In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, aged 27, overthrew the elderly King Idris, who was in Turkey for medical treatment.
Inspired by the Free Officers in Egypt, Gadaffi and his fellow colonels force-marched the fragile Libyan state and even more fragile Libyan society into social change.
Libya’s main product was oil and by the time Idris was deposed the country exported three million barrels of oil per day.
Scandalously, it received the lowest price per barrel in the world.
Idris feasted on oil revenues and the people suffered immeasurably.
For this reason there was barely any opposition to Gadaffi’s coup.
Gadaffi’s regime pushed forward a series of radical developments to transform Libya, which had been unfortunate to be a distant outpost of both the Ottoman empire and Italian colonialism.
It lacked the most basic social development.
Over the first decade of the Gadaffi regime, the state took charge of the oil fields, raising its share of their revenue.
That money was dedicated to social welfare, mainly housing and health care.
Over the second decade (1978-88), the regime constrained private enterprise and encouraged workers to take control of about 200 firms.
Redistribution of land was carried out on the Jefara plain west of Tripoli.
The state took over management of all macro-economic functions, while the Central Bank redistributed wealth by putting a ceiling on bank account holdings.
A nationalist in the Nasser vein, Gadaffi nonetheless was not keen on secularism.
His Green Book dismissed capitalism and communism in favour of a ‘third universal theory’ of returning the Arab world to the fundamentals of Islam in both politics and economics.
Expulsion of Libya’s Italian residents followed as much from this Islamic injunction as from nationalism and so too Gadaffi’s fellowship with Islamic revolution from Chad to the Philippines.
The instrument for his ambitions was the al-Failaka al-Islamiya, the Islamic Legion, created in 1972.
The Islamist in Gadaffi was hastily converted into paranoia about al-Qaida in the Maghreb following an assassination attempt against him in 1993 and the rise of militancy in nearby Algeria.
After the terror attacks in the US on September 11 2001, Gadaffi hastily offered his support to Washington.
In October 2002, foreign minister Mohammed Abderrahman Chalgam admitted that his government consulted closely with the US on counter-terrorism, and Gadaffi’s heir apparent Saif al-Islam al-Gadaffi spoke warmly a few months later of Libya’s support for George W Bush’s ‘war on terror.’
If you went to Gadaffi’s website at this time, you’d have read this remarkable statement from the old colonel.
‘The phenomenon of terrorism is not a matter of concern to the US alone. It is the concern of the whole world. The US cannot combat it alone. It is not logical, reasonable or productive to entrust the task to the US alone.’
It needed Gadaffi, who was in sheer terror of groups such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
It must have chilled Gadaffi to see Ibn Sheikh al-Libi’s funeral service attended by thousands in his home town of Ajdabia in May 2009.
Libi died in US custody after being arrested in Pakistan in 2001.
Libya colluded with the US in his capture and that of other Libyan fighters during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ajdabia is in eastern Libya, the historical vilayat of Cyrenaica, which is proud of its long tradition of resistance to foreign authority.
Its tribes led the resistance against the Ottomans and then the Italian occupation.
The hero of the fight against the Italians was Omar al-Mukhtar, whose face adorns the Libyan 10-dinar bill and whose struggle was immortalised for a worldwide audience by Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film The Lion Of The Desert, financed by Gadaffi’s government.
It is also from the eastern provinces that the Sanussi order of Islam emerged, from which came King Idris.
The order continues to command the loyalty of a third of the Libyan population, some of whom still hold Gadaffi responsible for the removal of their king.
The new regime purportedly attempted to overthrow the supremacy of the tribes.
In fact, it strengthened Gadaffi’s own tribe, the Qadhadhfa, and his personal friends.
The Sa’adi confederation of tribes in the east was left out of the new dispensation.
Oil revenues and the social wage pledged by the new revolutionary regime offered only parsimonious help to the impoverished east.
Neglect of the east festered, but by the 1980s Gadaffi’s regime had grown increasingly unpopular in the rest of the country as a result of economic stagnation caused by unimaginative use of the oil revenues.
