Libya Table of Contents

SWEEPING AND FUNDAMENTAL changes were introduced in Libya after Colonel Muammar al Qadhafi and his Free Officers Movement overthrew the Sanusi monarchy on September 1, 1969, and proclaimed the "Green Revolution." Because of the many radical and experimental policies that Qadhafi has tried to implement in Libya, he has been described frequently as a mercurial and quixotic leader. But while Qadhafi's policy making has been unpredictable, it has not been random or capricious. Rather, Qadhafi's political behavior has been dictated by his own elaborate and evolving normative political ideology, which he set forth in his three-volume The Green Book.

The essence of Qadhafi's philosophy is the Third Universal Theory, so-called because it is intended to be an alternative to capitalism and Marxism. The theory calls for the institution in Libya of what Qadhafi calls "direct democracy." In a direct democracy, as envisaged by Qadhafi, citizens govern themselves through grass-roots activism without the mediation or intervention of state institutions or other organizational hierarchies in the military, tribes, ulama, or intelligentsia. In an effort to implement direct democracy, Qadhafi altered or dismantled governmental and social structures. He launched a Cultural Revolution in 1973, instituted "people's power" in 1975, and proclaimed that Libya was a "state of the masses" in 1977. Finally, to emphasize his policy of decentralization, Qadhafi relinquished his own formal governmental position in 1979 and insisted he be referred to simply as "Leader of the Revolution."

The striking innovation in the Libyan political system since Qadhafi came to power resulted from his desire to replace subnational traditional leaders with administrators with the skills needed to modernize the country. The changes were also ostensibly intended to foster egalitarianism, mass mobilization, revolutionary commitment, public participation, and self-determination among Libyan citizens. From a pragmatic perspective, however, the changes served primarily to undermine the authority of traditional or alternate elite groups that posed a potential challenge to Qadhafi's leadership.

It is ironic, then, that the changes intended to enfranchise the citizenry have instead served primarily to bolster Qadhafi's personal power by diminishing governmental checks and balances on his executive power and eliminating all other power bases. In 1987 there was little doubt that Qadhafi remained the country's strongman, the fulcrum of power, and the single most important figure in Libya.

Although Qadhafi in theory advocated dismantling the structure of government, in reality Libya in 1987 had an elaborate and complex bureaucratic structure because the new organizations Qadhafi created had been superimposed upon existing institutions. In 1987 the primary formal instrument of government was the General People's Congress (GPC), both an executive and legislative body, which convened three times annually. The GPC was headed by a small General Secretariat composed primarily of members of the former Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which was abolished in 1977. A General People's Committee performed the function of a cabinet, replacing the old Council of Ministers. Subnational representation and participation were accomplished through three roughly parallel and overlapping structures: people's committees that were organized at the basic (urban ward or rural village) and municipal levels, Arab Socialist Union (ASU), the only authorized political mass organization; Basic Popular Congress (BPC); and revolutionary committees organized both geographically and functionally. The lines of authority and responsibility among these four bodies were unclear, which occasionally caused intense competition and rivalry within the government. Moreover, in 1987 there were indications that Qadhafi intended to introduce a fifth similar organizational structure in the form of a new political party.

On the international level, Libya sought to foster pan-Arabism and Islamic and Third World solidarity. Initially, Libya advocated positive neutrality, but for pragmatic reasons, soon gravitated toward a close relationship with the Soviet Union. Concurrently, Libya's interpretation of the North-South dimension of global politics emphasized the division between industrialized, resourceconsuming nations and underdeveloped resource producers, a division that, in Qadhafi's view, overshadowed the East-West dichotomy. Libya under Qadhafi played a leading role in the efforts among producing countries to gain full control of petroleum production and to use that production for internal development and as a political weapon with which to reward friendly nations and punish opponents.

Qadhafi is hostile toward the United States and other Western countries because these countries generally support Israel. Because of its anti-Western stance, the Libyan regime gained a reputation for conducting unconventional, belligerent, and aggressive foreign relations. There were frequent and widespread allegations that Libya sponsored transnational terrorist activities, supported dozens of insurrectionary movements worldwide, and assassinated exiled opponents. Just as Libya's domestic policies had resulted in a situation contrary to what Qadhafi claimed he desired, so too had its foreign policy. Qadhafi's maverick foreign policy not only angered Western countries, but it also alienated many of Libya's erstwhile or potential allies in the Third World that were the intended audience of the Third Universal Theory.

Because of the precipitous decline of the oil revenues that had funded Qadhafi's foreign and domestic policies, the dizzying pace of internal change, and the country's image as an international pariah, the regime's viability and durability were questioned. Nevertheless, in late 1987, most foreign observers doubted that a coup d'état was imminent.


For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Libya.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress