The Rise and Fall of Libya’s Strongman


By Paul Ndiho

September 5, 2011

In February, peaceful protests against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi were met with violence by the regime. Six months later, Gaddaffi, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders is a fugitive– looking increasingly like other ousted autocratic leaders of the Arab Spring. Here is a look back at Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

Muammar Gaddafi was born in 1942 in the coastal area of Sirte to nomadic parents. He went to school at Sebha, then to Benghazi University to study geography, but he dropped out to join the army.

Gaddafi debuted on the world stage in September 1969 when he led junior army officers in toppling King Idris in a bloodless military coup. The aging king had ruled the former Italian colony since gaining its independence 1951.

Gaddafi oversaw the rapid development of his poverty-stricken country, formulating his “Third Universal Theory,” a middle road between communism and capitalism.

One of his first tasks was to build up the armed forces, but he also spent billions of dollars of oil income on improving living standards, making him popular with the poor.



Inspired by Arab nationalist sentiments, Gaddafi abandoned ties with Western powers and pursued the aim of uniting Arab countries. He instigated the Arab Federation with Syria and Egypt in April 1971, which soon crumbled in argument and recrimination.

Gaddafi’s relations with the West, in particular the United States, became increasingly strained during the early 1980’s. He denied involvement in bankrolling hijackings, assassinations and revolutions while insisting on his right to support national liberation movements.

Accusations that Gaddafi sent agents to blow up a Berlin club frequented by United States marines in 1986 led to U.S. airstrikes on Tripoli and Benghazi just days later. Gaddafi’s home in the Aziziya barracks was attacked and his adopted daughter killed.

Gaddafi designed a political system of local congresses, where people were allowed to air their views and appoint representatives to the General People’s Congress. In theory, the People’s Congresses hold legislative and executive power but critics dismiss them as dedicated to maintaining power and wealth in the hands of Gaddafi and his family.

Gaddafi has poured money into giant projects such as the Great Man-Made River, a vast network of underground pipes that pump water from desert wells to coastal communities. The project, which Gaddafi has described as the eighth wonder of the world, is estimated to have cost 20 billion dollars.

United Nations Security Council sanctions, imposed in 1992 and strengthened in 1993, crippled Libya’s economy, but did not appear to dampen Gaddafi’s revolutionary spirit and his anti-capitalist, anti-Western rhetoric.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela played a key role in persuading Gaddafi to surrender two Libyan nationals suspected of involvement in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.

Libya subsequently agreed to accept civil responsibility for both the Lockerbie bombing and the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Niger in 1989– and to pay compensation to relatives of the victims.

Gaddafi caught the world by surprise in December 2003 when Tripoli announced it would abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs and agreed to short-notice checks of its nuclear sites by U.N. nuclear inspectors.

The announcement drew swift praise from London and Washington and virtually ending Libya’s international isolation. British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaddafi in Tripoli in March 2004 and over the next two years the United States ended a broad trade embargo, removed Libya from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and resumed full diplomatic relations.

In 2006, Gaddafi made international headlines, the United States re-establish full diplomatic ties with Libya because Gaddafi had abandoned his nuclear weapons programs and helped in the campaign against terrorism.

In April 2009, Gaddafi’s fourth eldest son Mutassim made an official visit to the U.S. State Department as Libya’s National Security Adviser and was met by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In 2009, Gaddafi was elected by African heads of state as the new Chairman of the African Union, replacing Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete.

In June 2009, Gaddafi made his first trip to Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler. Wearing a picture of hanged resistance hero Omar Al-Mukhtar pinned to his military uniform, Gaddafi was welcomed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and given a red carpet reception. He returned to Italy the following month to attend a G8 Summit in his role as African Union chairman- there he also met U.S. President Barack Obama.

The return to Libya of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who was released from jail in Scotland for health reasons in August 2009, was welcomed with celebrations. Gaddafi’s second eldest son, Saif al-Islam, accompanied al-Megrahi back to Libya and state television showed coverage of the Libyan leader greeting the former intelligence agent later that evening.

In September 2009, Gaddafi marked the 40th anniversary of his leadership with six days of festivities designed to show that the long-isolated oil exporter was again open for international business after years of heavy sanctions. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was guest of honor at a military parade held to kick off the celebrations.

Later that month, in his first visit to the U.S. since taking power, Gaddafi addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In his speech, Gaddafi accused major powers on the U.N.’s Security Council of betraying the principles of the U.N. charter and condemned the veto power held by the five permanent members of the Council.

The advent of the “Arab Spring” which saw autocratic rulers toppled in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 encouraged a popular revolt against Gaddafi’s four decades in power.

Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on dissent sparked a civil war, prompting the Arab League to call for a United Nations no-fly zone over Libya. On March 17th the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians against Gaddafi’s forces. Two days later a five-country coalition made up of the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Italy, launched air strikes on Libya in a joint operation called “Odyssey Dawn”.

On June 27, the International Criminal Court issued warrants for Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam, and the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah al-Senussi, for atrocities committed during a violent uprising that began mid-February.

In spite of the rebellion, NATO air strikes and the defection of some of his closest aides, Muammar Gaddafi has remained defiant and appears to be hunkering down for a long siege. He has not been seen in public since a barrage of airstrikes hit his compound in Tripoli on May 1st, killing his youngest son, Saif al-Arab, and three grandchildren.

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