Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has been the leader of Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya since September 1969. After 40 years in control of his nation, Qaddafi is actually the world’s longest serving non-monarchial head of state.
From being the leader of a successful military coup to being America’s bête noire of the 1980s and then the head of a much-vilified rogue state under twenty-seven years of UN sanctions, the mercurial Qaddafi has lately steered his nation to something of a rapprochement with the West, been elected to the chairmanship of the African Union and simultaneously had a very public falling out with some of his Arab leaders.
This survival is remarkable given the shoals that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has steered his nation onto during his 40 years of rule. Once the villain du jour for Americans, Qaddafi’s wholehearted ideological, fiscal and material support for world terrorism was of the kind that would today have likely earned him a far harsher military response than the relative pin-pricks he suffered in the 1980s. His open pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is also astonishing to compare with the rather more disastrous results that Saddam Hussein brought down upon himself and his country for significantly lesser efforts.
Qaddafi therefore has significance as a survivor; as a leader who transcended the labels of “mad dog” and “rogue state” and managed to slowly and painfully bring his nation back into the fold, despite not making any really significant shifts towards democracy or any slackening of his police state.
The biggest question about Libya’s future path is who will succeed Muammar Qaddafi.
It is widely expected that his successor will be a family member, which seems to be a developing trend in the Middle East. (As the original generation of revolutionary dictators dies off, they are creating hereditary republics or rather, dynastic autocracies. This has been the case in Syria and could occur in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal is seemingly being groomed to succeed him.)
With Qaddafi having seven sons and no heir definitely announced, it is open to speculation what direction the country might take following its leader’s death. The most likely successor would seem to be Qaddafi’s second son Saif al-Islam. He has been instrumental in negotiations with the West and fronts the GIFCA hostage negotiation charity. Fourth son and erstwhile plotter Moatessem-Billah is also a contender and his roles in the national security and military sectors would be a formidable support base.
The legacy of Qaddafi’s 40 years of rule is to have made his country much more prominent than it otherwise would have been.
By dint of his involvement in global terrorism and his outrageous behaviour— flamboyant clothing, corps of attractive female bodyguards and grandiose proclamations— Qaddafi has made people take notice of Libya. When one compares Western ‘awareness’ of Libya compared with its neighbours such as Tunisia, Algeria or even Egypt, it is clear which country is more identifiable, particularly in American public opinion polls.
That this is infamy rather than fame is somewhat immaterial; by making enough noise Qaddafi has had a hand in shaping the politics of the region for the last four decades – a role that is out of proportion to Libya’s importance strategically or economically.
Neighbouring states and even superpowers have had to pay attention to Qaddafi.
The Soviet Union funnelled huge volumes of weaponry and technical expertise through Libya in the 1970s and 1980s. The United States devoted carrier fleets and long-range bombing missions to slap Qaddafi down.
Later, Libya commanded the attention of the highest level American diplomats as it offered to provide an example of reform. The man who had once been branded by Ronald Reagan as a “mad dog” and “squalid criminal” was lauded by George W. Bush and his Secretary of State as a responsible model of co-operation.
The stamp that Muammar Qaddafi has put upon the nation is both a blessing and a curse. It is this legacy then that will dictate the future of Libya, no matter who is leading it. To maintain its elevated profile and ‘punch above its weight’, any future Libyan leader needs to decide how he will make his nation exceptional: whether that be as a pariah or a paragon.
Excerpt from “In the Green Zone: 40 years with Colonel Qaddafi” by Sally Totman and Mat Hardy. APSA Conference 2009.