Libya Table of Contents

It was not surprising that opposition arose to the rapid radical changes ushered in by the Qadhafi regime. The wealthy, the privileged, and the traditional tribal and religious elites resented their postrevolutionary loss of power. The ranks of the opposition also grew to include sections of the armed forces, university students, intellectuals and technocrats, and even some of the new political and tribal leaders who clashed with the core elite for one reason or another.

For its part, the revolutionary regime made it clear from the outset that it would brook no opposition. Opposition from political parties or other interest groups was viewed as harmful to national unity. Speaking in October 1969, Qadhafi stated that Libya needed "national unity free of party activities and division" and that "he who engages in party activities commits treason." The December 1969 Decision on the Protection of the Revolution, the Penal Code, and Law No. 71 of 1972 rendered political party activities a crime and formed a strict legal injunction against unauthorized political activity, particularly if such activity should physically threaten the state. Insulting the Constitution or popular authorities and joining a nonpolitical international society without permission were both punishable by imprisonment. Attempting to change the government or the Constitution through force, propagandizing theories or principles aimed at such action, and forming an illegal group were crimes punishable by death. One of the basic points of the cultural revolution, declared in April 1973, called for the repression of communism and conservatism. Also to be repressed were capitalism, atheism, and the secretive Muslim Brotherhood (see Glossary).

Despite legal strictures and physical attempts to nullify opposition, there has been resistance to the revolutionary regime. The discovery of a plot involving two cabinet ministers (lieutenant colonels who were not RCC members) was announced in December 1969. A second plot, allegedly based in Fezzan and involving a distant cousin of former King Idris, was discovered in July 1970. Participation of foreign mercenaries was alleged in both cases. Other resistance has been encountered from traditional tribal leaders who have not welcomed their own displacement by modernizing technocrats, government administrators, people's committees, and popular congresses. Numerous technocrats and other elements of the urban population opposed Qadhafi's emphasis on religion. Traditional Islamic religious leaders also opposed Qadhafi's approach to Islam because its uniquely personal and fundamentalist nature superseded their intermediary position and interpretive function. As in many other developing countries, aspects of the modernization process--such as education and mass communications-- also result in impatience and dissatisfaction with the ruling regime. Increased education and exposure to the mass media were intended to inculcate Libyan citizens with patriotism and loyalty to the regime; however, through education and the media, Libyans also were informed of standards of living and political freedoms enjoyed elsewhere in the world. Exposure to the media created rising expectations that probably increased demands on the government rather than increasing support for it through propaganda.

Student Opposition

As previously noted, students have been the source of the most visible opposition to the Qadhafi regime. They initially appeared to support the revolution. Friction soon developed, however, when it became clear that student organizations would lose their autonomy within the ASU or GPC framework. The revolution nonetheless continued to have student supporters, and many of the first people's committees formed in the wake of the 1973 cultural revolution were established at universities. Those committees radically altered curricula, dismissed professors and deans, and terminated the school term early so that students could join volunteer projects and receive military training. Seventeen years after the Qadhafi-led coup, students as a whole remained divided between supporters and critics of the revolutionary regime.

A particularly serious incident occurred in January 1976 when students at the University of Benghazi protested government interference in student union elections. Elected students who were not ASU members were considered officially unacceptable by the authorities. Security forces moved onto the campus, and violence resulted. Reports that several students were shot and killed in the incident were adamantly denied by the government. Nonetheless, sympathizers organized more protests. Qadhafi and Jallud, speaking on April 6 at Tripoli University, called on revolutionaries there to drive out the opposition. Some clashes occurred as the newly formed people's committee undertook the purging of nonrevolutionaries. The school was finally closed temporarily and then renamed Al Fatah University. Since that time, there have been intermittent reports of student rebelliousness. In April 1984, for instance, two students at Al Fatah University were publicly hanged. Apparently in revenge, two revolutionary committee members were found murdered on campus. According to Amnesty International, two more students died in 1985, allegedly under torture while in the custody of the revolutionary committees.

Military Opposition

The military remained the most serious threat to the Qadhafi regime. By March 1987, there were signs of disaffection among the officers. In part, this was the result of mounting casualties and setbacks in the Chad war. Such discontent was illustrated by the defection to Egypt in early March of six air force personnel, including a lieutenant colonel. Upon landing at Abu Simbel airfield in Upper Egypt, the airmen denounced Qadhafi's rule and requested asylum.

Qadhafi's calls for a people's army that would eventually replace the professional military evidently disturbed the armed forces. Furthermore, the revolutionary committees often increased their power at the military's expense. In addition, the military resented the revolutionary committees' interference in national security affairs. It was reported, for example, that brief armed clashes between the two groups took place when certain missile positions were unable to respond to the United States air attacks in April 1986 because revolutionary committee members who were supposed to man them could not be found.

That Qadhafi had entrusted the revolutionary committees with the vital mission of manning air defense positions underscored the extent to which he has deployed them to counterbalance the power of the armed forces. It indicated that Qadhafi had learned one vital lesson from the often-turbulent Middle East politics, namely that the military has masterminded most coups d'čtat. In measure to forestall possible coup attempts, military commanders were frequently rotated or forced into early retirement. In 1984, for example, about seventy senior officers were obliged to retire. Despite such precautions, the military had managed to stage most of the attempts against Qadhafi since 1976. Most experts believed that the military was the group most likely to topple Qadhafi.

Religious Opposition

In April 1973, Qadhafi launched the five-point Cultural Revolution. Among the points was the replacement of existing laws by sharia. In a speech on April 28, he asked University of Benghazi law students to help revise the legal codes and repeatedly emphasized the principle of the primacy of Islamic law over other jurisprudence. The traditional religious establishment gave initial support to Qadhafi's restoration of Islamic jurisprudence, but it soon started to oppose his actions, accusing him of pretensions.

First, Qadhafi challenged the traditional role of the ulama (Islamic jurists or scholars) as expert interpreters of the Quran. Because the Quran is written in Arabic, argued Qadhafi, anyone who knows Arabic can understand it. As did Martin Luther's Protestantism, Qadhafi's interpretation of Islam recognizes no need for intermediaries between God and humans.

Furthermore, Qadhafi in effect arrogated a new role to himself- -that of a mujtahid, a Muslim jurist who renders decisions based on the opinions of one of the four legal schools of Islam. In this case, Qadhafi sought to reinterpret the Quran in light of modern conditions and current needs. His insistence on the necessity to sweep aside virtually the entire body of Islamic commentary and learning, including the hadith (the Prophet Muhammad's sayings and precedents based on his behavior), and to limit the legitimate sources of legislation to the Quran alone has caused misgivings throughout the Islamic world.

Moreover, Qadhafi's interpretation of Islam was considered radical. He considered the Quran to be the only source of sharia and community. As did other Muslim reformers, Quran saw deviation from "true" Islamic teachings as the cause of the weakness of Islamic lands, including Libya. Like them, he also called for a return to the source, the Quran. But unlike most other reformers, Qadhafi excluded the hadith and the sunna (the lifestyle and deeds of the Prophet) as reliable sources of legislation. By questioning the authenticity of the hadith, Qadhafi has in effect dismissed the entire edifice of traditional fikh (Islamic jurisprudence). As one scholar, Ann Elizabeth Mayer, put it, "discrediting the hadith entails rejection of by far the greater part of Islamic law." In essence, Qadhafi rejected taqlid (obedience to received authority, i.e., the revelation of God to the Prophet Muhammad) in favor of ijtihad (the right to interpretation).

In 1977 Qadhafi took yet another unprecedented, no less controversial step, altering the Muslim calendar. Instead of starting from the date of the Prophet's migration to Medina, the year began with the date of the Prophet's death. Shocked by Qadhafi's radical reinterpretation of Islam, the ulama accused him of heresy. Characteristically, however, the Libyan leader was undaunted.

The confrontation with the ulama began in the mid-1970s, when they criticized some aspects of Qadhafi's increasingly idiosyncratic and radical ideology. In 1977, for example, the grand mufti (chief religious judge) of Libya criticized the sequestration of private property, which resulted from the new law prohibiting the ownership of more than one house.

The clergy were upset because, in effect, The Green Book was displacing sharia as the blueprint for Libya's political and social development. Furthermore, inasmuch as the Third Universal Theory is purportedly a relevant model for non-Muslim Third World countries, the theory's reliance on Islamic precepts had to be diluted.

Accusing the ulama of siding with the upper classes, in February 1978 Qadhafi warned them against interfering in the regime's socialist policies. A few months later, some mosques were seized and their imams (prayer leaders) replaced by more compliant ones. To undermine further the legitimacy of the religious leaders, Qadhafi blamed the grand mufti for failing to declare a jihad against the Italians during the 1930s. Qadhafi's relentless attacks on the traditional religious establishment succeeded in eroding it hitherto lofty status, thereby removing a powerful center of opposition to regime-sponsored changes.

Apart from conflicts with the traditional religious hierarchy, Qadhafi had a longstanding conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups, whose membership went into exile or underground during Qadhafi's tenure. In March 1987, it was reported that nine Muslim dissidents, members of a little-known group called Holy War, were executed for plotting to assassinate Soviet advisers. A revolutionary committee member was assassinated in Benghazi in October 1986 by the hitherto unknown Hizballah (Party of God). As a result, the revolutionary committees began to monitor more closely than before the activities of the mosques, the imams, and the fundamentalists. The country's forty-eight Islamic institutes reportedly were closed in late 1986, apparently to stem the tide of religious, particularly fundamentalist, opposition.

