Some people may argue that the Western military intervention is aimed at grabbing Libya’s vast oil and gas reserves, but Qaddafi’s stubborn refusal to step down has also facilitated the West in making this intervention possible.
Having an area of 1,757,000 square kilometres and population of 6,173,579, Libya is North Africa’s largest oil producing country, having a society with strong tribal affiliations. The turbulent events taking place in this vast desert country have gripped the world’s attention over the past few weeks. When the wind of democracy and change sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa reached Libya, instead of following the footsteps of Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Colonel Muammar Al-Qaddafi launched a relentless assault on his opponents describing them as stray dogs, rats, drug addicts and al-Qaeda militants. It was quite obvious that even after more than four decades of authoritarian rule, the fanatical lust for power in this old man was still young. Let us have a closer look at his long despotic rule, characterized by stubbornness, defiance and ruthless suppression of opposition.
On September 1, 1969, while the 79-year-old King Idris of Libya was in Turkey, a group of young army captains, most of whom were in their late 20s, surprised everyone by their swift overthrow of the royal government, taking advantage of the divided opposition and the much discredited old regime.
The new revolutionary government was led by a 27-year-old army officer Muammar Al-Qaddafi, who was inspired by Nasser’s style of leadership and aspired to project himself as the new leader of the Arab world, with his socialist policies, anti-Israeli rhetoric and outspoken criticism of the West. In 1971, Libya, Egypt and Syria agreed to form a federation, to promote a mutual military alliance against Israel. On the internal front, besides nationalising the country’s oil reserves, all banks were also nationalised and it was decreed that all businesses must be owned by the Libyans. By the mid-1970s, Qaddafi’s domestic revolution was coalescing. A decade of economic upheaval began as the government seized most private property and instituted a radically egalitarian welfare state.Under Qaddafi’s leadership, Libya began playing a much more active role in Arab affairs and in international politics. It vigorously opposed the peace accord between Israel and Egypt and joined Syria in the so-called ‘rejectionist front’ in 1978. Besides supporting Palestinian Lib eration Organisation (PLO), Qaddafi was also accused of supplying weapons to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and to those who carried out the assassinations of Libyan dissidents living abroad.
Libyan relations with the United States began deteriorating in the early 1980s. In 1981, US navy jets shot down two Libyan fighter planes over international waters in the Gulf of Sidra. Libya which regarded the whole region of the Gulf of Sidra as its territorial waters decried the attacks. In 1986, another encounter in the Gulf of Sidra resulted in the destruction of two Libyan ships by the US navy. In April that same year, in response to the heightened terrorism in Europe, allegedly sponsored by Qaddafi’s regime, United States bombed several sites in Libya, including Qaddafi’s home and Bab Alazizia Barracks resulting in the death of Qaddafi’s infant daughter and serious damage to a number of other military installations. In 1992, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya for its refusal to extradite two Libyans who were suspected of being involved in the bombing of the Pan-American flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988.
Some reports suggest that it was Qaddafi’s government which gave sensitive information to the United States regarding Dr. Abdul Qadeer, resulting in immense international pressure on Pakistan to take action against its most respected nuclear scientist.
