For four decades Gaddafi acted as guarantor of Lybia’s stability and a careful moderator between tribal leaders, reconciling warring parties and delicately handling the hangovers of the past that still woke old demons from time to time.
Gaddafi, as vigilant keeper of a unified Africa, kept a weather eye open, heaping privileges on some and prestige on others in order to consolidate alliances and plaster over any cracks that threatened to appear. Nevertheless, In October 2011 col. Muammar Gaddafi is dragged from a drain pipe and beaten and killed by Libyan revolutionaries. The body of Libya’s self-proclaimed “brother leader” laid bare, marking the end of his forty-two-year long rule. At the same time, this also marked a new dawn for the nation. Consequently, Libya was to suffer the revenge of its own history. Almost a thousand years of rule left shared Islamic traditions across the three regions: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the East and Fezzan in the South. However, they remain distinctly separated by geography, history and identity.
Invaded, seized, and occupied for a millennium, Libya was for much of its history not a single unified land. The Libyan people did not exist as a homogenous nation under one flag and sharing one common ideal. It was a collection of fiercely autonomous, proud and unruly tribes, suspicious of centralised rule. The nation had seen a substitute Ottoman Turk regency, then a mandated principality, followed by a short-lived monarchy – the last king of Libya, Idris I an Algerian, who was seen as a potential threat by the different tribe leaders. After all, Libya was a country that didn’t really exist in terms of sovereignty. Ultimately, the Libyan independence was created as a compromise between the western and the urban leaders of Tripolitania, who agreed to accept Emir Idris as the king of Libya in exchange for keeping the country unified.
Thus, in 1951 Libya became the first country to be granted independence by the United Nations, creating the kingdom of Libya. The newly founded state was trying to find its shape, but the country is vast and could not easily be ruled from one city like Tripoli. In addition, The US and the United Kingdom was running the state affairs behind the scenes. Moreover, when oil was discovered under the Libyan sands in 1959, British and American companies were the first to be granted concessions. As a result, Libya was now experiencing the transformative power of oil: shifting from the position as one of the poorest countries in the world, to one of the richest countries in Africa. The oil money was shifting Libya’s established order, at the same time that the Arab world was going through revolutionary times, embodied by Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Abdel Nasser ushered in a huge wave of pan-Arabism and “Nasserism,” inspiring young Arabs to join the military in order to plan and plot military coups, and to reject what he characterized as reactionary, pro-western regimes. The wish to dispose of King Idris led to a simmering agitation amongst the Libyan population. An agitation that would turn into a fully bloomed revolution. One of Nasser’s admirers, a young army officer named Gaddafi, would introduce himself as a simple man. Declaring that he was one of the people.
Gaddafi played a defining role in the rebuilding of the modern Libyan nation. By overthrowing the monarchy and declaring the Jamahiriya (a republic of the masses in which political power was to be passed to the people), the revolutionary leader achieved what no sovereign before him had accomplished. Born to the tribes and the outcasts, a wretched child destined for menial tasks and a lifetime of poverty, Gaddafi – thanks, in large part, to his humble roots – immediately won the respect of the disadvantaged on the fringes of society and rallied the wronged and the rejected to his cause. But his greatest feat, after the coup d’état, was absolutely remarkable: he succeeded in bringing together the intensely opposed ethnic groups of the north and south, who had always despised one another. Gaddafi was successful in sewing the fabric of society back together.
Riding on an anti-western, anti-imperialist wave he terminated the agreements for the US and the British military bases, calling for a more egalitarian and modern society. These were the pillars of the new regime, a vision that would come to solidified Gaddafi as the “brother leader”. For the remainder of the decade Gaddafi would with the new money and new-found power lay out his vision for a new Libya. A nation built on socialism, Arab nationalism, in support of the Palestinian cause, against Israel and on an anti-colonial mission to drive western interest out of Libya. However, the same ambitions that secured his raise to power would later hinder his ability to distinguish friends from foes. The consequence was uprise and civil war, returning Libya to a leaderless state drawn back to a familiar point of reference, the tribal system of its ancestors, and with it the full force of its legacy: a return to fiction.
For the Western leaders Muammar Gaddafi was nothing more than a dictator and a working power of structure. Gaddafi was known for founding militant groups from Venezuela in the south, to the IRA in Northern Ireland. Yet, he is the same leader that countries like the US, France and the UK together with NATO turned to when taking on the different terrorist groups in the region. It’s the same powers that a few years later came to fight with “the mad dog of the Middle East,”his time calling Gaddafi a murderous thug.
Gaddafi’s rule saw him go from revolutionary hero to international pariah, to valued strategic partner and back to a vilified maverick.