Libyan Leader Arab World’s Perennial Gadfly

Analysis by Thalif Deen

HAVANA TIMES, March 4 (IPS) — The irrepressible Hollywood comedian and celebrated movie director Woody Allen once jokingly remarked that the 1917 Russian Revolution erupted when the serfs discovered that “czar” and “tsar” were one and the same autocratic monarch they hated.

But certainly the revolution in Libya last month did not start when the civilian demonstrators in the streets of Tripoli were told that “Qaddafi” and “Gaddafi” were one and the same eccentric leader they abhorred.

Ever since the revolution hit the front pages of newspapers worldwide, Libyan leader Muammar el-Gaddafi has been dismissed by critics as “mercurial”, “unpredictable”, “pompous”, “delusional” and even “nutty”.

But he has been best described as a “megolamaniac” who wanted his ‘Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’ (GSPLAJ)’ extended beyond its shores in the exercise of political power – not forgetting his grandiose plans for a United States of Africa (a sort of a synthetic USA to compete with the real McCoy).

Described as a maverick in the Arab world, Gaddafi always harbored visions of a pan-Arab Islamic federation – a goal that eluded even the widely-venerated Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.

At various times, Gaddafi tried to form “Arab federations” trying to politically link his country with Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Chad and Algeria. But his ambitious plans were either short-lived or never got off the ground.

A story – perhaps apocryphal or perhaps real – circulating in the Arab world recounts his visit to China in the 1980s.

During a meeting with the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, so the story goes, Gaddafi proposed a possible political confederation between Libya and China.

China’s supreme leader, who was then presiding over a country with more than 900 million people, pondered for a while and asked Gaddafi how large his country’s population was. Told that Libya’s population at that time was a relatively paltry four million people, Deng put his arm around Gaddafi and said rather affectionately: “When you next visit Beijing, why don’t you bring them along with you.”

Although outsized by China, the Libyan leader has never been deterred by the geographical limitations of his country or its tiny population, currently around 6.6 million people.

A country where oil accounts for more than 80 percent of export revenues, Libya has used its riches to make vast strides in improving education, health and the social welfare of its people.

Ever since he ousted the pro-U.S. King Idris in a military coup in September 1969, Gaddafi has been one of the world’s most unorthodox political leaders.

“Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive and unpredictable,” says Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies.

Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism, and professed socialism led many educated Libyans, who formed the backbone of the government, to stay loyal despite their misgivings, he noted.

In large part, Zunes said, this was in reaction to what was seen as punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed U.S. air and missile strikes against the country, as took place back in the 1980s.

It was only when the sanctions and the threats of war subsided back in 2004 there began a dramatic increase in resignations and defections by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government, Zunes wrote in a blog titled ‘Yes’.

“In short, the U.S.-led efforts to isolate, punish, and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator,” he declared.

Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as a strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is, Zunes noted.

The traditional concept of government was long abolished in Libya where political power was theoretically in the hands of the people. Under this arrangement, there were no ministers and cabinet officers, only “secretaries”.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Gaddafi was known to have armed and funded several liberation movements, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Irish Republican Army (RA), the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, Beider-Meinhoff in the former West Germany, the Red Army in Japan and the Dhofar rebels in Oman.

Gaddafi’s political tentacles spread far and wide as he was accused of training dissidents from Chad, Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Niger.

Perhaps one of his most successful ventures was his strong support for Eritreans who fought for the creation of a separate state of Eritrea in 1993, as it broke away from Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.