September 1, 1969 marks the coming to power of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi – the man who was destined to rule Libya for more than four decades. Aided by Army officers and conspirators he upended a feeble but tolerant monarchy. He was not the only one that grabbed power in what we call today as an unconventional way in the Arab world where by then military coups had become rather common. Egypt had already shown the path some seventeen years ago when in 1952 her corrupt but tolerant monarchy was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup.
Originally all of these political changes had noble goals like republicanism and getting rid of the vestiges of colonialism, which even allowed people to rally behind these new rulers. However, by the 1980s Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen transformed themselves into repressive “national security states” with awesome means of control and terror. The new rulers were merciless. They re-ordered the political world, and killed abundantly to further solidify their grip on power. Truly without checks and balances, required in any civic society, with unbridled power they evolved into authoritarian regimes behaving as if they owned the country; they were no longer servants of the state but rather the masters. As the rulers aged they entertained dynastic ambitions and in Syria, Hafez al-Assad even succeeded in turning the republic into a monarchy in all but name by bequeathing it to one of his sons. To these new rulers, the very idea of willingness to relinquish power was an alien concept.
As noted in a recent article by Prof. Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins University, a world of cruelty settled upon the Arabs. Fear was now the glue of politics. Average men and women made their accommodation with things, retreating into the privacy of their homes. In the public space, there was now the cult of the rulers, the unrestrained power of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. The traditional restraints on power were swept away and new social contract between the ruler and the ruled emerged. These new rulers, being half-educated themselves and coming mostly from the lower middle class of the society, had no love for education and talented people, and thus surrounded themselves with equally ignorant and incompetent people who were happy to be the new class of sycophants which allowed them to munch the bones thrown at them by their new benefactors.
The goodwill of the ordinary citizens was not something that these regimes cared about. Their national wealth was utterly mismanaged and a huge fraction spent in buying weapons that were used mostly against them. Such arms deals also allowed huge commissions that were often stashed away by the ruling family and their cronies in foreign accounts.
None of these regimes tolerated political dissension. The only protests allowed were against a remote enemy (most notably Israel) but not their own. Soon the prisons got filled with the members of the dissenting parties. The worst victims of such state terrorism were the moderate Muslims – the social democrats, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or its sister organizations that had refused, unlike the secular parties, to cave into submission. Worse still, Islamic piety came to be seen as a crime and the pious Muslims the greatest threats to the stability of the regime. And the pattern was same everywhere. As much as the pro-western regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Abdullah II used the bogeyman of these so-called Islamists to curry favor and justify their tyranny against the Egyptian and Jordanian peoples, respectively, so did their counterparts in anti-western regimes of Libya, Iraq (during Saddam era) and Syria.
Overall, the modern Arab world is a history of shame and betrayal.
Today’s Arab rebellions are fueled by a desire of the Arab people to erase that stain of shame and betrayal. They want to cleanse themselves of the guilt of having given in to the despots for too long. And no one craved for this change more than its young ones. To them, the old slogans of Arab nationalism, secularism, socialism and republicanism meant nothing more than mumbo-jumbo bankrupt fallacies that had failed to better their lives by offering freedom and equal opportunities. Economics mattered. However, all the doors to economic prosperity seemed to proceed from the palaces and mansions of the rulers and their lackeys. There was nothing left for ordinary citizens. And this deprivation, albeit a forced one, in spite of the enormous natural resources that these countries were blessed with, notably the oil wealth, was simply inexcusable and unbearable. They had to rebel and demand fairness. They were done with the politics of acquiescence, fear and silence. They are not looking out for regime changes that are done at the behest of vultures waiting in the sideline. They want the change solely for themselves, unadulterated by foreign masters – no matter how supportive they may sound today.
And Libya is no aberration in this general scheme of state repression and the ensuing rebellion that has followed. For the last 42 years the Libyan people have been forced to chant words of praise to their leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. He was a pan-Arab hero, a powerful voice for African unity. Forgotten were his crimes against their own kind, let alone against others -- near and abroad.
