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
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.
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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.