How Qaddafi Fooled Libya and the World

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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.

Though he never published an academic article on the subject, his actions could at times give the impression that he may have been one of the world's great experts in revolutions and democratic uprisings. At (almost) every turn, when the end of his rule should have been inevitable, he found a way to cheat the fate that nearly every theory of revolution says he should have fallen to long ago. When the middle class grew too strong, he abruptly changed the currency, collapsing personal savings. When businesses became too powerful, he opened up more government subsidies to shut them down. When government leaders and ministries earned enough influence to potentially challenge his rule, he shifted their power to popular councils. One year he might free political prisoners, the next put them into mass graves. His secret police were everywhere, but so were his handouts. When people got sick of it and rallied, he had a senior official send in riot police; then he'd declare common cause with the protesters and sack the official. He formed new democratic institutions. Yet, somehow, he always ended up in charge.

Abroad, he was just as savvy, just as willing to ruthlessly strike at his rivals one moment and to join them the next. Two of his first foreign policy decisions were to guarantee the U.S. military base its safety, ensuring early American support, and then, when he no longer needed the U.S., to kick the Americans out forever, winning support from anti-Western movements at home. Foreseeing the rise of revolutionary movements in 1970s post-colonial Africa perhaps better than any other world leader, he gave them money and training when they needed it most, building a continent of deeply indebted allies, some of which held their allegiance until the very end. He declared himself a lifelong ally of his fellow Arab leaders and then an enemy of them, fighting a war with Egypt and threatening the lives of Saudi royal family members.

In the mid-1980s, when the West became interested in spreading democracy in his region, Qaddafi's government launched a string of terrorist attacks, most infamously the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland that killed 270 people. The decade and a half of near-war with the West was tense enough to rally Libyans behind Qaddafi (and to make them more fearful of Western governments) but peaceful enough to ensure he was never in any real danger. After September 11, 2001, Qaddafi saw an opportunity to make the U.S. an ally in his never-ending war against his own people. He sold out the Islamist movements he had helped inspire, shipping many of them to U.S.-sponsored prisons in Egypt or elsewhere. He pledged to dismantle his nuclear program in 2003, but managed to hold onto it until late 2009.

When Qaddafi shipped favored son Saif off to Great Britain for school, he created a foil that, perhaps more than anything else, ensured the West's hesitant acquiescence. Saif appeared to be a passionately pro-Western, pro-American, pro-capitalist reformer: he authored a thesis on democratization and social mobilization (which later turned out to be plagiarized), met with Western government officials and industry leaders to promise them great things, and even drafted a Libyan constitution. Father Muammar, always shaking the bag, alternatively embraced and rejected Saif's reforms, making it appear that his family was in the midst of an earnest struggle for Libya's future. Qaddafi's biggest and greatest sell was that, however awful his own rule had been, presumed successor Saif would lead the country to prosperity and democracy if only the world (and Libyans) would let the family remain in power undisturbed. And, for years, it worked, just like so many of Qaddafi's schemes and plots.

It was not until the February revolution began that it all came tumbling down. Troops fired on protesters ruthlessly, but quickly disintegrated when popular protests grew; the regime's support and strength, it turned out, was not what it had appeared. Saif promised "rivers of blood," outing the inner Muammar that had likely been there all along. Young people from across society, middle aged technocrats, the expat survivors of Qaddafi's decades-long quest to assassinate the most prominent exiled activists, and minority groups rapidly came together in the first real, mass Libyan social movement since the country had fought off Italian colonists a century earlier. Qaddafi's supposedly iron grip on the country appeared to have been little more than a ruse, albeit one he had maintained for more than a generation. That he fell is not the surprise -- it's that he ever ruled at all.

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

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