In 2012, bizarre comedian Sacha Baron Cohen released a film called The Dictator in which he played the tyrant of a generic Middle Eastern country. The movie got mixed reviews, and Cohen attracted the usual controversy that always seems to follow his films by playing the title character in interviews promoting the film. For me, though, the more interesting point about Cohen’s “Admiral General Aladeen” character was this – what real-life dictator does he most resemble? With his eccentricities and his massive cult of personality, Aladeen is a mashup of several powerful modern tyrants, including Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, but the man I believe he most closely resembles is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the late ruler of Libya.
Colonel Gaddafi, like many of his fellow Arab dictators, was not born into the elite of society. Gaddafi was born and raised in a poor family near Sirte, a town on the western Libyan coast. Growing up in the post-World War II pro-Western Kingdom of Libya, the young Gaddafi looked to the east. In 1952, when Gaddafi was still a boy, the army officer Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk of Egypt and established the Arab Republic of Egypt on the basis of pan-Arabism, a political philosophy that advocated joining the Arab states together for the sake of their unity and common strength.
While this obviously didn’t happen, Nasser’s ideas did inspire similar political movements in the surrounding Arab states. By the 50s, secular authoritarian republics existed in Syria and Iraq, and other Arab monarchs were presumably beginning to sweat, especially considering Nasser’s popularity throughout much of the Arab world. Among them was King Idris of Libya, who was crowned only one year before Farouk’s ouster and exile. Libya’s wealth was growing greatly as a result of its oil wealth, but by the 60s discontent began to spread regarding the concentration of that wealth in the hands of the few (which, incidentally, included King Idris.)
On September 1, 1969, a group of army officers began a coup in the eastern city of Benghazi (a city now well known in the United States and throughout the world for unrelated reasons.) This cadre, led by young army officer Muammar Gaddafi, was aligned with Nasser’s Egypt and gained popularity in the wake of the Six-Day War, in which the United States had supported Israel against several surrounding Arab states. The Kingdom of Libya was pro-West, and in the minds of many Libyans this made it pro-Israel. This, combined with King Idris’ perceived looting of his country’s oil wealth, gave support to Gaddafi’s Free Officers Movement and led to the fall of Tripoli a few days after the Benghazi coup. King Idris was out of the country at the time on vacation/for medical reasons and didn’t get much of a say in his overthrow.
Gaddafi and his friends established the Libyan Arab Republic immediately thereafter and took control of the Revolutionary Command Council, the new national ruling body. The RCC went about nationalizing Libya’s oil assets (a major problem for American and British oil companies operating in the country) and also did the usual suppression of dissent and counter-revolutionary activity witch hunt stuff that’s standard for such governments. Communists, Islamists and monarchists in hiding alike went straight to jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dinars.
While Gaddafi was not yet the all-out absolute ruler, he was the de facto leader and highest member of the RCC, and by 1973 he had begun to talk about a lot of political philosophy, leading to the publication of the Mao-ishly titled Green Book. Around the mid-70’s, Gaddafi began to purge the army and take over the country completely Stalin-style, and by 1977 he proclaimed the end of the Libyan Arab Republic and the establishment of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.1 This sounds like the kind of name an author writing a parody of a totalitarian state run by a megalomaniac would invent, but it was indeed the formal name of the Libyan state throughout most of Col. Gaddafi’s reign.2
Libya’s new name wasn’t merely cosmetic. Under Gaddafi’s now-complete control, Libya went hard socialist, although it was not a traditionally Marxist state – unlike most Marxist governments, which were atheistic, Libyan policy under the RCC and Gaddafi incorporated sharia and other elements of political Islam. Private property and businesses were suppressed and people with over 1,000 dinars in their accounts had the excess confiscated.
The key to understanding Libyan political life from the 1970s to the 2000s, however, is the cult of personality surrounding Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s Green Book became a part of the curriculum for all Libyan schoolchildren, and adults had a duty to read it as well. Quotations from the book also began to show up on signs and billboards around Libya. Curiously, Gaddafi resigned from the RCC in 1978, but he took on the titles of “Brotherly Leader” and “Leader of the Revolution” and continued to exert control over the armed forces and act as the de facto dictator of Libya. His cult of personality had become firmly established by the 1980s, and Gaddafi apparently became confident enough (despite known plots against his life by high officials in the government and military and people who were pissed off that their money had been confiscated) to publicly announce that he would kill Libyan dissidents living abroad if they didn’t “return home.” One wonders how many expat Libyans returned home because of this threat.
