 50,000 people left Libya as refugees.

Much of Gaddafi’s radical reputation rested on his support for struggles abroad. He backed the African National Congress in South Africa, the Sahrawis of Western Sahara, and the Irish Republican movement. His most high-profile commitment was to the Palestinians. He supported various radical factions of the Palestinian movement with money and arms, and at one time trained Palestinian pilots in Libya with the aim of creating the core of a Palestinian air force.

Palestine exposed the hollowness of Gaddafi’s rhetoric, however. He backed Palestinian struggles from afar, never engaging directly, even when Israel savaged the movement. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Palestinian fighters were forced to evacuate Beirut by sea. Gaddafi’s contribution was to tell PLO leader Yasser Arafat that he should commit suicide rather than leave.

While he attacked imperialism, Gaddafi had his own expansionist ambitions. He attempted to seize more territory for Libya in the neighbouring states of Niger and Chad, invading Chad several times in order to secure the Aouzou Strip—an area of rich mineral resources. The conflict lasted almost ten years.

Gaddafi’s policies increasingly mirrored those of states he claimed to oppose. He privatised many key Libyan industries and struck business deals in Europe and the US.

The Libyan government became a major investor in Italy—its former colonial power. Now it bought a large stake in Unicredit—Italy’s largest bank—and built a pipeline across the Mediterranean which supplies a third of Italy’s oil.

Gaddafi embraced Tony Blair, who in 2004 offered him the “hand of friendship”. In 2007 Britain’s largest company—the oil giant BP—announced a huge deal with Libya on offshore gas exploration and the two governments agreed on military co-operation.

How low could Gaddafi go? He soon became Europe’s policeman in North Africa, restricting movements of migrants across the Mediterranean, including the journeys of many desperate refugees from conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa.

Last year he demanded payments of £4 billion a year to maintain these controls, warning that Europe would turn “black” if migration was not contained. He told European governments: “We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans. We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.”

Nice words from the man whose Green Book had once claimed to set out solutions for racism, slavery and exploitation.

Libya facts

  • Libya is in North Africa, bordering the Mediterranean sea, between Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. In the south it borders with Chad, Niger, and Sudan.
  • Libya has a population of just 6.5 million.

    lLibya’s gross domestic product is $85.04 billion—$34.24 billion of this comes from exporting crude oil, natural gas and chemicals.

  • Libya has to import 75 percent of its food, as only 1 percent of its land is suitable for farming.
  • The tribal system remains a crucial part of Libyan society. Arab and Berber groups make up 97 percent of the population and identify as Sunni Muslims.
  • There were 1.64 million people in the labour force, including the unemployed, in 2005. Some 33 percent of the population is under 15. The majority of workers are employed in government, with 17 percent working in the oil industry.

Phil Marfleet is the editor, with Rabab El Mahdi, of Egypt: The Moment of Change. Published by Zed Books, £16.99.
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