For the first 25 years of his rule, Qaddafi had tried to project himself as a heroic leader of the Arab world and self-appointed leader of opposition to the recognised international system. With his outspoken condemnation of Western policies, he had attempted to gain the support and sympathies of the ordinary Arabs and other Muslims. But by the mid 1990s, quite unexpectedly, he began to soften his earlier stance. Decades of disappointment over his failure to engineer Arab unity, added burden of international sanctions and increasing opposition to his rule at home, took a heavy toll on his regime. Tired of his tyrannical rule, some of the best educated Libyans had left the country and settled abroad where they formed opposition groups. Moreover, he had come to power as a staunch advocate of Islam, but with the passage of time, it became increasingly obvious that like most other dictatorial rulers of the region, he also had a selective approach towards religion and staunchly adhered to only those religious teachings which were helpful in prolonging his rule and promoting his worldly objectives. As he parted ways with the religious elite of his country, his version of Islam became increasingly heterodox. As he came under stiff opposition from the Islamist groups, he realised that for the survival of his regime, he would have to join hands with those governments which he had most vigorously opposed during the previous years. Gradually, he began showing his interest in participating in the international system not as a ‘Rogue state as the US had labeled his country, but as a law-abiding member of the international community. Thus, in 1999, Libya agreed to hand over the two suspects of the Lockerbie bombing, to stand trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law. Millions of dollars were paid in compensation to the families of the victims. Consequently, the United Nations suspended its sanctions. In order to get closer to the United States, in 2003, Qaddafi announced that he was ready to cooperate with the international community for dismantling his nuclear weapons programme. Some reports suggest that it was Qaddafi’s government which gave sensitive information to the United States regarding Dr. Abdul Qadeer, resulting in immense international pressure on Pakistan to take action against its most respected nuclear scientist. The announcement regarding the forsaking of weapons of mass destruction and acceptance of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, encouraged the US to normalise its relations with Libya and full diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 2006.Throughout this period, Qaddafi’s main pre-occupation was the consolidation of his hold on power. He may be counted among those rulers who regard their countries as their ancestral estates and wish to pass on their power and authority to their sons after their death. Thus, like Saddam of Iraq and Hafez Al-Assad of Syria, he trained and groomed his sons especially, Saiful-Islam to become his successor. During Qaddafi’s rule, there was an evident disparity between the Eastern and Western regions of Libya. The Eastern region which has most of the country’s oil reserves remained largely neglected and impoverished, while living standards of the people were raised in Tripoli and other Western areas where Qaddafi’s own tribesmen are dominant. Quite naturally, the present armed uprising against him started from the main Eastern city of Ben Ghazi.
Under Qaddafi’s leadership, Libya began playing a much more active role in Arab affairs and in international politics. It vigorously opposed the peace accord between Israel and Egypt and joined Syria in the so-called ‘rejectionist front’ in 1978.
When rulers like Qaddafi remain in power for an exceptionally long period of time, they become so proud and overconfident that they grow indifferent to the changes taking place around them and begin to believe that no power on earth can remove them from power. The same thing happened with Qaddafi who in spite of witnessing the toppling of the old dictatorial regimes in the neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, continued to hope against hope that nothing of this sort was likely to happen in his country. If he had been wise enough, he should have voluntarily stepped down, to salvage some of his old image and to prevent the bloodshed of his own people. By describing his opponents as al-Qaeda activists, he hoped to win Western support, without realising the fact that after utilising the old Arab rulers for their own interests for several years, the Western powers are now looking for a new generation of Arab rulers who would apparently have a more democratic outlook, but would be as loyal to the West as were their predecessors. By refusing to bow down to the international pressure to step down, he again hoped to regain popular support in the Arab world by presenting himself as a hero, fighting against colonial and imperialistic aggression. While doing so, he seemed to have forgotten that the masses in the Arab world are not as ignorant and simple as they used to be in the past. With the advent of the Internet and independent media, people are now quite capable of seeing through the tricks and twists of their rulers.
Moreover, the next few weeks and months will also be crucial to expose the West’s real intentions behind its apparent desire to see democratic change in the region. The swift Western military intervention in Libya in the form of the no fly zone is apparently aimed at protecting the ordinary Libyan civilians. But if the situation deteriorates in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria, it remains to be seen whether the West will intervene with the same swiftness and if at all it intervenes, will it be for the protection of ordinary civilians or for the protection of their old rulers. Already, hundreds of people have been killed in these countries, but besides issuing some lukewarm statements of condemnation, the West seems to be in no mood to take practical steps for the protection of their civilians. If no fly zone can be so promptly enforced on Libya, why not on Gaza and Kashmir? Such double standards of the West indicate that it has some hidden objectives behind its apparent sympathy for the Libyan civilians. But while condemning the West, it should also be remembered that the UN resolution 1973 had the full backing of the Arab League. Even Russia, China and India did not oppose it. Some people may argue that the Western military intervention is aimed at grabbing Libya’s vast oil and gas reserves, but Qaddafi’s stubborn refusal to step down has also facilitated the West in making this intervention possible.