Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 22:10 GMT 23:10 UK

World: Africa

Colonel Gaddafi: A maverick veteran

A major player in the 1970s - flanked by the Egyptian and Syrian presidents

As Colonel Gaddafi celebrates three decades in power, former BBC Middle East correspondent Gerald Butt looks at the life of the man who once prided himself on being a pan-Arabist but who now feels closer to Africa.

Thirty years ago, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi led a military coup that toppled King Idris and ended the monarchy in Libya. But since then, he has ruled his country in the style of the most eccentric of absolute monarchs imaginable.

The BBCs John Simpson interviews Col Gaddafi in Tripoli in 1998
Colonel Gaddafi's Libya is unlike any other country in North Africa, the Middle East or the world at large.

It has the stamp of its leader imprinted on every aspect of its life - even its name.

Aside from monarchies and sheikhdoms, every other Arab state is happy to call itself a republic - in Arabic, 'jumhuriya.'

[ image:  ]
But in 1977 Colonel Gaddafi coined a new word in Arabic to describe his new Libya, governed - in theory at least - by popular committees. It was, he decreed, a "Jamahariya" - a state of the masses.

Colonel Gaddafi's political and social theories are set out in rambling fashion in three volumes of his Green Book, completed in the late 1970s.

Cultural revolution

Nearly four years after coming to power he launched what he called a cultural revolution.

[ image: Lockerbie has cast a shadow over Libyan foreign relations for a decade]
Lockerbie has cast a shadow over Libyan foreign relations for a decade
The main thrust was to remove all traces of imported ideologies, like capitalism and communism, and all signs of foreign influence, before building a new society based on the basic principles of Islam and home-grown socialism.

As part of this process, corrupt officials were punished and politically unsound books burned.

As popular committees were formed, the Revolutionary Command Council was scrapped and effective authority taken from governors, ministers and senior officials.

But despite the cosmetic changes, ultimate power to push through revolutionary changes rested in the hands of Colonel Gaddafi alone.

A simple life

Even though Libya enjoys a vast oil income, Colonel Gaddafi himself purports to enjoy a simple lifestyle.

Col Muammar Gaddafi tells the BBC in 1998 that the UK tried to assassinate him
He greets foreign visitors in a traditional bedouin tent, and likes to spend long periods in the desert.

This, he says, is because of his affinity with the desert region where he was born, in 1942, to a bedouin family.

Rebellious youth

Gaddafi grew up in an atmosphere of rebellion.

[ image: Libya has been shaped by its leader more than most countries]
Libya has been shaped by its leader more than most countries
Members of his family had taken part in the armed struggle to end Italian colonial rule, and his father and one of his uncles served prison sentences.

The young Gaddafi was strongly influenced in his formative years by the pan-Arab nationalism espoused by the charismatic Egyptian leader, President Gemal Abdel-Nasser.

During the Suez crisis of 1956, Gaddafi, aged 14, took part in anti-Israeli demonstrations. Later, at military college, he began forming plans for toppling the monarchy.

[ image:  ]
After further army training in Britain, he returned to Benghazi, in eastern Libya, forming a secret group which planned the forthcoming coup.

On 1 September 1969 Colonel Gaddafi personally led an attack on the Benghazi radio station that signalled its start.

Under the slogan, "socialism, unity and freedom", a new chapter in Libya's history began.

In opposing what he regards as the pernicious influence of the West on the Arab world and in pursuit of his desire to destroy Israel, Colonel Gaddafi has, at times, given financial help to a broad range of Palestinian and other terrorist groups around the globe, including the IRA.

Alleged Libyan involvement in terror attacks in Europe in 1986 led to US military strikes against Tripoli.

From Arabist to African

All the while, the Libyan leader was preaching the need for Arab unity.

After the death of President Nasser in 1970, Colonel Gaddafi had assumed that it was his natural role to step into the shoes of the former undisputed leader of the Arabs.

Nearly three decades later, the bitterness he feels at being rebuffed time and again in his efforts at promoting unity has boiled over into a public rejection of the Arab world as a whole.

[ image: 1986 was a low point for Col Gaddafi after the US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi]
1986 was a low point for Col Gaddafi after the US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi
He said in a recent interview that Africa "is closer to me in every way than Iraq or Syria."

His mission now: To unite the states of Africa.

From the perspective of other Arab leaders, Colonel Gaddafi is too quixotic and unpredictable to be taken seriously.

As a result, they were not prepared to translate the sympathy they felt for Libya, as sanctions were imposed after the Lockerbie bombing, into action to help Colonel Gaddafi.

They believe that his meddling with terrorist groups and such acts as the murder of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher by staff firing from inside the Libyan People's Bureau in London in 1984 have made Libya a country that is best kept at arm's distance.

Among the Arab people, the judgment is less harsh.

Colonel Gaddafi has won some respect for having the courage to speak his mind without fear.

He has struck a common chord, for example, in recently denouncing the deals that a number of Arab leaders have struck with Israel as a shameful sell-out.

But at the same time Arabs are well aware that the views of this maverick veteran are as likely to have as much impact on real life as his former dream of regional unity.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia

Relevant Stories

31 Aug 99 | Africa
Analysis: Settling down after 30 years

31 Aug 99 | Africa
Gaddafi: Three decades in pictures

20 Aug 99 | Africa
Gaddafi calls for United States of Africa

20 Oct 98 | Middle East
Britain tried to kill me - Gaddafi

31 Aug 99 | Lockerbie
Fast facts on Lockerbie

Internet Links

Air Accident Investigation Branch (Lockerbie)

Libya Online

Library of Congress - Libya

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Dam builders charged in bribery scandal

Burundi camps 'too dire' to help

Sudan power struggle denied

Animal airlift planned for Congo

Spy allegations bug South Africa

Senate leader's dismissal 'a good omen'

Tatchell calls for rights probe into Mugabe

Zimbabwe constitution: Just a bit of paper?

South African gays take centre stage

Nigeria's ruling party's convention

UN to return to Burundi

Bissau military hold fire

Nile basin agreement on water cooperation

Congo Brazzaville defends peace initiative

African Media Watch

Liberia names new army chief