Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi
by Alison Pargeter
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 288 pp.

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University

In Plato’s classic work Republic, his protagonist Socrates delineates five types of political regimes, and assigns a different kind of person to each to illustrate what it represents. “Democratic man,” one of the five typologies of man, is “gorgeous” in his diverse passions, yet flighty and inconstant. Socrates explains that democratic man “indulges in every passing desire” he happens to feel during the day:

One day he gets drunk at a party, the next day he’s sipping water and trying to lose weight; then again, he sometimes takes exercise, sometimes takes things easy without a care in the world, and sometimes he’s apparently a student of philosophy. At frequent intervals, he gets involved in community affairs, and his public speaking and other duties keep him leaping around here, there, and everywhere. If military types arouse his admiration, he inclines towards the military life; if it’s businessmen, he’s all for business. His lifestyle has no rhyme or reason, but he thinks it enjoyable, free, and enviable.

Although democratic man lacks “sound habits and true ideas,” Socrates holds a qualified admiration for him. He notes that democratic man’s “way of life can be admired by many men and women, because he contains examples of so many . . . walks of life.” There is a natural transition in Socrates’ typologies between democratic and dictatorial man: dictatorial man is essentially democratic man with power, whose appetites need not meet with constraint as he pursues his various passions. Possessing absolute power, dictatorial man’s appetites grow exponentially, and he chooses to extinguish those who evince greater moderation. Any person dictatorial man finds who possesses “good beliefs or desires” is banished or killed, until the tyrant has “purged the person of self-discipline and imported frenzy in its place.”

Had Muammar Qaddafi never succeeded in seizing power in Libya, he would have been remembered—if he were remembered at all—as an eccentric dreamer of impossible dreams. Like Socrates’ democratic man, his theories about the world might have been considered gorgeous though unworkable, perhaps even admired for their audacious utopianism. But as Qaddafi—who fancied himself a philosopher king—grew in power, he viciously inflicted his utopian vision on the people of Libya. The beautiful dreams of Qaddafi, the democratic man, grew into nightmares imposed by Qaddafi, the dictatorial man, as other Libyans suffered under their Brother Leader’s regime.

Portrait of the Dictator as a Young Man

Alison Pargeter’s erudite biography of Qaddafi follows him from his youth until his brutal death. Born in the early 1940s in the desert village of Qasr Bu Hadi, near Sirte, Qaddafi came of age in a time when the Arab world was throwing off its colonial yoke, and audacious new ideologies competed for followers. At a young age, Qaddafi manifested great charisma and a deep rebellious streak, and was swept up in the romance of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism as early as his school days. He organized demonstrations, launched scathing verbal attacks on the country’s ruling elite, and even “led a little band of schoolboys as they smashed the windows of a Sebha hotel because it served alcohol” (p. 64).[1] Even after being expelled from one school for anti-British and anti-American activism, Qaddafi continued to make a show of his resistance at the new school he attended in Misrata. He refused to stand for the English school inspector, who he regarded as “an agent of imperialism”—and, to make the gesture even more provocative, he waved a key chain with an image of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser on it (p. 65).

More than one person who encountered Qaddafi during this period felt that the encounter instilled a new sense of purpose. Mohamed Belqassim Zwai, for example, recounted that after speaking to Qaddafi, “he felt as if he had been born anew” (p. 49). With this kind of compelling personality, Qaddafi quickly gained a cadre of followers. Copying his hero Nasser, Qaddafi decided that he and his comrades should join King Idris I’s army to put themselves in a position to impose change through a military coup. Qaddafi even named his conspiracy the Free Unionist Officers Movement in imitation of Nasser.

Despite the revolutionaries’ rather bungling performance, they succeeded in executing a coup on September 1, 1969, after which Qaddafi delivered a heartfelt radio address to the nation. He announced that the coup had been executed “in response to your own free will, fulfilling your most heartfelt wishes,” and promised that Libya would thereafter be “a free, self-governing republic.” Outlining the new regime’s plans for the country, he said that it would “advance on the road to freedom, the path of unity and social justice, guaranteeing equality to all her citizens and throwing wide in front of them the gates of honest employment where injustice and exploitation will be banished, where no one will count himself master or servant” (p. 59).

