The death of Muammar el-Qaddafi brings formality to the end to his 40-plus years of power in Libya, an epoch marked by repression, cronyism, and state-sponsored terrorism. The man Ronald Reagan once dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" spent much of his tenure as an international pariah, and he bequeaths the Libyan people a nation where free speech, private enterprise, and the institutions that support honest governance have been lacking for decades.
According to the Libyan transitional council, Qaddafi was killed on Thursday in a gun battle in his hometown of Surt.
Qaddafi, who was born in 1942 to Bedouin parents and went on to father eight children, became Libya’s de facto leader in 1969, after deposing King Idris in a military coup. Over his long rule, he has espoused pan Arabism, pan Africanism, or Islamic Socialism, but one thing remained consistent: Qaddafi always envisioned himself firmly at the center of power. Qaddafi had no official leadership title; ‘colonel’ was an affectation, a nod to his idol, former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 2008, he had himself crowned "King of Kings of Africa."
The Libyan leader’s antics -- his outrageous speeches, his corps of female bodyguards, his insistence on traveling with a Bedouin tent — belied the brutality of his regime. Qaddafi silenced those who questioned his rule and heavily censored the media. He responded to failed coup attempts in 1984 and 1993 with mass imprisonments and interrogations.
Qaddafi became notorious for sponsoring overseas terrorism and unconventional weapons programs. He financed a series of overseas attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, including the 1986 bombing of Berlin’s La Belle Discotheque and the 1988 sabotage of Pan Am 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270. The international community responded with unilateral and multilateral sanctions, and several nations, including the United States, cut off diplomatic ties. The United States responded to the La Belle Disco bombing with aerial strikes on targets near major Libyan cities. Qaddafi’s attempts to acquire and develop weapons of mass destruction, sometimes with the help of the Soviet Union, further eroded Libya’s relationship with the West.
Thanks to government mismanagement and the burden of international sanctions, Qaddafi’s Libya failed to attain the wealth of other Middle Eastern oil-producing states. While millions of dollars accumulated in the pockets of regime insiders, the general population remained poor. The regime delivered a modicum of social services, but poor infrastructure and restrictions on free enterprise meant unemployment and suffering for many.
“You’ve lost 40 years of human potential and happiness in Libya as a result of Qaddafi’s rule—and that’s a terrible legacy,” said Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution. With its vast oil reserves, Libya “ought to be so prosperous.”
Yet Libya’s leader hung on. Until the uprisings of the Arab Spring, Qaddafi even seemed to be on track to rehabilitate Libya’s international standing. The U.N. lifted its sanctions in 2003, after Qaddafi promised to end his unconventional weapons programs, renounce terrorism, and compensate the victims of overseas terrorist attacks. Shake linked Qaddafi’s change of heart to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and its commitment to removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.
The United States normalized diplomatic relations with Libya in 2008, after the Bush administration and Libya reached an agreement to satisfy the compensation claims of Qaddafi’s U.S. victims. 2009 found Qaddafi leading the African Union and Libya sitting on the United Nations Security Council as a rotating member—almost, but not quite, like any other head of state.
Reconciliation with Libya made sense to the Bush administration at the time, Schake said. But she said that, by embracing the Libyan dictator, the administration was also “writing off the aspirations” of the Libyan people suffering under his rule.
That public frustration came to a boil this past February, when democratic protesters took to the streets of Libya. Qaddafi responded by unleashing warplanes and militias on the protesters. Fearing a massacre, the United Nations unrolled a tough packet of sanctions, and in March NATO launched a campaign of air strikes in support of the rebellion. The regime’s assets were frozen worldwide. Qaddafi vowed defiance, but became increasingly isolated as rebel forces made military gains. When rebels took over the Libyan capital of Tripoli in August, Qaddafi went into hiding. His years of rule were at an end.
Libya’s Transitional National Council has stressed a commitment to managing a peaceful transition to democracy, a goal that has the support of the international community and international aid dollars to back it up. Yet bringing fractured rebels under control and reconciling the society’s factions won’t be easy. “Qaddafi fostered those animosities,” Schake said, which may make reconciliation all the more difficult.
“I’m optimistic” about Libya’s future, said Rutgers professor Shaheen Ayubi. Libya has abundant natural resources and a small population, putting it in a “much better position to go forward” than Egypt, another North African nation trying to implement democracy. International diplomats have stressed their belief that the TNC leadership is trustworthy and sincere in its intentions, but have moved to lift sanctions and release frozen assets cautiously.