Exiled Opposition

Over twenty opposition groups exist outside Libya. The most important in 1987 was the Libyan National Salvation Front (LNSF), formed in October 1981, and led by Muhammad Yusuf al Magariaf, formerly Libyan ambassador to India. The LNSF was based in Sudan until the fall of the Numayri regime in 1985, after which its operations were dispersed. The LNSF rejected military and dictatorial rule and called for a democratic regime with constitutional guarantees, free elections, free press, and separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The group published a bimonthly newsletter, Al Inqadh (Salvation).

The LNSF claimed responsibility for the daring attack on Qadhafi's headquarters at Bab al Aziziyah on May 8, 1984. Although the coup attempt failed and Qadhafi escaped unscathed, dissident groups claimed that some eighty Libyans, Cubans, and East Germans perished. According to various sources, the United States Central Intelligence Agency trained and supported the LNSF before and after the May 8 operation. Domestically, some 2,000 people were arrested and 8 were hanged publicly. The LNSF also organized the April 1984 demonstration in London in which a British policewoman was killed by a Libyan diplomat, leading to the breaking of diplomatic relations between Tripoli and London.

Another opposition group, the Libyan Liberation Organization, based in Cairo, was formed in 1982. In 1987 it was led by Abdul Hamid Bakkush, a prime minister during the Idris monarchy. In midNovember 1984, Libyan officials were greatly embarrassed by their premature claims of responsibility for the assassination of Bakkush. In fact, the entire operation was elaborately stagemanaged by the Egyptian security forces, who produced a very much alive Bakkush on television along with members of the four-man hit squad, which reportedly consisted of two British citizens and two Maltese.

Al Burkan (The Volcano), a highly secretive and violent organization that emerged in 1984, has been responsible for the assassination of many Libyan officials overseas. For instance, it claimed responsibility for the death of the Libyan ambassador in Rome in January 1984, and, a year later, for the assassination of the Libyan Information Bureau chief, also in Rome. A Libyan businessman with close ties to Qadhafi was shot dead on June 21, 1984, in Athens during the visit of Abdul Salam Turayki, Libya's secretary of foreign liaison.

Less well-known opposition groups outside Libya were the Libyan Constitutional Union, the pro-Iraqi Libyan National Movement, the Libyan National Democratic Grouping led by Mahmud Sulaymon al Maghrabi, Libya's first postrevolutionary prime minister, and Al Haq, a rightist pro-monarchy group.

The opposition groups outside Libya remained disunited and largely ineffective. Divided ideologically into such groups as Baathists, socialists, monarchists, liberals, and Islamic fundamentalists, they agreed only on the necessity of overthrowing the Qadhafi regime. An initial step toward coordination was taken in January 1987 when eight opposition groups, including the Libyan National Movement, the Libyan National Struggle Movement, and the Libyan Liberation Organization, agreed to form a working group headed by Major Abd al Munim al Huni, a former RCC member who has been living in Cairo since the 1975 coup attempt that was led by another RCC member, Umar Muhayshi. Some observers speculated that because Huni appeared to be acceptable to all opposition groups and in view of his close ties to the military, he may well be the man most likely to succeed Qadhafi. If the Iranian experience offered any insights, the hallmark of the post-Qadhafi era would be a bloody power struggle between erstwhile coalition groups of diverse ideological beliefs. By early 1987, it was by no means clear which faction might emerge as the ultimate victor, should Qadhafi be toppled. It must be kept in mind, however, that the Libyan leader has outlasted many of his enemies, both foreign and domestic.

To deal with outside opposition, the Libyan regime continued its controversial policy of physical liquidation of opponents. On March 2, 1985, the GPC reiterated its approval of the policy of "the pursuit and physical liquidation of the stray dogs." During the 1985 wave of violence, a number of Libyans living abroad were killed or wounded. Among the casualties were former ambassador Ezzedin Ghadamsi, seriously wounded in Vienna on February 28; businessman Ahmad Barrani, killed in Cyprus on April 2; another businessman, Yusuf Agila, wounded in Athens on October 6; and Gibril Denali, a thirty-year-old student living in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) as a political refugee, assassinated in Bonn on April 6. The liquidation policy continued into 1987 when Muhammad Salim Fuhaymah, an executive committee member of the Libyan National Organization, was assassinated in Athens on January 7.

The physical liquidation policy has drawn universal condemnation. However, the impact of the policy, should not be exaggerated. During 1984, there were 4 assassinations of Libyans abroad and between 20 and 120 executions internally. Scholar Lillian Craig Harris, writing in late 1986, stated that since 1980 twenty anti-Qadhafi Libyans had been assassinated abroad.

More about the Government of Libya.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress