By Amr Salahi
Fifty years after his coup against King Idris I of Libya, Gaddafi’s legacy, his erratic theories, and his destruction of the Libyan state institutions still haunt Libya.
On the morning of September 1, 1969, Libyans were woken up by an unexpected announcement on the radio. Army officers, led by a little-known 27-year-old lieutenant, Muammar al-Gaddafi, had overthrown Libya’s king, Idris, who was on a visit to Turkey for medical treatment.
“Your armed forces have toppled the reactionary, backward and corrupt regime. With one strike your heroic army has toppled idols and destroyed them in one of Providence’s fateful moments. As of now Libya shall be free and sovereign, a republic under the name of the Libyan Arab Republic. No oppressed or deceived or wronged, no master and no slave; but free brothers in a society over which, God willing, shall flutter the banner of brotherhood and equality,” Gaddafi told the Libyan people.
This proclamation by Gaddafi marked the beginning of one of the strangest and most eccentric dictatorships the world had ever seen.
Initially, Gaddafi modelled himself and his new regime on Gamal Abdul Nasser’s in neighbouring Egypt, advocating pan-Arab socialist ideals.
However, in the early 1970s Gaddafi formulated his own “Third Universal Theory” which claimed to solve all the problems of democracy and all economic problems as well.
It was based on the principle “no representation in lieu of the people” and rejected not only capitalism and communism but parliaments and political parties in favour of people’s congresses and committees, arguing that Western-style democracy was nothing but “elective dictatorship”.
Gaddafi’s theories were presented in The Green Book, which also included bizarre ideas about women, marriage, race, as well as spectator sports.
In 1977, Gaddafi formally handed over power to the Basic People’s Congresses, where all Libyans supposedly participated in national decision-making. He gave up his position as head of state, instead adopting the title of “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya”.
Libya was no longer a “republic” (jumhuriya) but a Jamahiriya – a state of the masses.
In reality, Gaddafi still held absolute power in Libya and the function of the “People’s Congresses” was simply to rubber-stamp his decisions.
Any independent civil society organisations – trade unions, professional associations, political parties were banned. Setting up or trying to join a political party was a crime punishable by death.
The true nature of Gaddafi’s regime was shown in events like the assassination of political opponents – who Gaddafi called “stray dogs” – abroad, the 1984 hanging of Sadiq Hamed Shuwehdi, a student who was tortured into admitting plotting against Gaddafi, live on television, and the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, where 1,200 detainees were massacred after a riot.
Gaddafi’s eccentricities included speeches which went on for hours, including one where he said all Libyans who didn’t take part in People’s Congresses should be treated like slaves, and his constant need to amass titles.
In an argument with the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2009, two years before his overthrow, he described himself as “the Dean of Arab Leaders, the Imam of the Muslims, and the King of Kings of Africa”.
Ashour Shamis, a long-time opponent of Gaddafi, told The New Arab, “In the seventies Gaddafi abolished state institutions. He took over almost every means of power in the country, politics, economics, security, education. It affected all aspects of the people’s rights and freedoms. The only voice left was that of the ‘revolution’ and ‘the leader’ and his followers.”
“This affected not only the right to speak and freedom of expression, but the way citizens interacted and lived. The individual became either a lackey of the regime, or resisted and became sidelined, imprisoned, exiled or worse.“
After Gaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011, many previously hidden aspects of his rule became public, such as the staggering personal fortune of $200 billion he amassed and his sexual abuse of young women and men who were forced into a “harem” he kept.
Today, eight years after Gaddafi’s overthrow, the hopes which Libyans had after the success of the 2011 uprising against him seem to be dashed. Libya is torn about by civil war, as a rogue general with authoritarian tendencies attempts to wrest power from a UN-backed government with little clout.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Gaddafi’s coup, there were some celebrations among Libyans still loyal to him.
In the town of Bani Walid, a key Gaddafi stronghold 90 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, residents took to the streets waving Gaddafi’s green flag and carrying posters of the late dictator and his son, Saif al-Islam.
However, beyond Gaddafi’s former bases of support, nostalgia for his rule is limited today, despite the chaotic situation Libya finds itself in.
Marwan Jalal, an industrial engineer, told the Al Jazeera News Network earlier this year, “I cannot regret Gaddafi’s time because what Libya is today is the product of 42 years of systematic destruction.”
Many Libyan observers find the origins of Libya’s current instability in Gaddafi’s policies, which destroyed state institutions on the pretext of giving power to “the people”.
In an article for The New Arab last year, Libyan politician Guma el-Gamaty attributed the origin of militia culture in Libya to Gaddafi’s deliberate weakening of the formal Libyan army.
A survey of the attitudes of Libyan students in Malaysia in 2017 found that Gaddafi’s ideas still subconsciously influence Libyans’ values and beliefs.
While Libya adopted a multiparty system immediately after Gaddafi’s overthrow, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) of respondents expressed distrust in political parties and more than half (58 percent) thought they should be banned. The authors of the survey concluded that “Gaddafi created a collective awareness of anti-democracy in general”.
Ashour Shamis attributes the current chaos in Libya to Gaddafi’s anti-governmental ideas and his destruction of social institutions.
“Feelings of revenge and antagonism and jealousy, and hatred among social groups, classes and individuals have taken root everywhere. People considered everything ‘fair game’, hated and detested and despised the law and all manifestation of government”.
“Power was there to grab, and so were the money and weapons. This was a recipe for a ‘failed state’ and total chaos,” he added.
Fifty years after Gaddafi’s seizure of power, Libya still feels the effects of his rule.
While Libya’s current instability may make it seem, on the surface, that Libya was better off – or at least more peaceful – under his rule, the roots of what Libya is experiencing today lie in the unique dictatorship he imposed on the country, which presented iron-fisted tyranny as a new form of democracy.
Amr Salahi is a New Arab staff writer. Salahi is a journalist who has previously lived in the Middle East and worked for the BBC
The New Arab