News / Africa

Eccentricity, Repression Marked Gadhafi's Rule

 Colonel Moammar Gadhafi died Wednesday, ending his months-long fight against transitional fighters. To the end, he refused to step down, a stubbornness that reflects his 40-year dictatorship. He was the Arab world’s longest ruling leader and was just a 27-year-old army officer when he took power in 1969 after a military coup against Libya's king.

He quickly gained an outspoken reputation, highly critical of the West. He no longer wore a military uniform, played up his Arab pride and tried to unite the Arab world. Later, his flashy assessories, rambling speeches and female bodyguards made him an eccentric leader on the world stage.

"We tend to focus on his eccentricities, but having said that, for the most part he has been a really rather effective, especially on international platforms and can be quite charming but he certainly is rather peculiar," said Jerrold Post, the director of the political psychology program at George Washington University.

Gadhafi created a social, political and economic system called "Jamahiriya," Arabic for state of the masses.  He outlined his philosophy in his famous Green Book. He called for a country without institutions, run by the people and led by him.  But Daniel Serwer of the Middle East Institute says it never worked that way.

"He was somebody who taught the Libyans that they should form councils to govern themselves. He didn't allow them to govern themselves. It was one man rule," he said.

'Symbol of unity'

Serwer says Libya's oil and gas wealth gave Gadhafi influence at home and abroad. He stashed away the riches for himself and his closest allies.

“He also became a symbol of unity of Libya, which had been kind of cobbled together from different pieces."

Ties to terrorism tarnished Gadhafi's international image. The U.S. blamed him for a German nightclub bombing in 1986 that killed two U.S. servicemen.

In 2003, Gadhafi took steps to reconcile with the West. He admitted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 that killed 270 people in Lockerbie, Scotland. He also renounced weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.  In turn, the U.S. removed components of Libya's nuclear program from the country, dropped sanctions and restored diplomatic ties. 

Final days

But at home earlier this year, thousands of Libyans rebelled against Gadhafi's authoritarian rule.

They joined the Arab Spring and demanded he step down. He responded with a violent crackdown.

Soon much of the world was against him, too. The United Nations issued sanctions. NATO launched air strikes.

But Gadhafi refused to leave.

"There is a conspiracy to control the Libyan oil, to control the Libyan land and to colonize Libya again. This is impossible, impossible and we will fight until the last man and woman to defend Libya," the Libyan said

It was always about him, says Jerrold Post. “He has this internal image of himself, perhaps another way of saying this is that his major audience is the mirror on his wall. And he is saying, 'Mirror, mirror on the way, who is the greatest Pan-African, Muslim, third world leader of them all?' And he finds ways of reassuring himself that the answer keeps going back, 'You are Moammar.'”

Daniel Serwer has similiar views. "It will be a legacy of autocracy, of resistance to democracy. Of really foolishness and delusional foolishness for many people," he said.

In the end, Moammar Gadhafi, the young army officer of nomadic parents, who touted himself as a unifier, unified many Libyans against him.

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