Prior to the Italian conquest of Libya in October 1911, Libyans had grown accustomed to foreign invaders as they rested on strategic routes along coastal North Africa for trade. These were repeatedly absorbed into empires from Roman, Ottoman, and to Carthage under the Phoenicians. Even though these empirical powers desired and subsequently controlled the coastal trade routes of Libya, no complete control over the social, economic, and political realms would fall into the hands of any other besides the Libyans that successfully defended these sacred institutions for centuries.
That was until the Italian conquest of the early twentieth century. Thanks to the development of the Industrial Revolution and its mercantile spawn, Libya would come Italy’s manifest destiny in order to compete with the more daunting and expansive European superpowers of France and Great Britain. The incursion of Libyan sovereignty by Italy was gradual and its government would go on to resettle thousands of Italians in Libya for the purpose of expanding its businesses. These ranged from trading firms to banking operations to schools. As for Libyans witnessing what the modern state looked like in the twentieth century, this was foreign system whose mechanisms possessed an authoritarian and domineering structure with ultimate designs to subjugate and disenfranchise the native population only as far as Libyans would allow.
After several decades of complete dominance of Libya, Italy lost its colonial foothold by the end of World War II when it was defeated and replaced with French and British occupation until 1951. Since Italian administration in Libya was installed primarily for the benefit of the peasant Italian classes that resettled in Libya hoping for prosperity, the native Libyan population was excluded and resulted in a lack of clear domestic, financial, agricultural, and class initiatives for the future. Since the 1951 UN resolution for Libyan independence, King Idris ruled Libya as a monarch and for the first eight years of his rule, Libya was still impoverished with a subsistence economy funded solely by British revenues and United States airbases with additional international aid in exchange for more western military bases in Libya.
This changed by 1959 upon the discovery of major oil reserves by Esso (now Exxon) in Cyrenaica. Within a decade, Libya became one of the largest oil producers in the Middle East, transforming it from an isolated, destitute desert country to a barely-nationally integrated emergence of unified legal structures. Yet, this sudden transition into the modern state powered by capital inflow was too quick for the existing power structure to accommodate. The monarchy was faced with reluctant state-building efforts and political process changes while Libya’s high-quality oil had exploitation rights solely allocated to U.S. and British companies. This was thanks in large part to the monarchy’s first petroleum law in 1955 to induce these same companies to explore the oil fields located mostly in Cyrenacia and Fazzan. Only little more than 5 percent of the country’s overall labor force was employed in Libya’s oil industry and corruption in the bureaucracy under the “very reluctant monarch” was stumping Libya from reaching its full potential in achieving national unification. It would be the oil industry’s revenues which clearly outlined the path for national legislation and a united economy that was key to having the greatest impact on the political life of Libya. One man would make this dream a reality.
Muammar Gaddafi was born in 1942 to the tribal group known as Qadhadhfa in Tripolitania located in western Libya. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, young Gaddafi undoubtedly witnessed the battlefield of Libya between world superpowers from the German forces of World War II to British occupation to the UN establishment of the Israeli state nearby and the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949 and finally the British installation of the Senussi monarchy in Libya in 1951. In July 1952, Gamal Abdal Nasser led the Free Officers in Egypt in overthrowing British puppet King Farouk along with his long-standing directive of ensuring British interests in cotton and the Suez Canal. Nasser would remain Gaddafi’s revolutionary hero throughout his life. Algeria would also launch its war of emancipation from French colonial war in 1954 just after US President Eisenhower approved a CIA-initiated coup to overthrow the democratically elected government in Iran in favor of securing American oil interests so by the time he joined the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi in 1963, Gaddafi was heavily influenced by the arising pan-Arabism movement to reject western colonialism, imperialism, and Zionism in favor of the national unification and sovereign Libya was craving.
As an intense reader of Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution and contemporary Syrian political theorist Michel Aflaq, Gaddafi believed that he needed the support of the Libyan army (trained by the British military) in order to successfully bring about a coup d’état against the Libyan monarchy. Through intelligence-gathering all over Libya and with the loyal cooperation of seventy young army officers and enlistees, Gaddafi seized control of the government on September 1, 1969 and in less than two hours, Libya’s corrupt and complacent elite was replaced. Despite his humble roots and lack of political experience, Gaddafi implemented his vision of a revolutionary, modern, and progressive Arab state out of western grasp, and he would look to Egypt and his idol, President Nasser as his example.
Under the Egyptian nationalist’s careful guidance, all remnants of the former king were purged from power. The administrative structure of Libya was renovated with officials in influential positions due to their tribal status being replaced by a younger and modernized class derived from humble roots like Gaddafi. The newly established Libyan Revolutionary Command Council was a twelve-person governing body with Gaddafi as its chairman and oversaw the funding of Libya’s education, health care, and housing. The nationalist agenda saw to it that foreign military bases were shut down and all colonizing troops were expelled with the last of the British military leaving Tobruq in March 1970 and Americans leaving Wheelus months later. The Italian settlers that were also expelled had their lands and assets seized and redistributed; Libya was no longer under the sphere of imperialist influence.
The Libyan Arab Republic as Gaddafi founded defined by the motto “freedom, socialism, and unity,” immediately turned to ensuring economic sovereignty for all Libyans. Multinational oil companies such as British Petroleum (BP) that still controlled Libya’s oil profits sparred with Gaddafi who gave them a challenging ultimatum: “People who have lived without oil for 5,000 years can live without it again for a few years in order to attain their legitimate rights.” Gaddafi succeeded; oil contracts were renegotiated and so paved way for Western oil companies to be nationalized. Because of this, Libya became the first country in the world to secure a majority share of their oil production revenues. This inspired other nations in the 1970s Arab petroleum boom. Medical care became publicly available at no cost to Libyans, per capita income rose to over $11,000 US dollars which was the fifth highest in Africa, and Gaddafi launched projects to raise agricultural and food productivity to decrease reliance on food imports. This pattern of ambitious social programs and public projects substantially improved the living conditions of Libyans. In 2010, the United Nations Development Program referred to Libya as a high-development country in the Middle East and North Africa with a literacy rate of almost 90 percent, a life expectancy of 74.5 years, and the lowest infant mortality rate in all of Africa.
In addition to the average per-capita income being higher than that of many industrialized countries such as Italy and the UK, fewer people in Libya lived below the poverty line than in the Netherlands and many of the Eastern blocs. The minimum wage was doubled and rent reductions fell between a mandated 30 and 40 percent. Education became compulsory with free university education, an adult literacy program, and new colleges were founded such as Beida University. Gaddafi’s government made sure to nationalize all of Libya’s banks and ensure they were state-owned, not foreign-owned. A cultural identity rooted in Islam was established; alcohol consumption was banned, night clubs and gambling were prohibited, and Arabic was to be the only permitted language in official communications.
The shanty towns that had long populated Libya were replaced with urbanization while the health sector expanded to include a larger field of doctors and the abolition of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. The status of women was greatly improved under Gaddafi’s direction; Not only was access to education improved and paid employment introduced, working mothers were allotted cash bonuses for their first child and free day care centers were established. Enrollment in higher education for women was 8% in 1966 but by 1996, it had reached 43%. Child marriages were banned and women had equal rights in obtaining a divorce. In the event of a divorce, both men and women who had entered a marriage with their own assets were had no right to each other’s.
These profound changes for Libya skyrocketed Gaddafi’s popularity also due in part to his youthful charisma and underdog Bedouin background. He had successfully united his country on a pan-Libyan identity following a period of rigid regional and tribal strife. This status transcended internationally into a pan-Arab identity against the onslaught of continuous foreign intervention. In 1972, the rift between the United States and Libya was made publicly official upon Colonel Gaddafi’s announcement that any Arab wishing to volunteer for Palestinian armed groups against Israeli encroachment could “register his name at any Libyan embassy” for “adequate training for combat,” alongside financial support. As a result, the American ambassador was withdrawn from Libya. Gaddafi also extended his support for “Irish revolutionaries” and openly accused Britain of conspiring with Zionists to granting Palestine to Jews in 1948 before pointing out that the United States was backing the Israeli occupation of conquered Arab territories after the Six-Day War of 1967.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gaddafi would contribute monetarily to worldwide anti-imperialist guerilla groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, African National Congress, Irish Republican Army, and Sandinista National Liberation Front to name a few. By the time Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, the foreign policy of the United States pertaining to the Middle East took on a voracious pro-Israeli government position and many of his administration’s foreign affairs and defense appointees spearheaded an Israeli-first agenda. These are known today as the neoconservatives. Reagan’s own colleagues noted his fixated borderline obsession with Gaddafi the same way President John F. Kennedy made Cuban dictator Fidel Castro his primary focus.