Who would have imagined of such brutality in Qaddafi’s Libya! After all, the ‘brother leader’ – the perennial revolutionary (often touted as the Che Guevera of the age) had financed revolutionary causes all around the world – from the African National Congress to the IRA! He also supported oppressed groups like the Native American Indians. He once promoted pan-Arab unity, and in 1977 changed Libya’s form of government from a republic to a ‘jamahiriya’ – ‘government by the masses.’ Unfortunately, behind the veneer of all such high-sounding, and probably, well-meaning causes, he created a police state where some 10 to 20 percent of the population worked in surveillance for the revolutionary committees.
Qaddafi’s security apparatuses were brutal. They picked anyone suspected of opposing the regime - young and old, and put them to prisons, including underground dungeons (and there were too many of these living hells inside the Libyan soil), and were never to be heard back. Prisoners were almost routinely denied medical care, and many died while in prison. Once imprisoned, no matter for what duration and under what charges, they were blacklisted for life and thus, denied government jobs. They were continuously monitored and interrogated to check any affiliation with Islamic politics. Even those who managed to leave Libya were no safe. When deemed a threat to the regime, they were pursued by hit squads as ‘stray dogs’ to shoot down. As a matter of fact, by the 1970s, the regime had managed to eliminate all opposition systematically. Any activity construed as political opposition was punishable by death. Even the influence of the tribes, once an important factor in defeating Italian colonialism, was feared as they might coalesce into groups opposing the Qaddafi regime. Thus, during the first two decades of the coup the regime tried to erase their influence. However, as their power seemed unwavering, Qaddafi co-opted the tribal leaders into his Social Leadership People’s Committee to control the tribes.
Qaddafi’s Green Book – a set of slim volumes published in the 1970s containing his political philosophy -- was thrust upon as the most important book purporting to have answers to all problems. While Qaddafi sent his sons for studies abroad, he removed foreign languages from school curriculum, further isolating Libyans from the rest of the world. As one protester recently said, Qaddafi kept his people ignorant and blind-folded. Libya became the most censored country in the Middle East. While he lavishly spent on supporting revolutionary causes and minority rights – as long as these aligned with his anti-imperialist goals, his own people remained hungry. Always apprehensive of a military coup, he kept his armed forces ill-trained and ill-prepared, and instead, continued to rely heavily on the foreign mercenaries to further his objectives.
Qaddafi’s is a difficult personality to analyze. The son of a Bedouin, his moods and aims also changed like the shifting sand-dunes of the Sahara. He supported Slobdan Milosevic – the Butcher of the Balkans responsible for committing genocide against the Muslim population. His regime is responsible for the disappearance in 1978 of Imam Musa Sadr, the founder of the Amal, a liberal-Shi’ite resistance movement in Lebanon.
In the post-9/11 era, Qaddafi dropped his controversial nuclear program and became a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s influence in Africa. He became a good friend of the West. As rightly noted by David Blair of the Daily Telegraph, “In his four decades as Libya's 'Brother Leader', Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has gone from being the epitome of revolutionary chic to an eccentric statesman with entirely benign relations with the West."
Libya is now burning with fury. Qaddafi disingenuously blames the rebellion on ‘drugged’ youth, al-Qaeda and refuses to confess that Libyans had enough with his four decades of brutal experiment. He mismanaged the country’s economy and humiliated its citizens. His pro-government forces, including foreign mercenaries, are now using lethal weapons against those demanding his ouster. In so doing, his regime has lost all credibility to rule. Lately, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court following its crackdown on protesters. A continuation of his unpopular regime would only bring more suffering to his people and would not salvage his tarnished image. As enfeebled and ill-equipped his opponents may appear today, history is on their side.
And yet in his recent speeches, like Mubarak of Egypt before him, Qaddafi sounds defiant. He even tried to present himself as a modern-day Umar Mukhtar, the Libyan national hero – the Lion of the Desert -- who fought against Italian colonialism that had savagely killed half the population of Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern province. The claim of Qaddafi is ludicrous. He is neither Umar Mukhtar nor are his goals honorable and Islamic. And if he has any wisdom left in him, he should bow to people’s verdict and quit. Otherwise his fate may not be any better than that awaited his buddy – the late Milosevic of Serbia.