What can the world do to keep a brutalised country from falling apart? Two images serve as bookends to the four-decades-old rule of Libya’s ruler, Col Muammar el-Qaddafi. The first is the picture taken a few days after the Sept. 1, 1969, coup that brought him to power: it shows a handsome, pencil-thin revolutionary in military uniform, kneeling in the desert sand to pray. The other was taken two days ago: Colonel Qaddafi in bedouin garb as an uprising sparked by the arrest of a human rights lawyer in Benghazi continued to overtake the country, defiantly and incoherently defending his self-styled revolution, vowing to struggle on until death.
Between those two shots lie 42 years of iron-fisted rule, and thousands of photos that show him slowly turning from a young firebrand to a mastermind of international terrorism; from ambitious new ruler, bent on restoring the grandeur of Arab nationalism after the assassination of his hero President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to international pariah; from would-be philosopher to clownish figure whose demagoguery was derided by friend and foe alike. And, finally, after years of sanctions by the United States and the international community, a much older but equally combative Colonel Qaddafi was seemingly rehabilitated by the West.
After the 1969 revolution, Western leaders initially believed that the new Libyan regime would follow in the kingdom’s footsteps, with a pro-Western bent to its policies. It quickly became clear, however, that Colonel Qaddafi was no ordinary Arab leader who would live by the conventions of international behaviour or decorum. Once Colonel Qaddafi assumed power, his message was unambiguous: he cast himself and Libya as a bulwark against what he perceived as the predations of the West. The brutality of the Italian colonial period — which had lasted from 1911 through 1943 and led to the deaths of perhaps half of the population of Libya’s eastern province — would become for him an enduring obsession. The Italians had destroyed whatever embryonic bureaucratic and administrative structures had been in place before they invaded, so Libya had few elements of modern statehood. And the monarchy — headed by King Idris I, who showed no love for ruling a unified Libya — had for almost 20 years largely left matters as they were when the Italians left.What was not clear at the start of the 1969 revolution was how tortuous Colonel Qaddafi’s path would become. Fuelled by ample petrodollars, he would descend into an increasingly self-contained and self-reverential world, a closed system fed and reinforced by the sycophancy that always surrounds dictators and that brooks no opposition. In the early 1970s, by nationalising the country’s oil companies, Colonel Qaddafi provided himself with a healthy dose of legitimacy at home, but also with increasing suspicion from the West. In the mid-’70s, he demonstrated his growing lack of perspective by publishing his manifesto, the Green Book, a slim collection of incoherent ramblings that he offered as the ideological guide to what he saw as Libya’s never ending “revolution.”
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Dirk Vandewalle is a Libyan expert at Dartmouth University