Having discussed the west’s war against Gaddafi it seems to me only right if I devote a post to the man himself and to his regime. I do so in part because in my opinion virtually everything written about both Gaddafi and his regime is quite simply wrong.
In my opinion when shorn of its pseudo revolutionary rhetoric Gaddafi’s regime stands revealed as a hereditary desert oil monarchy very similar in almost every respect to that other great hereditary desert oil monarchy, Saudi Arabia.
1. Gaddafi’s Libya like Saudi Arabia was presided over by a hereditary monarch. Everybody realises this is so in the case of Saudi Arabia. It is not however generally realised that this was equally true of Gaddafi’s Libya. However as soon as Gaddafi’s position is examined the fact becomes obvious. As Gaddafi repeatedly pointed out he was not a “Prime Minister” or a “President”. He was not elected to any post. Nor was he ever subject to any form of re election however rigged. Like the founder of the Saudi monarchy, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (“ibn Saud”), he seized power by force and thereafter ruled the country on the basis of nothing else than the charisma of his personality. Many of the eccentric aspects of Gaddafi’s behaviour, which caused so much baffllement and annoyance to western and Arab politicians who had to deal with him, were the result of his need to project a larger than life personality to his own people in order to justify a rule that was in the end based on nothing other than his own charisma. Accounts of ibn Saud show him to have been every bit as flamboyant and eccentric as Gaddafi though because he was the west’s friend in his case these eccentricities were seen as engaging rather than annoying.
2. Gaddafi did not formally call himself a “king”. Neither does the Saudi monarch. Gaddafi’s title was “Brother Leader of the Revolution”. The Saudi monarch’s is “Protector of the Two Holy Places”. The Saudi monarch is now usually referred to even in Saudi Arabia as “king” whilst the male members of his clan and family call themselves and are called “Princes”. Towards the end of his reign Gaddafi was also starting to refer to himself informally as “king”. In one speech he apparently called himself “king of kings”. Typically this has been seen as an example of Gaddafi’s megalomania rather than for what it was, which was an acknowledgement of the true nature of his position.
3. As in Saudi Arabia the monarchy Gaddafi had established was intended to be hereditary. Ibn Saud on his death bequeathed the monarchy to his sons who have since succeeded each other according to a system of agnate succession. This is what would have happened in Libya if Gaddafi had not been overthrown. Gaddafi’s designated successor (“crown prince”) was apparently his son Saif. As in Saudi Arabia on his death Saif would have been succeeded by one of his brothers, probably Mutaizzim or Khamis. As in Saudi Arabia the succession would have been confined to a tight ring of Gaddafi’s sons drawing like ibn Saud’s sons legitimacy from the charisma of their father and not therefore needing to imitate the eccentrities of their father’s behaviour. In Saudi Arabia the line of brothers will shortly die out creating growing uncertainty about the country’s future.
4. As in Saudi Arabia the brothers (ie Gaddafi’s sons) controlled the country on behalf of the family and each other through their control of key military and police units recruited in order to ensure their loyalty on tribal and clan lines. In Saudi Arabia the designated successor (“crown prince”) of Abdullah, the present Saudi monarch, was his younger brother Sultan, who at the time of his recent death was also the country’s defence minister and commander of its army. He is expected to be replaced by the next brother in line who is Naif who as interior minister controls the police. Gaddafi did not appoint his sons to head ministries in the way that ibn Saud did but preferred to give them instread direct command of key military units. Mutaizzim, who seems to have been second in line. was apparently the overall army commander whilst Khamis, who was possibly the third in line, commanded the unit that provided Gaddafi’s guard.
5. Beyond the immediate family stood the wider tribe or clan. In Saudi Arabia this is the Saudis. In Libya it was the Qadhaffa. In Saudi Arabia the entire country is named after the clan even though it accounts for only a very small proportion of the total population. Male members of the clan all use the title “prince” and there are apparently thousands of them with no one it seems knowing exactly how many. In Libya the Qadhaffa were not privileged in this formal way but in practice their privileges seem to have been the same. Both ibn Saud and Gaddafi went out of their way to emphasise their links to their clan and its Bedouin ways by wearing desert robes in preference to western clothes and by living or by appearing to live much of the time in a tent. In Saudi Arabia the Saudi monarch still always dresses in desert robes and still often receives visitors in a tent.
6. Beyond the wider clan is a network of other clans and tribes allied to the ruling clan. In both Saudi Arabia and Gaddafi’s Libya the principle function of the monarch has been to hold together this alliance by judicious use of patronage. In both cases this has resulted in groups being privileged above others. Since in each case the ruling clan, Saudi and Qadhaffa, are Bedouin in origin this has meant that the clans and tribes of the desert interior have been privileged above those of the cities and the coast. Particularly disadvantaged have been clans from those regions associated with the dynasties the Saudis and the Qadhaffa overthrew. In Saudi Arabia these were the Hashemites of the Hejaz and in Libya they were the Senussi of Cyrenaica. The Hejaz has remained a centre of opposition to the Saudis since the re establishment of the Saudi state in the 1920s whilst the rebellion that ended the rule of the Qadhaffa began in Cyrenaica.