This democratic rhetoric may or may not have been sincerely meant at the time. The victorious revolutionaries were young, naive, and unprepared to rule. An emissary whom Nasser dispatched to the new Libyan regime, Mohamed Heikal, was “stunned” by his encounter with Qaddafi and cohorts, describing them as “shockingly innocent.” Qaddafi actually told Heikal that following the revolution, they awaited Nasser’s instructions as to what they should do (pp. 67-68).

Qaddafi would, over the years, maintain his commitment to radical change, but his megalomania, his power, and his erraticism would grow. Qaddafi came to resemble Socrates’ dictatorial man rather than his democratic man.

The Consolidation of Power

Though Libya’s revolutionaries had expressed their commitment to turning the country over to a civilian government, Qaddafi’s cohorts soon realized that he was not going to let go of the reins of power in any way. The disjuncture between Qaddafi’s assurances and his consolidation of power prompted an unsuccessful coup attempt against him in December 1969, but the force of his personality was strong enough to, for the most part, maintain the other revolutionaries’ loyalty.

Yet Qaddafi increasingly chastised the other revolutionaries, humiliating them in front of their own staffs and “accusing them of incompetence” (p. 72). He would sulk and refuse to speak to his colleagues for days if he didn’t get his way. At one point, when Abdelmonem al-Houni refused to wear a military uniform and carry a pistol (something Qaddafi wanted all members of the Revolutionary Command Council, or RCC, to do), Qaddafi stormed off and refused to leave the deserts of Sirte for a week. In 1972, he resigned from the RCC and angrily embarked for Egypt. Qaddafi returned after about two weeks, just as abruptly as he had left, and immediately began commanding the RCC again. When his confused colleagues objected that they had accepted his resignation, Qaddafi replied with fury and unintentional irony: “Unfortunately you were not elected so I cannot give you my resignation. You are imposing yourself on the people by the force of a Kalashnikov” (p. 77).

Qaddafi continued to develop a grand philosophy of governance that was radically egalitarian in theory. Called the Third Universal Theory, he intended it as an alternative to both capitalism and communism. Qaddafi was utterly convinced of its historical significance, describing his theory in characteristically soaring rhetoric as something “not made by man nor is it a philosophy, but it is based on truth . . . truth is firm and unchangeable” (p. 80). Though the Third Universal Theory’s intellectual incoherence made it something of an embarrassment for Libya’s intellectual class, Qaddafi promoted it endlessly: during his international travels, at lavish conferences funded by the state, and when foreign intellectuals visited.

The Colonel published his revolutionary theory in the Green Book, the first part of which came out in 1975. Pargeter explains the book’s rather dizzying argument about the illegitimacy of standard mechanisms for the representation of citizens within the state:

It is based primarily around the notion that parliaments and political parties are obstacles to true democracy because, by their very nature, they involve the surrendering of individual sovereignty to whoever is elected. All forms of representation are rejected; parliaments are dismissed as “a misrepresentation of the people” and political parties are “the modern dictatorial instrument of governing.” Qaddafi declares, too, that the parliamentary system cannot be called true democracy, because a political party may win an election with 51 per cent of the vote, leaving the other 49 per cent of voters ruled by a party they do not support. (p. 85)

To Qaddafi, the solution was “direct democracy,” which involved the establishment of people’s committees throughout Libya: more than two thousand existed by August 1973. In 1978, the people’s committees were supplemented by an additional revolutionary authority. Qaddafi declared that his establishment of this political system meant that “all political theories in the world have collapsed,” and “all philosophy books that have tried to come up with a view on how to solve the problem of democracy before the down of 1976 are all now in the rubbish bin” (p. 90).

Yet in practice Qaddafi utilized this political system to “keep the country in a state of perpetual revolution,” and thus “bend it utterly to his will” (p. 95). The revolutionary committees conducted ruthless purges against elements deemed “reactionary” or “deviant,” performing public executions that intimidated the population while instilling a vicious delight in Qaddafi’s supporters. Qaddafi’s opponents were not only killed at home, but also in foreign capitals. Thus Qaddafi, like Socrates’ dictatorial man, purged people of self-discipline; he also purged any personalities that might compete with his own. He decreed that state officials should be known by their positions rather than their names, and that even footballers should “only be known by the numbers on their shirts” (p. 100).

The Fall of a Dictator

Rather than the classless society trumpeted by Qaddafi’s political theory, Libya had a system of total state control where “every family became reliant on the state for almost every aspect of life” (p. 112). In addition to his reign of terror at home, Qaddafi tried to export Libya’s revolution abroad—as well as foment violence in other countries for reasons related more to his own personal disputes than to ideological crusades. One example is Qaddafi’s quixotic plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s then-crown prince, Abdullah—who would later take the Saudi throne—following a confrontation at the 2003 Arab League summit.

Pargeter notes that the volatile Qaddafi intervened in other African states without strategy. Instead, he “simply jumped in whenever the opportunity arose” (p. 128), making some dangerous enemies and cultivating a rogue’s gallery of allies that included Ugandan president Idi Amin and Central African Republic emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He embroiled Libya in a disastrous armed conflict in Chad that resulted in the deaths of between 8,000 to 10,000 Libyan troops. And Qaddafi sponsored terrorist groups the world over, including in Europe, Japan, Latin America, and the Philippines.

By the mid-1980s, Qaddafi faced international isolation after turning his state into a pariah. Further, collapsing oil prices left him with a ruined economy. His problems were compounded when Libya was blamed for using terrorism to down a Pan American World Airways flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and also a French UTA airliner over Niger.

Yet Qaddafi muddled through for another couple of decades. He managed to crush an internal Islamist uprising in the late 1990s, and thereafter worked to normalize relations with the West. However, he never reformed Libya’s domestic political system beyond a few cosmetic changes, instead focusing his efforts on such frivolous ventures as the “invention” of a rocket car.

As the Arab Uprisings dramatically exposed the fragility of the region’s previously unshakeable dictatorships, anti-regime protests reached Libya—unsurprising, given Qaddafi’s decades-long reign of terror and mismanagement. Though Qaddafi mocked and belittled the changes gripping the region, doing so only underscored his own hypocrisy. As Pargeter notes, his sneering criticism of the movement that forced Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power meant that “here was someone who had championed the people and anti-imperialism all his life, defending one of the most reactionary and pro-Western regimes of the region” (p. 216).

At the end of his life, the enemies Qaddafi cultivated over his long career as a tyrant came home to roost. The Libyans he had crushed under his boot were rebelling against him. Were it not for NATO’s intervention, Qaddafi may have crushed them—but the Colonel had sponsored terrorist attacks and militant groups targeting the very countries who ended up deliberating whether to intervene on the rebels’ behalf. And after antagonizing the Saudi religious establishment for his whole life—and even plotting to assassinate the country’s monarch—Qaddafi desperately appealed to its clerics to issue a fatwa condemning the uprising against him. No such assistance was forthcoming.

So this brutal man—the dreamer from the desert—met his end in the same place his life had begun, near Sirte. Captured by rebels, the bloodied strongman’s pleas for mercy were ignored. As the gathered mass called for his blood, a teenaged rebel punched Qaddafi in the face, then shot him twice at close range. His corpse was dragged through Sirte’s streets, then put “on display in a local meat freezer, like a war trophy” (p. 244). Qaddafi’s ending was brutal to behold: simultaneously a richly deserved fate for an evil man, and a terrible sign for the new Libya.

We now live in a time, similar to that of Qaddafi’s early years, where older ideologies and systems of governance are crumbling. New philosophies and new leaders are clamoring to take their place, and Qaddafi’s rise and rule should serve as a cautionary tale. Like Qaddafi, some of today’s movements preach a radical form of egalitarianism—ranging from Occupy Wall Street, which also embraced direct democracy, to some transparency activist factions—yet also possess a clear authoritarian streak. Qaddafi will surely not be the final example of Socrates’ prescient observation that the line between democratic and dictatorial man is unnervingly thin.


[1] Page numbers are taken from the Kindle edition, which does not match the hardcover book’s pagination.