By now it is clear that last year’s world-changing Arab Spring was never one event with a single set of causes and effects. Though revolt in one country helped trigger revolt in another, each of the Arab states that underwent a revolution fell apart in its own distinct way. As they try to recover and rebuild their societies, that means they face radically different challenges.
But perhaps none is confronted with such an unusual task as Libya, the oil-rich Mediterranean country that has shaken off the repressive 40-year regime of Moammar Khadafy. For Libyans, Khadafy’s legacy shapes everything about the current moment, from the need to create a governing structure for what was essentially a stateless society to the struggle to define a new sense of national identity.
Unraveling the nature of Khadafy’s peculiar rule will be key to understanding Libya’s future, argues Alison Pargeter, a British analyst and writer specializing in North Africa and the Middle East. In a new book, “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi,” she outlines the ways that Khadafy made Libya into a reflection of himself, and how he saw its people as subjects in a laboratory where he could test often bizarre political, social, and economic ideas.
Beginning with his 1969 coup, Khadafy took Libya on a strange ideological journey. Drawing on a mix of half-baked Marxist and anti-imperialist ideas, he imposed a government that, in practice, amounted to the crudest form of dictatorship. Under his leadership, Libya also swung wildly on the world stage, from Arab nationalism in the 1970s to pan-Africanism, and from overt sponsor of terrorism—including the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland—to a 2003 rapprochement with the West that brought renewed investment.
‘What built up massive resentment toward the end was the behavior of Khadafy’s sons. It was like a kleptocracy, with their fingers in every pie.’
In 2003, ‘everyone was expecting some political change....and all they got was the news that Khadafy had invented a new rocket car.’
For Khadafy himself, it all ended in last year’s overthrow, with the brutal attack and summary execution of the fleeing “brother leader.” But for Libyans, a true reckoning with the past four decades and the legacy Khadafy bequeathed them is only just beginning.
Pargeter spoke to ideas from her home in Kent, England.
IDEAS: From the outside, it’s easy to see Khadafy as just a power-mad dictator. But he actually had a vision for his nation, and a patented ideology, Jamahiriya?
PARGETER: It was a very utopian vision based on Khadafy’s idea of the ideal society in which nobody would be exploited by anybody else. Even on the political level, no one could be represented by anyone else, so you wouldn’t have parliament or political parties. Everyone would be able to take part in governing themselves—essentially a stateless society, where no one could be victimized or be exploited. That’s the vision he had as a young man in his late 20s.
IDEAS: But that’s not how it played out.
PARGETER: No, in fact I’ve never come across a ruler that had such obvious contempt for their own population. He regularly used to admonish the Libyans when something went wrong in the country, because he wasn’t officially head of state even though he controlled everything behind the scenes. And if anything went wrong, he would then blame the Libyans for not interpreting his ideas properly.
IDEAS: It sounds like in Libya, his rule wasn’t just a security state—it was a bizarre cult of personality.
PARGETER: One of the things that was so surreal and so utterly Khadafy was in 2003, when he reconciled with the West, and everyone was expecting some political change and that he would abandon this anachronistic political system and perhaps even turn Libya into a republic. Everyone was waiting for this announcement. And at the celebration for the anniversary of the revolution, everyone was waiting and all they got was the news that Khadafy had invented a new rocket car. It was going to end traffic accidents in Libya. All of his energies had gone into creating this streamlined rocket car.
IDEAS: Rocket car?
PARGETER: It was called the Jamahiriya Rocket. It was in the shape of a rocket, which would supposedly minimize car accidents.
IDEAS: This was a car he was supposed to drive around?
PARGETER: No. He had supposedly designed it as a gift for the Libyan people so they could drive around in these things and there would be no more traffic accidents. And that was the last you ever heard of it. They had the prototype at the celebration but you never heard more about it after that.
IDEAS: From our perspective, Libya’s biggest recent change seems to have been its turn to the West, when it gave up its weapons of mass destruction and opened itself to Western inspectors. What happened there?
PARGETER: The change of heart actually came from the West. Libya had been pushing since the early 1990s to try and resolve relations with the West. That was essential, certainly for their oil industry. They needed the technical expertise....[E]conomically the regime was in trouble, and the population was getting increasingly frustrated and fed up at their isolation. At the same time, the sanctions ironically created this new class that was able to make an awful lot of money at the expense of the population. So the divide between the regime and the rest of the population was getting larger. There were all these strains. The emergence of an Islamic opposition hit Khadafy very hard.... There was a reformist faction who wanted to restore relations with the West, and they got Khadafy to agree eventually. And things carried on from there. So they had actually been pushing it for a few years before 2003 when they announced the end of the WMD program.
IDEAS: To Americans at the time, it was presented as a payoff from the Iraq war—Khadafy gave up his nuclear ambitions so he wouldn’t share Saddam Hussein’s fate.
PARGETER: I don’t buy that. I think that was overplayed. There is a degree to which Khadafy was eyeing events in Iraq with concern, but the desire for change had been there. They had been trying to reach out for a while before then.
IDEAS: What ultimately turned the population against Khadafy?
PARGETER: A lot of Libyans before the revolution were struggling to make ends meet in a country with a small population and enormous oil wealth that just wasn’t trickling down. Libyans would regularly tell you, We should look like Dubai, but we’re not. There was the frustration at the way Khadafy had ravaged the country, the stupidity and utterly dysfunctional nature of the system that people were forced to live under. What built up massive resentment toward the end was the behavior of Khadafy’s sons. It was like a kleptocracy, with their fingers in every pie. So after 2003 there was some opening, but actually those who benefited from that opening 9 times out of 10, if not 10 times out of 10, had links to the Khadafy boys. And they behaved pretty appallingly.
IDEAS: Did Khadafy serve a function, like Tito in Yugoslavia, in terms of keeping a disparate group of tribal alliances together? Is there such a thing as Libyan national identity without him?
PARGETER: I struggle to see a Libyan identity without Khadafy just purely because of the country’s history. It only became a country in the 1950s. It operated very much as three separate regions with three separate histories. Then along came Khadafy and foisted his bizarre vision onto the country....He sort of insisted on forcing this Libyan identity on them, one they didn’t necessarily buy into. There is a sense of Libyan-ness and it does exist, but it is perhaps not as strong as regional identities or tribal identities. Yes, he did keep a lid on things and hold it all together, but not in a particularly good way.
IDEAS: How will Khadafy’s legacy “cast long shadows over Libya for many decades to come,” as you write in your book?
PARGETER: The cult of personality was just so immense, it swallowed everything and overwhelmed everything. There are other centralized systems, but really in Libya Khadafy was everything. He was the center. In Tunisia, for example—yes, it was an authoritarian system, but there was a party. There were certain structures and institutions. But in Libya there was none of that. There was Khadafy, some of his old schoolmates, some of his family, and that was it. And because he had this bizarre vision that he sought to impose on Libya, he literally razed everything to the ground, all institutions, any sense of a functioning state. The country was utterly dysfunctional apart from the energy sector and the security sector. He razed everything. So Libya has a much lower base to start with than Tunisia or Egypt. He pretty much left nothing in his wake.