Moammar Kadafi’s many vanities led the Libyan leader and his intelligence network into miscalculating the breadth of outrage against him in his own land. Long one of the Arab world’s most perplexing personalities, Kadafi has traveled the globe with a tent, warning against foreign intervention while polishing his image at home as the country’s “Brotherly Leader.”
But the unrest sweeping the tribal nation is a sign that after four decades in power, Kadafi has lost the support of key clans and loyalists, and has steadily relied on repression to stay in power. It is as if he failed to grasp the dynamic of change emanating from Tunisia to his west and Egypt to his east.
“Kadafi’s biggest mistake was that he built his whole regime on pure fear,” said Omar Amer, a member of the Libyan Youth Movement, a protest group that spreads its message through Facebook. “He totally abandoned civilizing Libya. He neglected education and development projects. He left the majority of his people in the dark ages and built his might on fear through torturing and killing political dissidents in public.
“But the fear that Kadafi built his empire with is gone, and that was his last shelter,” Amer added.
Kadafi lost the eastern city of Benghazi to demonstrators, and protesters roamed the streets and set fires in the capital, Tripoli. Fighter jets streaked overhead. Government buildings burned; holes were punched through his portraits. Such scenes, captured on cellphone videos streaming out of his isolated country, revealed the vulnerable edifice of a leader who once seemed unconquerable.
“There had been an idea across the Middle East that the regimes were very strong and they cannot be changed or challenged,” said Lahcen Achy, an expert on North Africa with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “With the changes that happened in Tunisia and Egypt, everyone began questioning this idea. Libya is another case. People thought Kadafi could not be challenged.”
Kadafi has cast a curious political shadow across North Africa and the Middle East throughout a 41-year rule in which he has veered from terrorist plotter to oil-rich opportunist. But the man with the trademark sunglasses and unchained verbosity has never encountered anything like the protest movement that has flared across his cities, leading several top officials to abandon him and two large tribes to side with demonstrators.
Kadafi was a 27-year-old lieutenant colonel when he led a 1969 coup against Libya’s pro-West monarchy. Switching over the decades from flowing desert robes to military regalia and a chest full of medals, he has championed nationalism, pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism and Jamahiriya, or a “republic ruled by the masses.” Not known for brevity, Kadafi, now 68, has elaborated his ideologies in circuitous, numbing speeches.
That ponderousness has been backed in recent years by $50 billion in annual oil revenues for a population of only 6 million. But that money has failed to lift many young people out of poverty or provide decent schools, hospitals and other institutions. The man who called himself Brotherly Leader failed to inspire the nation, while his security apparatus crushed any opposition voices.
There have been recent attempts at economic reforms, most notably led by Kadafi’s son Seif Islam. Those measures drew many intellectual and business exiles back home with the idea of opening Libya up to the modern world. The moves, however, soon appeared less than genuine.
“There came a point in the past few years when the government put a lot of effort into going out and seeking dissidents who were abroad,” said Molly Tarhuni, an independent analyst doing research at the London School of Economics. “That was the face of the reform effort.... Then it got completely shelved, which was a real kick in the teeth.”
Libya’s links to terrorism over the years, including an attack on a Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers, prompted President Reagan, who called Kadafi the “mad dog of the Middle East,” to bomb Libya in 1986. Two years later, Tripoli was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi was convicted in 2001.
Kadafi agreed to pay nearly $3 billion in compensation to families of the airline bombing victims. Megrahi was released from prison in 2009 for medical reasons, drawing criticism in Britain that a deal with Kadafi had been made over protecting European businesses and trade.
“There was a period when he was popular in the Arab world because of his positions against Israel and the U.S.,” Achy said. “But at the end of the day, if we look at his vision for the economy or even the foreign policy of Libya, he has no consistency or constructive views on how to develop the country.”
Libya suffered under years of economic sanctions. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kadafi, fearing the possible toppling of his regime and a need to end sanctions, changed his tone toward the West. He condemned the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers and offered international inspectors access to his nuclear program.
President George W. Bush lifted most U.S. sanctions against Libya and announced the gradual restoring of diplomatic relations. But Kadafi has rarely let a chance pass to criticize what he regarded as the creeping dangers of imperialism. In a 2009 address to the United Nations, he said the organization’s 15-member Security Council “should be called the terror council.”
His international fracases, including a diplomatic 2008 standoff with Switzerland after his son Hannibal was arrested in Geneva on charges of abusing servants, preoccupied the country and widened dissent.
“The incident also reflects the gap — perceived by some to be growing — between average Libyans, who take a dim view of the Kadafi clan’s embarrassing and repeated falls from grace, and a hidebound regime that sees the state as an extension of the Kadafi family empire,” says a U.S. diplomatic cable titled “Thug Life” recently released by WikiLeaks.
The family scenario grew more complicated when Seif Islam “implicitly criticized past decisions of his father’s regime,” according to diplomatic cables. He said sanctions had led to “stagnation for decades” and that Libya needed a “more robust civil society, judicial reform, greater respect for human rights and more press freedoms.”
Kadafi himself criticized the country’s decentralized government, according to the cables, for failing to privatize the economy and push reforms so that officials could “maintain the status quo to continue profiting from corruption.”
Even then, critics accused the flamboyant leader of “staged political theater” to brace his people for the prospect that reform would be less than promised. Kadafi, who has survived attempted assassinations and coups, has made a career of such maneuverings, but his compatriots have grown wiser and angrier.
“Kadafi’s problem is the same as presidents like Zine el Abidine ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt,” said Mohamed Makhluf, a Libyan film director living in exile in London. “He became so detached that he convinced himself that all Libyans are happy under his rule.”
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London and special correspondents Amro Hassan in Cairo and Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.