The Arab Spring has delivered a rich summer harvest. Libya is the latest domino to tumble joining Egypt and Tunisia. Syria and Yemen might be not be far behind, despite the grandstanding of long-standing leaders. With the exception of the regime and Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world is rejoicing Gaddafi’s 42 year reign is over. 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 was supported by the left and the right though some on the left agonised over the NATO bombing campaign. That campaign now looks to be the crucial turning point. Gaddafi threatened to crush the rebellion in March. As matters drifted into a three month stalemate, NATO’s bombing of Tripoli in May proved the spark for the revolution. Gaddafi lost support on the ground, a mood the rebels sensed as they moved east.Gaddafi was reasonably popular at home in the 1970s and 1980s and loved by the European left because he thumbed his nose at the western establishment. Few loved him for his eccentric political philosophies. Gaddafi’s Third International Theory was taken from the mishmash of aphorisms in the Green Book. The book fulminated on matters such as breast feeding and genetic differences and attempted to steer the country in a middle (or muddle) path between capitalism and communism.
His willingness to help resistance organisations such as the IRA and Red Brigades led to pariah status after the 1986 Berlin disco bombing and 1988 Lockerbie bombing. 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 African leaders and presidents (many of whom he trained in Libyan camps) made him head of the African Union in 2009.
The West also had a rapprochement with Gaddafi. Bush’s wars after 9/11 left America needing allies. 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. The oceans of oil brought Gaddafi back in from the cold. The US normalised relations for the first time in 28 years under President Bush in 2008.
Though the west finally felt they could do business with Gaddafi, the Libyan public could not. One in five Libyans were employed as informants and surveillance was a normal part of every workplace. Military service has been compulsory since 1984. Gaddafi survived coup attempts in 1969 (two months into the job), 1975, 1977, 1985 and 1993 and having emerged from the military in a coup himself he abolished traditional military rank to avoid having to deal with a powerful leader caste.
Gaddafi made plenty of enemies. The Tunisian actions lit the fire and sparked a civil war. Rebels took the east easily but met sterner resistance near Tripoli. Gaddafi’s willingness to bomb his own people showed his tenacity to survive. 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 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.