Another One Bites the Dust
Thoughts on the fall of Gaddafi
|Gaddafi in better days|
One of the common historical tropes of the last two centuries or so has been the rise and fall of the dictator. We recently have been given a veritable feast of falling and fallen dictators with the ongoing Arab Spring. Bloody and chaotic though it has been it has removed many of the world’s longest lasting dictators.1
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of these tyrants was the erratic and seemingly crazy Gaddafi of Libya.2
In the twentieth century we saw again and again the phenomena of strongmen taking power supposedly one of their goals being to “reform” their societies and nations. The results have been almost always less than impressive in virtually every case.
Thus when Gaddafi took power in Libya he promised a through reform of the corrupt monarchical state that he overthrew. Unlike many other states the oil wealth that Libya possessed gave him considerable room for maneuver in his efforts to “reform” the state.
Sadly has is typical in these matters the initial genuine desire to “reform” the state goes hand in hand with the strong desire to secure the levers of power and concentrate on securing and extending that power.
Thus we get, over and over again, the syndrome of aims that in the end conflict. Thus for example Cuba under Castro. Here we see a genuine reformist revolution sidetracked on the issue of retaining power. The “Great Leader” either genuinely believes or cynically manipulates the argument, or may be does both, that the enemies of the “Revolution” need to be crushed in order for the reforming efforts can continue and survive. Of course the end result is the concentration of dictatorial authority in the hands of a dictator / “Great Leader”. Castro is of course an excellent example of this. But we can see this all over the world From Trujillo in the Dominican Republic to Marcos in the Philippines etc. Even when it is not called a Revolution the justification of Dictatorial power is based on the elimination of opponents on the grounds that “reform”, “stability” requires no real opposition.3
Thus Gaddafi moved quickly after his coup to consolidate his authority by setting up, as these dictators do, a system of security checks and an omnipresent spying system. Sometimes a dictator takes over a system of surveillance ready made from the previous system at other times he creates one from scratch.
Thus Gaddafi created a system of spying and surveillance from scratch to watch for his enemies real and alleged. The justification was preserving the “Revolution”, the actual effect was to consolidate and preserve Gaddafi’s dictatorial authority. Thus like Cuba we had the ubiquitous agents of the “Revolution” spying and reporting on dissatisfaction and “subversives”.
Of course the dictator has to justify his authority in some cases its saving society from a real or imaginary external enemy / threat. Or it’s in preserving the “Revolution”, or promoting “stability” and “growth”. Suharto in Indonesia, the initial “threat” was saving Indonesia from Communist subversion, the later justification was promoting “growth”. In the case of Cuba it was the external threat of American attack and of course preserving / extending the “Revolution”.4
In the case of Libya the threat was “Imperialism” and the goal was supporting “liberation” movements worldwide in opposition to “Imperialism”.
Thus Gaddafi conceived of “Imperialism” has a vast existential threat working by covert and overt means to overthrow him and destroy the “Revolution”. Thus it was easy to characterize the opposition as tools of a vast existential threat. In Castro’s Cuba “Capitalism” served the same purpose and of course the Nazi regime used the alleged, entirely fanciful, worldwide Jewish conspiracy. And of course combating these threats requires vigilance and coercion least the wicked conspirators’ carryout their evil schemes. And of course the internal opposition to the dictator is nothing but at best dupes of the existential threat. Thus we get the Communist threat in Indonesia, Paraguay, and the threat of Capitalist restoration in other places and of course “Imperialism”.5
Now of course in some places, at sometimes, the threat is real. For example the American blockade of Cuba was and is real and so was the Bay of Pigs invasion. But the usefulness of a threat to the dictator has an excuse to maintain / extend his power should never be underestimated. Neither should the cynical use of such threats be denied. And of course very frequently, and likely most of the time, the threats are hugely exaggerated or in fact wholly imaginary.6
One of the tools of dictatorship is that of disguising itself. Thus we have in many dictatorships the sham of democracy and freedom. The examples are legion. Thus we have sham democratic features in Cuba, where people go through the motions of elections that are basically meaningless. The same was true of Suharto’s Indonesia and many, many others.7
In Gaddafi’s Libya we had the so called Jamahiriya which supposedly insured that there was rule by the “masses”. In other words Libya was a ”true Democracy”. That this “Democracy” was indistinguishable from a one man Dictatorship was hardly an accident. Gaddafi occupied no “official” position as an actual head of state but merely that of “Advisor”. This left him out of the official levers of power and left his position undefined. Of course what this meant was that the unofficial “informal” means of holding and wielding power were in his hands and those of his allies and family and he was unconstrained by the formal rules of a systematic bureaucratic way of wielding power to say nothing of any limits associated with an “official” position.8
Since Gaddafi’s position was unofficial one of the techniques he brought to holding power was ensuring that no one else could create a power base that could threaten him and his un-official channels of power through control of official positions.
Thus the army had a fragmented structure that was centralized unofficially in Gaddafi’s hands. It was made difficult for Libyan army units to cooperate outside of Gaddafi’s control. This fragmented command structure help to make the Libyan army one of the worst Arab armies. However since there had been a series of coup attempts against Gaddafi by members of his armed forces he was anxious to make such cooperation to get rid of him very difficult.9
As with the army the same methods of disabling structures of the state so they would have trouble acting against Gaddafi were instituted in the civilian area. The so called Revolutionary committees were part of that effort.
Like many modern dictators Gaddafi was fond of creating over lapping spheres of authority that conflicted. The result being conflicts over jurisdiction that only the dictator could resolve. Hitler for example based his entire system of rule on such institutional anarchy which helped to make his control and influence absolutely essential.10
Like so many other Dictatorial leaders Gaddafi created an ideological justification for his rule as enshrined in the political catechism The Green Book. In this Gaddafi was similar to Hitler and Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, and in creating an ideology of rule similar to such Dictators has Papa Doc in Haiti, Suharto in Indonesia, Kim il Sung of North Korea and Castro in Cuba. Gaddafi did lack the justification of Marxist-Leninism that had an appeal outside of just one country. Gaddafi’s Green Book remained a Libyan affair.11
Like so many Dictator’s Gaddafi maintained authority by a ruthless crushing of dissent. Thus Libya was a repressive society with a Secret Police that engaged in surveillance and the suppression of dissent by means also of arrest and threat. Thus Libya had prisons with dissenters. It had show trials, some televised, and executions of opponents along with the occasional mass executions, after coup attempts against Gaddafi and the infamous massacre at Abu Salim prison in 1996.12
Like many such Dictatorial regimes Gaddafi’s Libya engaged in much international interference. Only in Libya’s case like some of the others the ambitions of the regime were not matched by Libya’s ability to carry out this foreign policy. Thus Libya’s disastrous involvement in Chad which ended in spectacular costly failure. To say nothing of Gaddafi’s rather foolishly provocative behavior against the USA. Thus Gaddafi sought to justify the regime by supporting “Liberation” struggles and that amounted to supporting terrorists much of the time. Further Gaddafi’s Libya showed an affinity to supporting Dictators like Idi Amin of Uganda and Charles Taylor. In the case of Idi Amin Gaddafi sent several thousand Libyan troops, were despite immense fire power superiority over the invading Tanzanians they were soundly thrashed and Idi Amin was forced to flee into exile.13
Like so many Dictators Gaddafi built a veritable cult around himself, although it was never as absurd as Kim il Sung’s or Mao Tse Tung’s or Papa Doc’s. But then like far too many Dictators he became fond of his own voice and what came out of it. Gaddafi became known for his long, erratic and more than slightly cracked speeches and behavior. In this he has lots of company in the Dictator crowd. Idi Amin of Uganda for one.
However if he made himself more than slightly absurd to the outside world his hold on power remained largely secure and his handling of the factions below him sure.
Eventually Gaddafi’s adventurous foreign policy earned the dislike of the west and a rather unpleasant embargo. Related to Libyan involvement in the infamous Lockerbie bombing.14
Also to be blunt his adventurous “Revolutionary” foreign policies had produced a great deal of dislike, even among other Arab states, and little constructive advantage. So Gaddafi embarked a systematic policy to restore links to the west, while still playing an adventurous foreign policy in west Africa.
This produced dividends in the form of the end of the embargo and diplomatic isolation and lucrative foreign contracts with various powers, like the USA, China, Britain, etc. Including such embarrassing things as a photo-op with Tony Blair of Britain. The west also welcomed Gaddafi as a helper in the since 2001 war on terror, helping to send suspects to Libya where they were tortured.15
One of the most common features of recent Dictatorships is the advent of corruption. The Dictator and his family and cronies, use Dictatorship has a mechanism to get rich and loot the state. Thus we have the corrupt kleptocracies of Marco’s Philippines, Suharto’s Indonesia, Papa and Baby Doc’s Haiti and so on. Regimes like Hitler’s Germany and Romania under Ceausescu had the ruling elite and or family take the opportunity to loot and get rich although the state never fully degenerated into a kleptocracy.
