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Libya's Qaddafi Opens Celebrations To Mark 40 Years In Power

  • Charles Recknagel

A woman walks past a picture of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli.

A woman walks past a picture of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli.

The Arab world has seen many handsome young men ride to power in coups against lackluster regimes. But few have stayed in power afterward as long as Muammar Qaddafi.

Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser led his country for 14 years before dying of a heart attack. Iraq's Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq for 27 years before being hanged. And Syria's Hafez al-Assad ruled for 29 years before his heart failed.

But Qaddafi has been in power for a full four decades -- making him the longest-standing of his generation of strongmen.

And, given the odds against anyone lasting that long in the turbulent world of Arab politics, that is no small feat.

"While some of his more eccentric habits, his dress, his Bedouin tent, his all-female bodyguards may appear colorful or a bit wacky, it seems that he is a very clever, careful political operator," says Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London.

"To have effected a coup at the age of 27 and then to have set up a whole new system and to have run Libya with the tight grip he has for 40 years is a testament to his skill and it does seem very likely that he retains that full control today as much as ever and there has been no slackening of the political space in Libya and it remains impossible to have any form of even very mild criticism, let alone political opposition."

Qaddafi is celebrating his achievement for an entire week. Beginning on September 1, the day on which 40 years ago as a young captain he launched his "Great First of September" revolution, Qaddafi is hosting extravaganza after extravaganza in Tripoli in his own honor.

The kickoff show was to be a three-hour showcase that government officials vowed would rival an Olympic opening ceremony. It was to include military bands, aerobatic flights, fireworks displays, 400 dancers depicting scenes from Libya's history, and lots of revolutionary songs.

One Of A Kind

The world is taking note, for two reasons.

One is that Qaddafi has always fascinated people as one of the most mercurial leaders of our time.

After taking power at age 27 by deposing aging King Idris I in a bloodless coup, he was never prepared merely to take on one role and remain in it.

Soon after taking power, he switched his military uniform for stylish safari suits and sunglasses, raising predictions that he might become a Western-style playboy like many of the region's kings before him.

Qaddafi at a recent African summit
But instead he redefined himself as an anti-Western revolutionary in the mode of Che Guevara. He promoted himself from captain only to the rank of colonel, even though he was commander in chief of the army.

And he published a three-volume "Green Book" redefining Libya's form of government from that of a republic to a something that needed a neologism to express: a "Jamahiriya." The word translates as "mass state" or "government by the masses."

The central theory of the Jamahiriya is to devolve power to the people by setting up citizens' self-rule committees. Lowe says Qaddafi clearly put a lot of thought into the theory, and makes a show of governing by it, but that the reality remains that all power is held by the head of state.

"There is no doubt Qaddafi sees himself as an intellectual, as a political thinker, as much as a leader and a guide. Of course, in practice, the actual system has not flourished or worked so effectively, these people's committees and not true people's committees and everything is controlled centrally by the state," Lowe says.

"But it is certainly Qaddafi's argument that the people run the Libyan state, not him personally, and he likes to present himself often as stepping back from taking decisions and indeed there have been times when he has almost -- pretended perhaps -- to be stepping down from power and he says he has no official role, no official title, he is simply the guide of the nation."

All of this might have been seen as fascinating but merely theatrical except for the second reason the world has always taken note of Gaddafi: Libya's oil wealth.

Qaddafi's nationalized the oil sector in 1970, a step which, as in other Arab producer states, wrested control of the resource away from the international energy companies.

Reformed Radical

But then he went a step further. He also made Libya a haven for virtually any revolutionary group that declared itself to be fighting imperialism and gave many of them financial backing.

That made Qaddafi one of the most instantly recognizable figures on the world stage. It also guaranteed that he came into conflict with the West, which charged Tripoli with involvement in numerous terrorist attacks in the 1970s and '80s.

Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed Qaddafi the "mad dog of the Middle East" and ordered bombing raids in 1986 against Tripoli and Libya's main port, Benghazi. More than 50 people died. Libya responded by firing two Scud missiles at a U.S. military facility on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but the missiles landed in the sea.

Tensions remained high as Western governments charged Tripoli with the bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people in 1988. And in the 1990s there were additional Western concerns over Libyan efforts to acquire nuclear weapons technology.

But then, just when Libya -- already under U.S. and UN sanctions -- looked like it could not become more of a pariah state in Western eyes, Qaddafi made an abrupt new change of course.

In 1999, he extradited to Britain the two main Libyan suspects charged with orchestrating the Lockerbie bombing and watched one of them, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, go to prison.

And he abandoned his nuclear program, allowing international inspectors to verify its dismantling.

Those events set the stage for Libya to now move in an entirely new direction with renewed investment from the West and a reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States. And it may give Qaddafi the boost he now needs to remain longer in power despite a very mixed record as a ruler at home.

Embraced, At Arm's Length

During his reign, Libya's economy has suffered from sanctions, from Qaddafi's own peripatetic version of socialism -- including periodic banning of private enterprise -- and low levels of oil exports. All power has been concentrated in the hands of the regime and, many Libyans say, so has the country's wealth.

But Lowe says, in the absence of any political threat at home, it is impossible to know exactly what motivated Qaddafi to open to the West over the past five years.

"Sanctions were having some effect on Libya through the '90s and it is probable that Qaddafi and other Libyans who were part of the ruling elite felt frustrated because economically they were being, not strangled, but economically it was creating problems for them and they realized that could simply be more profitable if they did open up to the West," Lowe says.

"And it is possible that Qaddafi simply changed his mind, which he does do frequently, and often fairly quickly and arbitrarily, it would seem. But with regard to certain economic relations with the West, it is working well."

To help celebrate his four decades as leader, Qaddafi has invited many of the world's leaders -- including those of Western countries now very eager to help their oil companies reenter Libya.

But only a few leaders -- most of them heads of states that are still considered pariahs in the West -- will actually be attending. Those confirmed are the leaders of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

Other heads of state are sending representatives. That is because, for all of Qaddafi's recent outreach to the West, he still retains -- and occasionally exercises -- the kind of confrontational approach to it that made him famous.

By coincidence, Qaddafi's celebration in Tripoli comes just days after Scotland released Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who is reportedly dying of cancer, on compassionate grounds. The Libyan government gave Megrahi a triumphant welcome to Tripoli and the sight disgusted many in the West who see him as an assassin.

"The images that we saw in Libya yesterday were outrageous and disgusting. We continue to express our condolences to the families that lost a loved one as a result of this terrorist murder," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on August 21.

So, no Western heads of state will be in Tripoli even as Qaddafi now throws a party meant to honor his past 40 years in power and look forward to many more. But one thing is certain: once the party is over, the new Western interest in Libya will not only return but intensify.

Libya's oil, and Qaddafi's new interest in opening it up to the highest bidders, guarantee that.