“While it is democratically not permissible for an individual to own any information or publishing medium, all individuals have a natural right to self-expression by any means, even if such means were insane and meant to prove a person's insanity” – Muammar Gaddafi, The Green Book
The Arab Spring has delivered a rich summer harvest. Libya is the latest domino to tumble joining his neighbours in Egypt and Tunisia and it not hard to believe Syria and Yemen might be far behind, despite the grandstanding of their own long-standing leaders. For now, it is difficult not to feel almost universal joy at the astonishing fall of Gaddafi. With the exception of members of the regime and maybe Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world is rejoicing Gaddafi’s 42 year reign is over. It's a big moment. Gaddafi has been in power since man first landed on the moon, and of civilian leaders in the last century only Fidel Castro, Chiang Kai-Shek and Kim Il-Sung have lasted longer.
His overthrow has been supported by the left and the right though some on the left agonised hard over the NATO bombing campaign. That campaign now looks to be the crucial turning point when Gaddafi threatened to crush the rebellion in March. Then when matters drifted into a three month stalemate, NATO’s bombing of Tripoli in May proved the spark for the revolution. Gaddafi had lost the support of people on the ground, a mood the rebels sensed as they moved eastwards.
It was a long fall from grace. Gaddafi was reasonably popular at home in the 1970s and 1980s and loved among the European left for the way in which he thumbed his nose at the western establishment. Few loved him for his own eccentric political philosophies. Gaddafi’s Third International Theory was taken from the mishmash of aphorisms that is the Green Book which prognosticated on matters as diverse as breast feeding and genetic differences and attempted to steer the country in a middle (or muddle) path between capitalism and communism.
In the 1980s his willingness to help western resistance organisations such as the IRA and Red Brigades put him more on the outer leading to pariah status after the 1986 Berlin disco bombing and 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Yet his power internally was never threatened. By the 2000s, he was making a remarkable international comeback. In 2008 200 African kings and tribal leaders pronounced him “king of kings” and then more importantly African leaders and presidents (many of whom he trained in Libyan camps) made him head of the AU in 2009.
The West was also having a rapprochement with Gaddafi. Bush’s wars after 9/11 left the west needing allies wherever they could find them. Tony Blair killed two birds with one stone when he praised Gaddafi in 2004 for his support in the War while lobbying for a half billion dollar investment in Libya for Shell. In the end it was the oceans of oil that brought Gaddafi back in from the cold. Never anxious to give Britain a leg up when it comes to petroleum deals, the US normalised relations for the first time in 28 years under President Bush in 2008.
The west finally felt they could do business with Gaddafi. But it seems the Libyan public did not agree. Gaddafi stifled resistance by ensuring almost one in five Libyans worked as informants. Surveillance was a normal part of every workplace. Military service has been compulsory since 1984. Gaddafi has survived coup attempts in 1969 (barely two months into the job), 1975, 1977, 1985 and 1993 and having emerged from the military in a coup himself has abolished traditional military rank to avoid having to deal with a powerful leader caste.
Ultimately Gaddafi made enough enemies who just needed an excuse to act. The Tunisian actions lit the tinder and sparked a civil war that took the east easily but which met sterner resistance on the road to Tripoli. Gaddafi’s willingness to bomb his own people showed his tenacity to survive above all else. But as Juan Cole notes, once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people to the regime could again manifest itself, as it had in February. While his exact fate remains unknown at the time of writing, Gaddafi is a dead man walking. It is a triumph for NATO. The template for military action should now be used in Syria which has also turned its military against its own population.