ON September 1, 2009, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi celebrated 40 years at the helm of the Libyan revolution. As a young, charismatic army captain in 1969, he overthrew the ailing old monarch King Idriss Sanussi, who had managed to survive the post-1952 revolutionary ferment in the Arab world, which spared neither sultan nor imam; the ferment had led to popular revolutions in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Algeria as well as left-wing regimes in Syria and Lebanon. The wily king had managed to survive thanks to a combination of support from the United States (since Libya then had the world’s largest American airbase, the Wheelus) and Italy, the old coloniser of Libya.
The military coup in Libya resembled many other coups throughout the Arab world as well as in Latin America, where it was nationalist, often left-wing, junior military officers who helped get rid of unpopular American clients. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the lodestar of the Arab nationalist movement and the President of Egypt, immediately anointed young Gaddafi as his successor. Nasser had borne the brunt of American, Israeli, British and French vengeance throughout the 1950s (the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli raid on the Suez Canal) and 1960s (the Six-day War of 1967) because of his anti-imperialist programme and support for the Palestinian right to self-determination.
Gaddafi immediately set about undoing in Libya precisely what had made the country a byword for a client state under the Sanussis. The Wheelus airbase was dismantled, Italian property as well as multinational oil companies were nationalised, and education, health and housing were decreed free for ordinary Libyans. He also became a champion of womens emancipation, even though this sometimes took bizarre forms such as Gaddafi’s elite coterie of 30 female bodyguards that accompanied him all over the world. Never since the great anti-colonial strategist Omar Mukhtar known to his Italian adversaries as the Lion of the Desert had the country seen such a charismatic unifying figure.
Gaddafi, in thrall to his hero Nasser, declared Libya a socialist state and set about achieving the elusive goal of Arab unity, which was to be the undoing of so many Arab leaders of his generation. (In the catastrophic Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the U.S.-backed Israeli army inflicted a decisive defeat on combined Arab armies.)
He made himself popular with the Arab masses by espousing the cause of Palestine as well as of national liberation movements around the world, from the Irish Republican Army to the Moros in the Philippines to the Black September revolutionaries who in 1970 nearly toppled the American-Israeli protectorate of Jordan, then ruled by the unpopular King Hussein, before reinforcements arrived, led by a bloodthirsty Pakistani officer, Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq (who just seven years later would go on to brutalise Pakistan for 11 years as its worst military dictator), to restore the status quo to revolutionary Iran to the Polisario Front fighting for an independent homeland in Morocco.
Breath of fresh air
In a region marked by the ascendance of sultans, emirs and colonels who had betrayed the hopes of their people for emancipation by signing up to a peace dictated by the U.S. and Israel, Gaddafi provided a breath of fresh air by taking a stand not only for the beleaguered Palestinians but for international solidarity with national liberation movements. This won him the comradeship of fellow survivors Fidel Castro of Cuba and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
Obviously, such derring-do in the post-Nasser era, when the Arab nationalist project was dead and buried, would not go unpunished. U.S. President Ronald Reagan punished Gaddafi’s intransigence by attempting to overthrow him via a bombing raid on Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in 1986. The attack only succeeded in killing Gaddafi’s infant daughter Hana.
Whatever the international dynamics of Gaddafi’s implication in the Lockerbie disaster of 1988, in which a Pan Am flight from London to New York exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, few Libyans believe that their leader is involved in it. They see it as just another attempt to target their Great Leader. The reception that Abdel Baset Megrahi, convicted for the bombing of the aircraft, received upon his return from Scotland to Libya in August is instructive.
However, following 9/11, like so many of his fellow politicians across the world, Gaddafi decided to trade battle fatigues for more promising get-rich-quick rewards, and accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, in order to shift his loyalties to the West and to be on the right side of history. As a result, he has been rewarded with swift rehabilitation from rogue leader to great statesman, meriting visits by Western dignitaries as well as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adviser Professor Anthony Giddens.
This about-face has helped Libya earn $36 billion a year from its oil. Most of these earnings have not reached the people; instead they are being used to transform Tripoli, set to become the next big oil capital of the Arab world, into a Dubai or a Miami.
Libya under Gaddafi is well on its way to becoming a family-owned dictatorship, with his playboy son Seif al-Islam as the heir-apparent. The son wants to privatise everything that his father had nationalised in a popular move in 1969.
Things would have been different had Gaddafi listened more keenly to his hero Nasser, who had declared shortly before his death in 1970: I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age. He would still have been a hero to Libyans as well as thousands of Arabs suffering from moth-eaten dictatorships across the region, and also to the new revolutionaries in Latin America such as Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Fernando Lugo whose democratic successes in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay respectively have helped reverse the neoliberal tide in that continent and made Fidel Castro’s isolated revolution in Cuba relevant again.
But not Gaddafi. He is now Washington’s favourite dictator in the Arab world after Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el Abidine ben Ali in Tunisia. He is certainly the last of the generation of Arab nationalists who believed in Arab nationalism as a genuinely progressive ideology and a realistic project that gave hope to millions about freedom from the oppression of pashas, emirs and colonels like himself.
The Great Leader of Libya, the author of the revolutionary text on statecraft The Green Book and of 15 other fictional creations, must surely know the words of another great leader, St Just, who had warned at the time of the French Revolution: Those who make half a revolution dig their own graves. Good luck to Gaddafi.Raza Naeem, a Pakistani national doing his Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, U.S., specialises in the history of the communist movements in the Arab world and in Pakistan. He has also been a communist activist in Pakistan for the past eight years.