In addition to the typical purges, extrajudicial murders and suppression of free speech and press, Gaddafi brought a lot of new stuff to the dictator table. He reportedly fancied himself a stylish man and wore flashy, some would say gaudy, costumes to diplomatic events. He seemed to enjoy flouting western governments in a showy way – in 2009, before a UN General Assembly meeting, Gaddafi pitched a large traditional tent in the middle of Manhattan, causing a controversy that somehow also involved not-yet President Donald Trump. Gaddafi’s loose cannon style also affected his country and the world in more serious ways, however. Gaddafi’s screwing around with the economy and Libya’s oil wealth caused serious stagnation. And in 1988 he allegedly (according to certain investigators and Libyan government officials) ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which ended up killing over 200 passengers and crew. Despite international suspicions, Gaddafi continued to protest his innocence, and by the 2000s he had patched up relations with the West after promising to scrap his nuclear research.
None of this prevented the Colonel from continuing to be a dictator equal parts eccentric, oppressive, and perverted. Gaddafi famously created a special guard entirely composed of uniformed attractive young women. More disturbingly, there have been claims that he had a harem of unwilling girls (and some boys, according to other reports) in his massive Tripoli compound.
To be fair to Gaddafi, he’s no long around to defend himself against these charges. By 2011, many Arabs had apparently become sick of their dictatorial governments, largely as a result of economic stagnation, poverty, and a perception that their leaders were either not competent to solve their economic problems, too corrupt to care about their people, or both. A popular uprising in Tunisia in December 2010 against the dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali soon inspired similar revolts in Egypt and Syria, and the “Arab Spring” soon visited Libya. In February 2011, fighting in Libya between government forces and anti-Gaddafi protesters began in earnest, with the rebels gaining Benghazi and key territories on the coast and inland. A similar uprising in Tripoli was crushed by the government, but Gaddafi’s forces only managed to hang onto the capital for six months. By August 28 Gaddafi and his entourage (including several sons in key governmental and military positions and other family members) had fled Tripoli in the face of a rebel takeover. Gaddafi and one of his sons, Mutassif, proceeded to Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, where they made their last stand two months later.
The circumstances of Colonel Gaddafi’s death are not totally clear. The Leader of the Revolution, his son, and a group of loyalists took refuge in some drainage pipes after their convoy failed to escape from Sirte on October 20 following a protracted battle with rebel militia. The rebels who found the Gaddafis there captured them and brought them to their own convoy, where both died shortly after. Shaky, confusing cell phone videos exist of the incident, but the accounts in the chaos of the ongoing battle contradict each other. Most reports seem to agree, however, that Gaddafi died after being beaten in some manner by rebel fighters. Muammar and Mutassif were buried a few days later somewhere in the southern desert, according to the rebel National Transitional Council.
So how’s Libya been doing without Gaddafi at the helm? Well, liberal representative democracy of the kind that has worked so well in Iraq hasn’t quite taken hold yet. Also, there’s been a new civil war going since 2014, with the country divided between the new government forces, an alternative shadow Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, some local militia, native Tuareg forces in the far west, and ISIS. So things aren’t so great for Libya right now. Things are even worse for the arrested former high officials of the Jamahiriya. On July 28, 2015, several of these officials (including Gaddafi’s second son and former presumptive heir Saif al-Islam) were sentenced to death for their role in killing civilians during the 2011 uprisings leading to the overthrow of the government.
Whether Libya will get back on its feet anytime soon is a mystery. One can at least hope, after 40+ years of a mad dictator and several years of war and chaos, that some semblance of sanity will return to the region.
1 Later on, the Brotherly Leader decided this name wasn’t good enough and changed it to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Doubtless this reform was just what Libya needed to solve its economic problems.
2 It should be noted that Colonel Gaddafi invented the word jamahiriya. The word republic is usually translated into Arabic as jumhuriya (جمهورية) and occurs in many of the official names of Arab states (e.g. the Lebanese Republic, or al-jumhuriya al-lubnaniya.) Gaddafi apparently took the jumhur, which means public, and made it into the plural jamahir, meaning something like “peoples” or “masses.” So a jamahiriya (جماهيرية) is a “state of the masses.” Which really seems to render the “Socialist People’s” part of his country’s formal name redundant, but then again, that didn’t stop the governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos from creating similar titles for themselves.