7. At this point I should say that even if ibn Saud and Gaddafi had come to power with different intentions (and in Gaddafi’s case there is evidence that he came to power with genuinely good intentions) given the tribal or clan based nature of their respective societies their regimes would not have survived if they had not favoured their clans in this way. Had ibn Saud or Gaddafi sought to treat all people equally they would merely have stirred resentment within their own clan, which would have seen their actions as a betrayal, whilst failing to win support from the other clans, which would have found their behaviour incomprehensible.
8. Both the Saudis and Gaddafi have used the Islamic religion to entrech themselves and to legitimise their position. In the case of Saudi Arabia this is a universally acknowledged fact. Few however realise that Gaddaf’s regime in Libya was as much based on a particular interpretation of Islam as is the regime in Saudi Arabia. Gaddafi repeatedly and throughout his rule emphasised the Islamic nature of his rule and moreover he started doing so from the moment he came to power in 1969 at a time when this was unpopular with the secular nationalist governments that then existed in the Arab world. Gaddaf’s supposed conversion of Libya into a “Jamahariya” or “state of the masses” was intended to be a realisation of the Islamic nature of his rule just as his rejection of a republican system was because of the secular concept behind it. The Islamic nature of Gaddafi’s system was given visual form through the adoption of green, the traditional Islamic colour, as the colour of Libya’s flag and as the colour of his book (“the green book”) in which he expressed his philosophy and ideas. In its attempted fusion of Islam with an ethnically defined concept of nationalism and with socialism the Jamahariya can be best described as a sort of “Islamic national socialism”. Though ridiculed by western commentators there is no doubt that Gaddafi himself took this ideology extremely seriously and that he continued to hold to it right up to the moment of his death.
9. The respective religious ideologies of Saudi Arabia and of Gaddafi’s Libya, Wahhabism and the Jamahariya, have been regarded with suspicion by the mainstream Islamic religious authorities of Constantinople, Cairo and Jerusalem. Both the Saudis and Gaddafi have responded by using their oil wealth to spread their respective ideologies. The resources available to the Saudis being much greater they have done this on an immeasurably greater scale. Gaddafi by contrast had to concentrate on north and west Africa where however he had more success than western commentators admit.
10. As part of their efforts to promote their respective ideologies Gaddafi and the Saudis have also been active sponsors of international terrorism. Again due to their much greater resources Saudi involvement in international terrorism has been on a far bigger scale than Gaddafi’s. If Saudi supported terrorism has tended to attract less attention this has been because it has been mainly directed against the west’s enemies (for example Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya). Only since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 has Saudi supported terrorism started to attract western attention.
11. In only one respect other than scale has there been a qualitative difference between Saudi support for terrorism and Gaddafi’s. All the terrorist groups that have received support and funding from the Saudis have been Islamic. Overwhelmingly they have shared the Saudis’ Wahhabi ideology. By contrast Gaddafi in the past was prepared to support non Islamic groups such as the Basque separatist group ETA and the Irish nationalist group the Provisional IRA. Partly this was a reflection of the anti imperialist rhetoric of his regime. However it is important to say that Gaddafi’s support for these groups was also fully in keeping with his Jamahariya ideology. Gaddafi apparently genuinely believed that the ethnicist “socialism” that defined these groups would eventually lead them to adopt the same “Islamic national socialist” ideology of the Jamahariya as he had himself.
12. Both the Saudis and Gaddafi have been utterly ruthless in their suppression and persecution of their political and religious opponents. In both cases this has involved publicly sanctioned violence including public executions. In Saudi Arabia these take the form of beheadings. In Gaddafi’s Libya they took the form of public hangings. Both the Saudis and Gaddafi have used torture on a regular basis. Neither has recognised such western concepts as judicial independence and the rule of law, which are anyway incompatible with their respective religious ideologies. Both the Saudis and Gaddafi have a history of murdering political and religious opponents even when these are located in foreign countries and even when they are citizens of those countries. The Saudis are known to have murdered various Shia political and religious leaders in Lebanon and Iraq whilst Gaddafi is known to have murdered the founder of Lebanon’s Shia movement Hezbollah. Though normally enemies a shared hostility to Hezbollah, Shiism and Iran is one thing the Saudis and Gaddafi had in common. It has been suggested that the uncompromisingly violent response of regimes such as the Saudi and Gaddafi’s to their opponents is a reflection of the tribal and clan based nature of these regimes with their long history of tribal violence and blood feuds. It is also surely a reflection of the very narrow base of these regimes and of their need to create a climate of fear so that they can deter their opponents.
