Legacy of a dictator: Gaddafi's long shadow over Libya

Legacy of a dictator: Gaddafi's long shadow over Libya
Feature: Four years after his death, the legacy of Libya's former dictator continues to haunt his country, wracked by civil war and torn apart by violence.
6 min read
20 October, 2015
Gaddafi was known for his lengthy speeches and Bedouin-style robes [Getty]
Four years on, the death of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi continues to haunt the country he ruled for more than four decades.

His killing at the hands of local militiamen on 20 October 2011 ended a 42-year long failed experiment in what effectively amounted to one-man rule, and plunged the country into chaos.

Libya has not had an effective central government whose writ extends throughout the entire country since Gaddafi's death.

Given the parlous state of UN-brokered peace talks at the moment, there is no apparent prospect of that in the near future either.

In 1969, as a 27-year-old junior officer in the Libyan army, Gaddafi led a military coup that toppled Libya's 80-year-old Western-backed king. He dominated the country until Libyans finally rose against him en masse in February 2011.

Known for his epoch-long speeches and bedouin-style robes, he was deposed with the assistance of a seven-month NATO campaign of airstrikes.

It was an ignominious end for a man who styled himself the 'King of the Kings of Africa'
A video shot shortly before his death shows the 69-year-old ruler bloodied and dazed as he was pulled along by a crowd of cheering fighters from an anti-government militia in the western Libyan town of Sirte.

His convoy had been destroyed by a NATO airstrike shortly before, his attempted escape thwarted.

It was an ignominious end for a man who styled himself the "King of the Kings of Africa". His last reported words to his captors as they pulled him from the drain pipe in which he had crawled into hide were: "What did I do to you?"

Two days after his death, Libyans queued up to see his body before it was buried.

"There's something in our hearts we want to get out," Abdullah al-Suweisi told Reuters as he waited to see the former dictator's body. "It is the injustice of 40 years. There is hatred inside. We want to see him."

The Libyan 'Jamahiriya'

Far from promoting the new form of direct democracy Gaddafi laid out in his 1975 Green Book, the Libyan jamahiriya - a term he himself coined, not a republic but "a state of the masses" - was at best a fig leaf for his autocratic rule.

"Gaddafi chose to build the idea of a state around his personality," said Michael Nayebi-Oskoui, senior Middle East analyst at the US-based global intelligence firm Stratfor.

The dictator "used a military funded by oil to crush any opposition to himself, rather than build state institutions that could survive beyond him", he said.
   What's been going on in Libya?

The General National Congress was the Islamist-led elected body ruling Libya for two years following Gaddafi's ousting and death. After its 18-month deadline to form a new constitution passed in January 2014, the body resolved to extend its mandate.

General Khalifa Haftar, a senior figure in the forces that toppled Gaddafi, called on the GNC to disband. In May, Haftar led troops against Islamist militias in Benghazi and the GNC in Tripoli in an offensive named Operation Dignity.

Amid the chaos, an election was held to form the House of Representatives, which took power from the GNC in August. With rival militias ruling Libya's streets, the election turnout was just 18 percent. Islamist militias then launched Operation Libya Dawn to fight Haftar's troops.

With the lack of security in the capital, the House of Representatives hired a Greek car ferry harboured in the eastern city of Tobruk as a temporary legislature.

In late August, a group of GNC members reconvened in Tripoli and claimed legislative authority over the country, effectively replacing the House of Representatives as Libya's parliament. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives remains the internationally recognised government, though its actual authority on the ground in Libya is limited.

Libya's Supreme Court, based in Islamist-held Tripoli, ruled in November that the formation of the House of Representatives was unconstitutional, legally dissolving the Tobruk-based legislature and nullifying its decisions.

The Tobruk-based parliament refused to accept the court's ruling, saying it was made "at gunpoint".

Libya remains torn between the rival parliaments and the heavily armed militias that support each. Allegiances between the militias change frequently, which only adds to the instability, violence and danger faced by ordinary Libyan citizens.

Gaddafi chose not to style himself as president, but rather as Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution.

Though his General People's Committees permitted Libyans to participate directly in the business of government, they also functioned as a surveillance system for Gaddafi's powerful security services.

The committees also effectively prevented Libyans from freely forming associations and political parties to peacefully articulate common interests and work toward shared goals.

The major political groupings that have emerged since his death are largely tribal, the only significant social formations that survived his rule.

This political fragmentation worked in Gaddafi's favour while he was in power, and along with the brutal security services he built, ensured he faced limited opposition from within the Libya state.

"There was no institutionalised state in Libya, leading to the chaos after his removal," said Nayebi-Oskoui.

"He pitched tribes and regions and different ethnic groups against one another for decades, which is why Libyans and the international community have struggled to create a national identity in his absence."

The fractured forms of political engagement permitted in Gaddafi's Libya were a significant factor in the fragmentation and chaos that has prevailed in Libya since his death.

The security services were the ultimate bulwark of his state, and ultimately safeguarded Gaddafi's regime from numerous violent challenges to his rule, from coup attempts to armed insurgencies.

Even before the country's descent into full-scale civil war last year, split between rival militias backing rival parliaments, the writ of the central government was challenged across the country, and even in the capital.

Rival militias, which worked together to overthrow Gaddafi, fought over the country's oil wealth and carved out their own territories, within which they were effectively sovereign.

An international pariah

Gaddafi was a revolutionary from the very beginning of his rule, and spent most of his 42 years in power as an international pariah.

He started out as a young acolyte of Egypt's Arab nationalist hero Gamal Abdel Nasser.

After Nasser's death in 1970, he started supporting revolutionary and anti-colonial movements across the world, from the Provisional Irish Republican Army to rebel movements in neighbouring Chad and other African countries.

Libya was also implicated in several other attacks in Western countries, most famously in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland, which killed 270 people.

The investigation into the Lockerbie bombing resulted in arrest warrants being issued against Libyan intelligence agents in 1991, and UN sanctions in 1992.
Gaddafi has left behind a fractured nation
- Michael Nayebi-Oskoui

Sanctions played a significant role in Gaddafi's decision to agree to the extradition of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi to stand trial in Scotland for the bombing of Flight 103, pay compensation to the victims and his eventual 2003 admission of responsibility - though not guilt.

Coming in from the cold

His embrace of the international community was at best lukewarm. He maintained his anti-Western rhetoric even as he met with Western leaders and courted foreign investment.

There was no relaxation of his personal control, or reform of his jamahiriya system, until the bitter end. As Tunisians rose against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule in neighbouring Tunisia, Gaddafi helpfully suggested Ben Ali should implement a jamahiriya system there.

When Libyans finally rose in frustration against corruption, abuse of power and high unemployment in February 2011, the regime responded with such extreme brutality that external powers were spurred into action to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

The humanitarian mission gradually expanded, as the rebels rallied, to target Gaddafi's removal from power.

Gaddafi left behind a "fractured nation," Nayebi-Oskoui said.

A Tripoli government official agreed: "He is still remembered, despite his death and he will stay present among us until we can overcome the 40 years of chaos he has sown."