Libya Table of Contents

QadhafiMuammar al Qadhafi was born in a beduin tent in the desert near Surt in 1942. His family belongs to a small tribe of Arabized Berbers, the Qadhafa, who are stockherders with holdings in the Hun Oasis. As a boy, Qadhafi attended a Muslim elementary school, during which time the major events occurring in the Arab world--the Arab defeat in Palestine in 1948 and Nasser's rise to power in Egypt in 1952--profoundly influenced him. He finished his secondary school studies under a private tutor in Misratah, paying particular attention to the study of history.

Qadhafi formed the essential elements of his political philosophy and his world view as a schoolboy. His education was entirely Arabic and strongly Islamic, much of it under Egyptian teachers. From this education and his desert background, Qadhafi derived his devoutness and his austere, even puritanical, code of personal conduct and morals. Essentially an Arab populist, Qadhafi held family ties to be important and upheld the beduin code of egalitarian simplicity and personal honor, distrusting sophisticated, axiomatically corrupt, urban politicians. Qadhafi's ideology, fed by Radio Cairo during his formative years, was an ideology of renascent Arab nationalism on the Egyptian model, with Nasser as hero and the Egyptian revolution as a guide.

In Libya, as in a number of other Arab countries, admission to the military academy and a career as an army officer became available to members of the lower economic strata only after independence. A military career offered a new opportunity for higher education, for upward economic and social mobility, and was for many the only available means of political action and rapid change. For Qadhafi and many of his fellow officers, who were animated by Nasser's brand of Arab nationalism as well as by an intense hatred of Israel, a military career was a revolutionary vocation.

Qadhafi entered the Libyan military academy at Binghazi in 1961 and, along with most of his colleagues from the RCC, graduated in the 1965-66 period. After receiving his commission, he was selected for several months of further training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England. Qadhafi's association with the Free Officers Movement began during his days as a cadet. The frustration and shame felt by Libyan officers who stood by helplessly at the time of Israel's swift and humiliating defeat of Arab armies on three fronts in 1967 fueled their determination to contribute to Arab unity by overthrowing the Libyan monarchy.

At the onset of RCC rule, Qadhafi and his associates insisted that their government would not rest on individual leadership, but rather on collegial decision making. However, Qadhafi's ascetic but colorful personality, striking appearance, energy, and intense ideological style soon created an impression of Qadhafi as dictator and the balance of the RCC as little more than his rubber stamp. This impression was inaccurate and although some members were more pragmatic, less demonstrative, or less ascetic than Qadhafi, the RCC showed a high degree of uniformity in political and economic outlook and in dedication. Fellow RCC members were loyal to Qadhafi as group leader, observers believed, not because of bureaucratic subservience to his dictatorial power, but because they were in basic agreement with him and with the revolutionary Arab nationalist ideals that he articulated.

Although the RCC's principle of conducting executive operations through a predominantly civilian cabinet of technicianadministrators remained strong, circumstances and pressures brought about modifications. The first major cabinet change occurred soon after the first challenge to the regime. In December 1969, Adam Said Hawwaz, the minister of defense, and Musa Ahmad, the minister of interior, were arrested and accused of planning a coup. In the new cabinet formed after the crisis, Qadhafi, retaining his post as chairman of the RCC, also became prime minister and defense minister. Major Abdel Salam Jallud, generally regarded as second only to Qadhafi in the RCC, became deputy prime minister and minister of interior. This cabinet totaled thirteen members, of whom five were RCC officers. The regime was challenged a second time in July 1970 when Abdullah Abid Sanusi, a distant cousin of former King Idris, and members of the Sayf an Nasr clan of Fezzan were accused of plotting to seize power for themselves. After the plot was foiled, a substantial cabinet change occurred, RCC officers for the first time forming a majority among new ministers.

From the start, RCC spokesmen had indicated a serious intent to bring the "defunct regime" to account. In 1971 and 1972 more than 200 former government officials--including 7 prime ministers and numerous cabinet ministers--as well as former King Idris and members of the royal family, were brought to trial on charges of treason and corruption. Many, who like Idris lived in exile, were tried in absentia. Although a large percentage of those charged were acquitted, sentences of up to fifteen years in prison and heavy fines were imposed on others. Five death sentences, all but one of them in absentia, were pronounced, among them, one against Idris. Fatima, the former queen, and Hasan ar Rida were sentenced to five and three years in prison, respectively.

Meanwhile, Qadhafi and the RCC had disbanded the Sanusi order and officially downgraded its historical role in achieving Libya's independence. They attacked regional and tribal differences as obstructions in the path of social advancement and Arab unity, dismissing traditional leaders and drawing administrative boundaries across tribal groupings. A broad-based political party, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), was created in 1971 and modeled after Egypt's Arab Socialist Union. Its intent was to raise the political consciousness of Libyans and to aid the RCC in formulating public policy through debate in open forums. All other political parties were proscribed. Trade unions were incorporated into the ASU and strikes forbidden. The press, already subject to censorship, was officially conscripted in 1972 as an agent of the revolution. Italians and what remained of the Jewish community were expelled from the country and their property confiscated.

After the September coup, United States forces proceeded deliberately with the planned withdrawal from Wheelus Air Base under the agreement made with the previous regime. The last of the American contingent turned the facility over to the Libyans on June 11, 1970, a date thereafter celebrated in Libya as a national holiday. As relations with the United States steadily deteriorated, Qadhafi forged close links with the Soviet Union and other East European countries, all the while maintaining Libya's stance as a nonaligned country and opposing the spread of communism in the Arab world. Libya's army--sharply increased from the 6,000-man prerevolutionary force that had been trained and equipped by the British--was armed with Soviet-built armor and missiles.

As months passed, Qadhafi, caught up in his apocalyptic visions of revolutionary pan-Arabism and Islam locked in mortal struggle with what he termed the encircling, demonic forces of reaction, imperialism, and Zionism, increasingly devoted attention to international rather than internal affairs. As a result, routine administrative tasks fell to Major Jallud, who in 1972 became prime minister in place of Qadhafi. Two years later Jallud assumed Qadhafi's remaining administrative and protocol duties to allow Qadhafi to devote his time to revolutionary theorizing. Qadhafi remained commander in chief of the armed forces and effective head of state. The foreign press speculated about an eclipse of his authority and personality within the RCC, but Qadhafi soon dispelled such theories by his measures to restructure Libyan society.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress