How Qaddafi Fooled Libya and the World

Though he sold himself as either a costumed buffoon, a wild-eyed terrorist, or a wary reformer, Qaddafi's rule from his unlikely rise to his inevitable fall was one of the most cunning and improbable feats of modern dictatorships

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Qaddafi speaks to the summit meeting of the nonaligned nations in Sri Lanka, August 1976 / AP

In the first few months of 1969, Libya was so filled with rumors that the country's senior military leadership would oust the king in a bloodless coup that, when the coup actually happened on September 1, nobody bothered to check who had led it. A handful of military vehicles had rolled up to government offices and communication centers, quietly shutting down the monarchy in what was widely seen as a necessary and overdue transition. King Idris's government had become so incapable and despised that neither his own personal guard nor the massive U.S. military force then stationed outside Tripoli intervened. Army units around the country, believing that the coup was an implicit order from the military chiefs, quickly secured local government offices. Not a single death was reported; all of Libya, it seemed, had welcomed the military revolution.

It was not until almost a week later that an unknown 27-year-old lieutenant with the army signal corps announced that he and a group of 70 low-level officers had in fact staged the coup. They had, in a sense, faked the senior military takeover that everyone had been expecting. But by then it was too late -- the upstarts were already in charge of Libya. The young signal corps lieutenant, a nobody named Muammar al-Qaddafi who'd been raised in a Bedouin tent, had effectively tricked Libya and its powerful Western allies into helping him take over a country he had no business ruling.

Qaddafi would control Libya for an astounding four decades, one of the longest tenures of any non-royal leader in modern history, every year of which was as improbable as his initial ascent. He ruled as he'd seized power, by deception and misdirection. In Libya, he was feared far beyond his might and respected far beyond his support, both which in the end proved meager. Abroad, he was considered either a "mad dog," as Ronald Reagan called him, too wildly dangerous to confront directly; or, later, a harmless buffoon who paraded in absurd costumes and made uproarious speeches. Maybe he really was crazy, but that craziness was often more appearance than reality, and it was the perception more than anything else that allowed him to hold on to power for 42 years.

There's a popular Bedouin saying that, if you have a bag of rats and you want to keep the rodents from escaping, you have to keep shaking the bag. The saying has become so popular in Libya that a version of it now features Qaddafi as the bag-shaker. In this telling, the rats are Libyans, but they might as well represent all of us. Qaddafi's ability to constantly shift his approach to rule within Libya and foreign policy without guaranteed, more than anything else, his ability to stay in power despite little popular support at home and a world that largely despised him.

The laws and norms of Qaddafi's Libya have changed so frequently and so unpredictably over the past 42 years that Libyans, like rats in a shaking bag, were often so focused on adjusting to the ever-shifting political ground that they had few real opportunity to organize. In 1971, Qaddafi announced an Arab Socialist Union party would help lead the transition to open democracy, but by 1972 any political activity outside of this party was a crime punishable by death. In 1973, Qaddafi scrapped the ASU-led system -- leaving the officials who had clamored their way into what they thought would be positions of power now powerless -- for a system of what he called Popular Committees. This process continued endlessly for his entire rule.

One day the country's government would be a direct democracy of locally appointed councils, the next it would be based on tribal rule, and the day after that Qaddafi might announce national elections that he would later cancel. First labor unions would be promoted to greater power, then academics, then clergy; all three would be, at some point during his reign, outright abolished. Within political and social bodies of every kind, Qaddafi would play one official off of another, promoting sons above their fathers, pitting the members of too-powerful families or clans or unions against one another for resources, splitting so many allies and creating so many feuds and petty rivalries that it was nearly impossible that any two Libyans could come together to ask one another if there might be another way.

Economically, oil-rich Libya should look more like Dubai than the poor, under-developed nation it has become. Qaddafi's Libya produces 0.27 barrels per citizen per day; the United Arab Emirates (where Dubai is located) produces 0.34 barrels per citizen per day. Yet the average Emirati is three times as wealthy as the average Libyan, according to IMF data on gross domestic product at purchasing power parity per capita. Why are Libyans poorer on average than Mexicans while Emiratis richer than Americans? The country's oil wealth financed Qaddafi's lavish lifestyle, true, but perhaps more than anything else the self-proclaimed Leader of the Revolution used the money to maintain his own unlikely rule. It was more than just patronage, though Qaddafi often used high-paying jobs and contracts to buy off enemies and to turn alliances into bitter rivalries. He developed enormous projects to give people hope for the future and then cancel them at the last moment -- usually blaming some enemy, foreign or domestic. At times, he would knock down or rebuild the Libyan economy itself, secure that oil wealth would keep flowing.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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