Libya’s falling tyrant

Gaddafi reaps what he has sown during his four-decade rule: terror, nepotism, tribal politics and abuse of power.

Libya - Gaddafi
Gaddafi, now facing a bloody uprising, has ruled oil-rich Libya with an iron fist since a coup in 1969 [Reuters]

Libya cannot escape the infection of democratic revolutionary wind blowing through the Middle East and North Africa. If longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi falls, it will be a sweet victory for the heirs of Omar al-Mokhtar, the legendary anti-fascist and anti-colonial hero. But a lot of blood will spill before the Libyan colonel abandons ship.

After Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Gaddafi is the worst of the Arabs’ surviving illegitimate rulers. He is now reaping what he has sown: terror, nepotism, tribal politics, and abuse of power.

In Gaddafi’s Libya, the so-called People’s Congress, universities and other regime-affiliated organisations have had to toe the official line: worship of the “brother leader”, read his Green Book, and the brand of Pan-Africanism that no Libyan except Gaddafi and his henchmen believed in.

While visiting the country with a group of students from Exeter University, the hollow slogans of Gaddafi’s “Great Revolution” covered all public space. “Partners not salaried” one says. Another declares “People’s rule” (sultat al-sha’ab). Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gaddafi has ruled the country with the delusion of grandeur of a man who rose to power in a 1969 coup with fairly acceptable political ideals that got corrupted and abandoned. Gaddafi’s much vaunted socialism turned into distribution in favour of the Colonel’s clansmen.

Inner circle

An inner circle of Gaddafi’s confidants and close relatives decided and executed the hangings of the 1970s, relying on the fearsome and murderous “revolutionary committees”.

No recourse to the people was taken when decisions were made and carried out about war such as in Chad and elsewhere in Africa. The people could not openly complain about the money lavishly disbursed in the pursuit of Gaddafi’s foreign adventurism, including the sponsoring of terrorist organisations.

Gaddafi’s regime has been linked to the 1972 Black September killings of Israeli athletes in Germany ,  the 1978 disappearance in Libya of Shia Imam Musa Al-Sadr, the 1984 murder of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher, the 1986 bombing of Berlin’s La Belle Discotheque, the 1987 arms vessel destined to the Irish Republican Army, and to the hijacking of Pan Am flight 73 in 1986 and the 1988 Pan Am flight 103 bombing. This does not exhaust the list.

The US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 or the large amounts of monies paid by Gaddafi to compensate all kinds of claims against Libya have been some of the prices paid by Libyans for their leader’s miscalculation.

The sanctions and pariah status have only been eased only in the past 10 years. Carrying the green Libyan passport has made Libyan citizens persona non grata in many parts of the world.

Gaddafi’s narcissism was such that very few of his comrades in arms from the original Free Officers cohort that executed the 1969 coup against King Idris have survived his brutality.

A few died in mysterious circumstances (Omar Limheshi; Imhammad al-Muqrif). Others withdrew from public life voluntarily (Abd al-Salam Jelloud).

Act of public disavowal

Like Egypt, the uprising in Libya qualifies as an act of public disavowal of an existing regime. These are countries which had military revolutions and today are experiencing civil revolutions.

Like Tunisia, but in a worse fashion, Libya has invested very little in social capital or civic capacity building. All organisations are committed to, and affiliated with, Gaddafi’s Great Revolution. Literally, these are cells that spy on the people or militias bribed to defend the regime. When protesters wave flags, chant pro-Gaddafi or anti-Western slogans, they do so on regime orders.

Regardless, Libyans have not been passive. For instance, the Libyan League for Human Rights, the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO), and the banned Islamists all have used the internet to express their anger. In some cases, Libyan dissidents used the Internet as a political tool before activists in other part of the Middle East. The NCLO met in London in 2006 and it may plan a role in reforming post-Gaddafi Libya.

Attempts at removing Gaddafi began in the mid-1980s. The most famous was the May 1984  Bab Al-Aziziya Barracks coup when the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, made up of military and civilian dissidents, played a leading role.

The most serious challenge against Gaddafi’s authority came from the most populous and powerful Libyan tribe, the Warfallah, in October 1993. The rebellion led to kangaroo trials in 1995. Many tribesmen were executed in 1997.

The eastern region, Benghazi, has always been a source of dissidence against the regime. Dozens died in protests in 2006.The map of the current mutiny is both tribal and regional. Two tribes have withdrawn allegiance to Gaddafi’s regime, thus settling old scores. Gaddafi is now paying the price for humiliating the Wirfallah tribe, which he has excluded from his favours since the mid-1990s. Similarly, the Tabu tribe in the country’s southeast has suffered appalling discrimination.

The misery belts of Libya are now leading the rebellion. Cities like Al-Baida, Derna, Ijdadia are all marginalised and are not beholden to Gaddafi, as they have not gained from his rule. Tripoli’s poorest suburbs, Zintan and Zawiya, which have come under heavy fire, are leading the rebellion in the capital.

Why is the revolution that ousted Tunisia’s Ben Ali proving to be infectious? The reasons can be summed up by the following factors: the presence of a Ben Ali-type hegemon; dynastic and nepotistic rot; monarchical republicanism; rampant corruption; the marginalisation of young people; human rights violations; information control and a police state.

All of these conditions apply to Libya. The only good in Gaddafi’s Libya is the absence of elections, which spared the Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees the additional misdemeanour of rigging them.

In addition to these factors, the eastern region, namely Benghazi, has been deprived of the dividends of petroleum. In a country with one of the longest stretches of coastline and high oil production, income and opportunity should be available to citizens. But this is has not been the case. Now, Gaddafi is reaping what he has sown.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.