13. Both regimes have sought to widen this base or at least to buy a measure of support or at least acquiescence from their people by funding what superficially appear to be very generous social services. Many of Gaddafi’s western sympathisers have pointed to the absence of direct taxes and the free provision of health, education, housing and utilities in Libya as evidence of the “progressive” nature of his regime. Few are apparently aware that the Saudis provide almost identical services to their people as indeed do some of the other Gulf oil states. These social programmes should be seen for what they are, not the product of socially oriented welfare state but rather an act of largesse by the monarch to his subjects in return for their loyalty. The quality is said to be poor in Libya and Saudi Arabia at least and is said to be much worse than that found in much poorer but genuinely socially oriented countries like Vietnam and Cuba.
14. Since these services are acts of largesse and are not provided by welfare states to which the whole of society including their beneficiaries make a contribution their effect has been enervating. Instead of contributing to the modernisation of their societies they have instead fostered a culture of simultaneous dependence and entitlement so that Libyans and Saudi Arabians refuse to do work they consider beneath them. Both Saudi Arabia and Libya have as a result been obliged to import millions of foreign workers to carry out tasks ranging from the sophisticated to the basic at the same time as they record very high levels of unemployment.
15. Many western commentators have lamented the absence of political or administrative institutions in Libya beyond Gaddafi and his family and entourage. They appear oblivious to the fact that the same is equally true of Saudi Arabia. The absence of such institutions inevitable in countries that are no more autocratic tribally based monarchies. This makes them very different from the dictatorships found in other Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria where the regimes have governed and administered the country through its institutions. By way of example Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had an army whose ultimate loyalty was to the state of Iraq rather than personally to him and which therefore had a notional existence independent of him. Gaddafi’s army like the Saudi army was a family run tribally recruited private militia, which having lost its purpose with his death has now disappeared without trace.
Once the true nature of Gaddafi’s regime is laid bare it becomes clear that he was neither a progressive hero nor a mere tyrant. What blinds many to the true nature of his regime was the pseudo revolutionary and pseudo socialist rhetoric Gaddafi liked to use. This is a legacy of the European student movement, which was in its heyday when Gaddafi came to power in 1969 and with which as a young man of 27 as he was then he strongly identified. Isolated in Libya and cut off from larger intellectual currents Gaddafi never grew out of this rhetoric the substance of which anyway he seems never to have really understood. Some of the peculiarities of Gaddafi’s personality such as his openly expressed interest in drugs and sex, which he combined with a strong puritan streak, were in my opinion also leftovers from his exposure to left wing student politics in Europe in the 1960s. If all this rhetoric is put to one side and the true nature of Gaddafi’s regime is understood it becomes less strange and less threatening and much more like other conservative regimes that are the west’s allies.
Gaddafi’s regime became what it was not because Gaddafi wanted it so but because conditions in Libya like conditions in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s made it so. When Gaddafi came to power Libya was an impoverished tribal society that was the poorest on the African continent. He came to power with genuinely good intentions. He was credited with averting a civil war, which would have lead to Libya’s disintegration. He successfully forced a higher oil price and a larger share of Libya’s oil wealth from the western oil companies that controlled Libya’s oil fields. He used this oil wealth to transform material conditions of life in Libya and to free the country from dependence on the US, which maintained a great naval base on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. He could not however carry out the sort of total transformation of Libyan society that would have been necessary for Libya to be governed in a different way. It is doubtful whether with his lack of education or knowledge of the outside world he understood the need for such change.
Gaddafi nonetheless was not a monster like Saddam Hussein. Though capable of great acts of cruelty he did not indulge in the sort of indiscriminate terror that Saddam Hussein did. There were no mass purges and no use of chemical weapons against his own people. By comparison with other rulers of Arab oil states such as the Saudis and and Saddam Hussein he lived fairly modestly. In the days following his death reports circulated that his personal fortune amounted to $200 billion but this figure is untrue and has been arrived at by treating the country’s financial reserves as his personal property for which there is no warrant. Though an Islamic leader Gaddafi’s variant of Islam was without the more conspicuous forms of misogeny found elsewhere. Whatever one may think of his famous bodyguard of gun totting women its existence and the political role he gave to his daughter Ayesha would have been unthinkable in any other Islamic state. It is also fair to say that in the final crisis of his regime and of his life he acted with a courage and moderation few expected of him. He did not hide or run away and as I said in my previous post the claims about the atrocities he was supposed to have committed have been proved to have been untrue. Moreover there is some evidence that his son and intended successor Saif, who for all the doubts expressed about his Ph.d was undoubtedly much better educated and knowledgeable than his father, did have plans for reform. It seems that it was Saif who persuaded his father to open up the country to foreign investment and to mend fences with the west. Saif seems to have had plans for some sort of constitution (something he mentioned in his television speech of 20th February 2011) and was responsible for Libya’s $200 billion development plan. He also brought a large number of foreign educated technocrats into the government who in the event mostly defected to the rebels.
Gaddafi’s regime was therefore a natural development in Libya’s history and life. If Libya is able to develop a functioning political system of a more conventional sort then this will be because of positive changes that have happened to Libya during his rule. Of that unfortunately at the moment there is little sign (though it is early days) and there is a serious risk that with Gaddafi gone the key to the country’s stability has gone and a downward spiral will now follow.