In Libya Gaddafi’s family took the opportunity along with the leader himself to get rich and live well. As could be seen in the very nice homes lived in by the family once Gaddafi was overthrown. No doubt considerable wealth flowed from the state into family coffers. This growing corruption of the family and the turning of the state into the private property of the family mirrored the story of so many corrupt dictatorial regimes towards the end of their spans of life.16
With the ostentatious life style of the family with their kitschy over the top, but very expensive, lifestyles now revealed we can see that Gaddafi’s regime bore a strong similarity to a kleptocracy.17
Finally the end. Gaddafi apparently thought that his rapprochement, with the west had created a network of allies that would support his regime during a time of crisis, Gaddafi also thought that some cosmetic reform at home would create support. He was wrong. Old animosities and memories had merely been papered over. So when Libyans inspired by the Arab spring and infuriated by decades of brutal and increasingly corrupt rule took to the streets and rose in revolt. The west led by Europe were very quick to abandon him. Supporting his regime now that he had lost the semblance of support from the Libyan people, seemed counterproductive to western interests. So the fruits of western support during the age of rapprochement vanished. Like so many dictators when it became clear that they were too many costs associated with supporting them their bigger allies abandoned them. So the USA abandoned Marcos, and so many others. And Gorbachev leaves the Eastern Communist states out to dry etc.18
Such was the animosity that Gaddafi created that the west led by Europe was able to intervene military on the side of the rebellion. Such however was the military ineptitude of both the rebels and, with vastly less excuse, the Libyan army it took 8 months for the rebellion to overthrow and finally crush Gaddafi’s regime.19 In fact given that the rebellions forces were created entirely from scratch the performance of the regular Libyan army was amazingly incompetent even with the air superiority enjoyed by the rebels through NATO. Considering also that the actual air support enjoyed was not crushing and in fact crucial but not in the end decisive.20
Right to the end the military incompetence of the Gaddafi regime is telling being defeated and overthrown by rag-tag bands of highly disorganized civilians, with air support, who much of the time were spectacularly inept.21
Finally the absolute end. Gaddafi was captured trying to escape, hiding in a drainage tunnel in his home town of Sirte on October 20, 2011 and it seems beaten and shot to death. Then his body was taken to Misrata and publicly displayed for all to gawk at. Then his body was secretly buried least it become a shrine for true believers in the Dictator. Gaddafi’s miserable end was similar to the death of Mussolini who was also captured trying to escape, shot and his body displayed in Milan where it was publicly insulted and defiled.22
So like many tyrants Gaddafi was overthrown, unlike most of them he ended up killed by his own people and his body put on display like a relic in a freak show. But then perhaps that was appropriate given that Dictators are a sort of political freak show.
1. For example Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years.
2. Gaddafi took power in a coup in 1969.
3. Chirot, Daniel, Modern Tyrants, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, pp. 341-372.
4. IBID, Priestland, David, The Red Flag, Grove Press, New York, 2009, pp. 382-392, Caute, David, The Fellow Travellers, 3nd Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2988, pp. 405-420, Challis, Roland, Shadow of a Revolution, Sutton Pub., London, 2001, pp. 139-162, Friend, Theodore, Indonesian Destinies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 2003, pp. 129-159.
5. Ibid, see also Weinberg, Gerhard L., Germany, Hitler and World War II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 30-56, Third International Theory, Wikipedia Here.
6. IBID, and Footnote 4 Priestland.
7, Caute, pp. 405-420, Priestland, pp. 382-392, Challis, pp. 134-138, Friend, pp. 188-218.
8. Overy, Richard, The Dictators, Penguin Books, London, 2004, pp. 132-174, Third International Theory, History of Libya under Gadhafi, Wikipedia Here, Pollack, Kenneth M., Arabs at War, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NS, 2004, pp. 364-365.
9. Pollack, pp. 364-365.
10. Overy, pp. 132-174, Tooze, Adam, The Wages of Destruction, Penguin Books, London, 2006, pp. 99-134.
11. Caute, pp. 405-420, Priestland, pp. 382-392, Challis, pp. 139-162, Friend, pp. 160-187, Chirot, pp. 175-266, 341-372, Third International Theory, Libya Under Gaddafi, The Green Book (Libya), Wikipedia Here.
12. June 1996 Killings at Abu Salim Prison, Human Rights Watch, Here, Libyan TV Shows Executions, The Spokesman Review, p, 25, at Here, History of Libya Under Gadhafi, Pollack, pp. 364, 385.
13. Pollack, pp. 358-424.
14. History of Libya Under Gaddafi.
15. IBID, Kersten, Mark, A “Remarkable Relationship”: Us and UK Complicit in Gadhafi Regime Crimes, Justice in Conflict, Here.
16. Challis, pp. 186-218, Friend, pp. 237-241, Chirot, pp. 341-372, Ree, Nissa, Libya corruption, Cult of personality drive Qaddafi's grip on power: WikiLeaks cable, Christian Science Monitor, Here, Abandoned Gaddafi Homes Reveal Champagne Lifestyle, Reuters Africa, Here.
17. IBID, ‘I Can’t Believe What I’m Seeing’, The Nation, Here.
18. Priestland, pp. 501-555, Jowitt, Ken, New World Disorder, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1992, pp. 220-283, Ferdinand Marcos, Wikipedia Here, People Power Revolution, Wikipedia Here, History of Libya under Gaddafi, 2011 Libyan Civil War, Wikipedia Here, 2011 Military Intervention in Libya, Wikipedia here.
19. See 2011 Libyan Civil War.
20. IBID, and Timeline for the 2011 Libyan Civil War, Wikipedia Here. It is my opinion based on what I’ve read that the foreign military intervention in the air was crucial but a lot less decisive in determining the outcome of the war than the rank incompetence of the Libyan armed forces.
21. Pollack, pp. 358-424, amply shows the extraordinary, often miraculous, level of Libyan tactical incompetence.
22. See Boffey, Daniel, Gaddafi’s Death, The Guardian, Here, Mummar Gaddafi, Killed as Sirte Falls, Al Jazeera Here, Benito Mussolini, Wikipedia Here.