Gadaffi earned a reprieve when Libyans rallied around him and his regime after US president Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of his compound, killing his 15-month-old daughter Hanna.
Anti-Americanism in the Reagan years provided cover for what Gadaffi called the ‘revolution within the revolution,’ describing the turn to neoliberalism – what Gadaffi called ‘popular capitalism.’
Weak import-substitution policies came to a close in 1987 and ‘reforms’ in agriculture and industry flooded out of IMF manuals.
By September 1988, the government abolished import and export quotas, allowing the retail trade to flourish in the cities’ new souks.
UN sanctions in 1992 as a result of allegations about Libyan involvement in the Lockerbie bombing threw the ‘reforms’ into turmoil, causing fissures in the ruling elite.
The main driver of the neoliberal agenda was Shokri Ghanem, who would be removed as prime minister of the cabinet in 2006 for a more important role as head of the National Oil Corporation.
Ghanem pushed aggressively for foreign investment in the oil sector and hastened to implement exploration and production-sharing agreements with companies ranging from Occidental Petroleum to China National Petroleum.
Former British PM Tony Blair and French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to kiss Ghanem’s ring and pledge finance for oil concessions.
This is why the British government promised to help free alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and why Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi handed over $5 billion as an apology for Italian colonialism.
With characteristic bluntness, Berlusconi explained that he had apologised so that Italy would get ‘fewer illegal immigrants and more oil.’
Alongside Ghanem is Gadaffi’s son Saif, whose dissertation at the London School of Economics in September 2007 was entitled: ‘The role of civil society in the democratisation of global decision-making: From ‘soft’ power to collective decision-making.’
Saif argued for giving NGOs voting rights at the level of international decision-making, where otherwise the US and its Atlantic allies would hold sway.
The ‘essential nature’ of NGOs, he argued, is to be ‘independent critics and advocates of the marginal and vulnerable.’
To allow NGOs to temper the ambitions of the north is far more ‘realistic,’ Saif added, than to hope to transform international relations.
That kind of pragmatism led to his faith in the ‘reforms’ and in his recent call for the harshest armed violence against the protests in Tripoli and Benghazi.
The Basic People’s Congress of Libya complained about the ‘reforms’ in September 2000. Its members did not appreciate the privatisation of the state-owned enterprises and the creation of free trade enclaves.
Its periodical al-Zahf al-Akhdar (The Green Step) fulminated against foreign firms and the tourism sector.
A section within the congress was also angry over Gadaffi’s political concessions to secure an end to UN sanctions and to curry favour in European capitals. An end to Libya’s nuclear programme was part of these concessions.
The congress tried to temper the tempo of ‘reform.’ Its actions irritated the IMF, whose 2006 report concluded: ‘Progress in developing a market economy has been slow and discontinuous.’
Saif, meanwhile, has tried to hasten the pace of reforms via his supercommittee of the economic and development board.
Uprisings in the east combined with the neoliberal efforts from Tripoli have alienated large sections of the population against the Gadaffi regime.
Little of the lustre of 1969 remains with the old man.
He is a caricature of the aged revolutionary.
We are far from the ‘revolutionary instigator’ whose watchword was ‘the masses take command of their destiny and their wealth.’
The game will be up when the military tilts its support – that two colonels in their Mirages have sought refuge in Malta rather than fire on the crowds in Tripoli is an early indication of one direction, but on the other are those other pilots who did open fire on the crowd.
The issue is not yet settled.
The masses have come out.
Old rivalries and new grievances are united.
Some of them are for reactionary tribal purposes and others seek liberation from ‘reforms.’
Some cavil that a country of six million with such oil wealth does not look like the Emirates, others simply want to have some more control of their lives, but most want release from the hidden corridors of the Libyan labyrinth.
This article was first published by Counterpunch. Vijay Prashad holds the George and Martha Kellner chair of south Asian history and is director of international studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History Of The Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad book prize for 2009.