The Libyan leader, who successfully evaded Reagan’s assassination attempts, would cause the American president great embarrassment during the Iran-Contra scandal of 1985. As his administration covertly funneled sale of arms to the Islamic Republic of Iran (still under the arms embargo), a portion of the arms sale profits was used to fund the Contras in overthrowing the democratically-elected left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua. That government in power was given financial assistance by Gaddafi himself so as irony displays, Reagan was the destabilizing funder of terrorism while Gaddafi the “barbarian” was supporting a democratically-elected government. It is worth quoting from one author that in trying to practically define terrorism, it must never be forgotten that the overwhelming majority of terrorist activities– measured either in human or material destruction—have been perpetrated by strong states against weak states in addition to all governments against their own civilians.
Of course no profile of a revolutionary icon would be complete without his contribution to political theory. The Libyan leader published his political theories regarding democracy and his own unique proposal of third position in his Green Book. Put into practice, Libya under his direction was greatly decentralized and through “mini-autonomous States” that formed committees, the people was directly involved in shaping all aspects of national policy. This was direct democracy; fundamentally different from western democratic structures where parliaments and congresses consisted of a few hundred politicians paid and swayed by wealthy lobbies. Though it is easy to assume as a North African leader during the Cold War that Gaddafi would ally himself with the Soviet Union, he firmly rejected both and in his own words proposed instead “…the Third [International] Theory to indicate that there is a new path for all those who reject both materialist capitalism and atheist communism. The path is for all the people of the world who abhor the dangerous confrontation between the Warsaw and North Atlantic military alliances…”
Unfortunately as history has repeatedly demonstrated, no world leader would stray too far from international interest and outside their sphere of influence for so long. Since his life projects of pan-Arabism were short-lived, Gaddafi turned to pan-Africanism. In 2002, he founded the African Union for his visionary goal of all encouraging African nations to reject conditional aid from the developed world and implement a common defense system and single currency. This single currency proposal is what caught the attention of western leaders.
As the NATO-contrived rebellions in Libya were escalating in 2011, Wikileaks emails between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal note that the 143 tons of gold in Gaddafi’s government “was intended to be used to establish a pan-African currency based on the Libyan golden Dinar. This plan was designed to provide the Francophone African Countries with an alternative to the French franc (CFA).” French President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to Libya as a “threat” to worldwide financial security and just this year was found guilty in the corruption pact of accepting €50m illegal donations from Gaddafi to fund his successful presidential campaign back in 2007.
Back to the Wikileaks, Gaddafi’s Golden Dinar plan was “one of the factors that influence President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to commit France to the attack on Libya.” His imperialist motives were further broken down: “A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production, increase French influence in North Africa, improve his intemai political situation in France, provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world, [and] address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.”
So the lie of “protecting civilians” from pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya (the same ones the United States supplied weapons to since 2005) was manufactured and rather than sending peacekeeping troops, Britain’s SAS troops were deployed to initiate regime change. This mirrored the narrative used almost a decade prior in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And true to the pattern of regime change that toppled Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi who had led and transformed Libya for forty-two years, was brutally murdered by CIA-assisted rebels and Libya was subsequently plunged into chaos.
As summarized by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, “the result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” Open market slave trades resurged and a central banking system was established by rebels rather quickly, pointing out the convincingly “strong influence over the rebels” by foreign powers and their own central banking initiatives in Libya. In spite of his flaws and failures, Gaddafi had set a precedent for nations, regardless of world status, on how to dismantle foreign control and return a nation-state into its native hands. Days after his murder, Gaddafi’s last will was published on his website, Seven Days News, for the world to read:
“Let the free people of the world know that we could have bargained over and sold out our cause in return for a personal secure and stable life. We received many offers to this effect but we chose to be at the vanguard of the confrontation as a badge of duty and honour.
Even if we do not win immediately, we will give a lesson to future generations that choosing to protect the nation is an honour and selling it out is the greatest betrayal that history will remember forever despite the attempts of the others to tell you otherwise.”