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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 12:14 GMT
Analysis: Gaddafi's revolution
Colonel Gaddafi
Gaddafi says the Lockerbie conviction was a mistake
By Middle East analyst Gerald Butt

The past always catches up with you. So Colonel Muammar Gaddafi must be thinking as he digests the decision of the Scottish judges in The Hague to jail for 20 years one of the Libyan defendants in the Lockerbie trial.

The Libyan leader could not hide his anger.

Protests against Lockerbie conviction
Gaddafi has a lot of support in Libya
But his colourful rhetoric in response - suggesting even that the judges should commit suicide to pay for the mistake they had made - was more an echo of a younger and much more hot-headed Gaddafi than the one the public tends to see today.

And having promised on 5 February to produce fresh evidence to prove that the sentenced Libyan was innocent, Col Gaddafi revealed nothing new - manging instead only a rather tired diatribe against the West.

Over recent years, looking and sounding increasingly weary, the Libyan leader seems to have come to terms with his own mortality.

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

With the wisdom of years, perhaps, he has tried hard to turn a new page and clean up the image of his country as a haven for revolutionaries.

On the diplomatic front he has sought to have Libya accepted back into the international community. He wants the world to believe that he and his country have cast aside their rebellious streak.

But he is having more trouble convincing people than he imagined, and the Lockerbie verdict will not make that process any easier. The image of the Libyan leader as an unpredictable maverick will be hard to erase.

Thirty years ago, Colonel 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.

Cultural revolution

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.

Ultimate power to push through revolutionary changes rested in the hands of Colonel Gaddafi alone

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

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

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.


Even though Libya enjoys a vast oil income, Colonel Gaddafi himself purports to enjoy a simple lifestyle. He greets foreign visitors in a traditional bedouin tent, and likes to spend long periods in the desert.

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

This, he says, is because of his affinity with the desert region where he was born, in 1942, to a bedouin family. He grew up in an atmosphere of rebellion.

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.

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.

African links

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 armed groups around the globe, including the IRA.

Colonel Gaddafi
Gaddafi has moulded Libya in his own style
Alleged Libyan involvement in terror attacks in Europe in 1986 led to US military strikes against Tripoli.

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

After the death of President Nasser in 1970, he had assumed 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.

1986 was a low point for Colonel 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."

Arab views

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.

In one respect Colonel Gaddafi is in step with all other Arab leaders in wanting the old revolutionary Libya cast into the history books. Which is why they want the Lockerbie verdict to be the start of a new chapter, not just another page in the old one.

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See also:

02 Feb 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Gaddafi keeps West guessing
04 Feb 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Libya in ferment over Lockerbie
02 Feb 01 | Middle East
Tripoli in the spotlight
01 Feb 01 | Media reports
A victory, says Libyan TV
01 Feb 01 | World
Libya refuses to accept blame
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