In this article, we shall discuss the history and policies of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi, who held power from 1969-2011. We shall discuss the rise to power for Gaddafi, his domestic economic policies in Libya, as well as his varied international relations. Within these topics, we shall examine Gaddafi’s relationship with the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. In addition, we shall also discuss his relationship with Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, we outline his foreign policies with regards to other states in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the West.
Gaddafi’s Rise to Power
Muammar Gaddafi came to power in a 1969 military revolution in Libya. During this time, citizens in Libya were becoming increasingly troubled by King Idris’ positions in Libya (and the lack of concern for the lower economic classes), as well as his pro-Western positions internationally. In the region, there was a growing position of Arab nationalism, and as we shall see, Gaddafi wanted to ensure that this sort of sentiment was supported at the top position in Libya. But while citizens were unhappy with the monarchy, the reason that the king was able to stay in power so long had to do with the existing political structures in society. As Bruce St. John explains, there were no political parties; “Libyans lacked the organizations necessary to express dissent in any collective manner. And the threat of coercion always lurked in the background” (2008). However, the rise of Arab nationalism was too difficult for the king to counter (St. John, 2008).
Gaddafi’s Economic Policies
After he came to power, Muammar Gaddafi was focused on the oil sector within Libya. Much of his concerns with oil had to do with how interested outside states were in the resource. Thus, going along his anti-colonism and anti-interference position, Gaddafi was not accepting the role that foreign oil companies had in both finding and extracting Libya’s oil. And at the time of Gaddafi in 1970, oil companies were taking half of the profits. Gaddafi was not in favor of this, and thus, called for a new contract. In fact, he said that he would stop production if no new deal was in place (Asser, 2011). The oil companies agreed to Gaddafi’s demands, and thus, “Libya became the first developing country to secure a majority share of the revenues from its own oil production. Other nations soon followed this precedent and the 1970s Arab petro-boom began” (Asser, 2011).
As a result of the increased prices, Gaddafi used these profits to not only build up his military, but also to advance his socialist economic policies in Libya.
The Green Book
Muammar Gaddafi wrote a work entitled The Green Book in 1976 (here is a link to the full text of (The Green Book). The book contained Gaddafi’s arguments about political governance, foreign affairs, as well as domestic social issues. It was a text where he discussed these views.
In terms of religion, while Gaddafi spoke about religion in general, the Green Book made little reference to Islam. As Mitchell (1982) explains,
“The Green Book, Part 1, when it appeared later in 1976, contained no reference to Islam, and no reference to the Koran or the tradition of the Prophet [Muhammad]. Setting out his ‘Solution to the Problem of Democracy’, it referred to religion (din): ‘Religion, embracing tradition, is an affirmation of natural law.’ ‘The natural law of any society is either tradition (custom) or religion. Any other attempt to draft law for any society, outside of these two sources, is invalid and illogical…'” (324). He goes on to explain that “In The Green Book, Part II, he asserts that ‘Natural law has led to natural socialism’; there is no reference to religion. In The Green Book, Part III, he states ‘The sound rule is that every nation should have a religion.’ The word for nation used here–qaum–is generally applied to the Arabs as a whole, not to Libyans in particular or Muslims in general” (324). He also seems to emphasize social factors such as nationalism compared to religion (Mitchell, 1982). Lastly, he also speaks about religion in the section on education, criticizing both states that “monopolize religious education,” as well as those that ban religious teachings (Mitchell, 1982: 324). Based on these points, Mitchell (1984) states that while Gaddafi stresses the possibility of a society allowing religious education, “…it is equally difficult to avoid the conclusion that Islam, whether defined in orthodox terms or in Qaddafi’s, played no significant role in the composition of The Green Book or in the development of the ideas it contains” (326).
Gaddafi and the Muslim Brotherhood
One of the most direct challengers to Gaddafi in Libya were the Muslim Brotherhood. Variations of the group, which first originated in Egypt, spread throughout many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. And it was around the 1960s and 1970s that the Brotherhood become even more powerful, particularly as Arab nationalist currents were in decline following the June War in 1967, as well as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970. Gaddafi viewed the Muslim Brotherhood was suspicion; he disliked the organization. One reason for this was their actions against Nasser. Originally closer to him, the Brotherhood, upset that Nasser unwilling to implement a strong Islamist agenda, attempted to assassinate him in 1954. Unsuccessful, Nasser officially banned the organization in Egypt. And while Gaddafi did not come to power until 1969, he viewed them counter to his revolution and principles (Sammut, 1994: 199). And thus, Gaddafi went after the organization, arresting many members of the organization in Libya, thus limiting their influence in the state (Sammut, 1994).
Muammar Gaddafi’s Foreign Policy
Scholars have spent a great deal of time trying to understand the international relations and foreign policies of Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi was an individual that was highly active in the affairs of others states, and would often offer policy recommendations that some found “bizarre.” However, there are others that say that Gaddafi knew what he was doing, and made statements and actions that supported his vision of international relations and geopolitics not only of Africa, or the Middle East, but also how he wanted to shape global international relations. For example, Solomon & Swart (2005) write that
“Libya’s foreign policy has produced at least two influential schools of thought. The first approaches the matter from the point of view of the psychological determinant of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s personality, typically viewing the Colonel as an irrational megalomaniac, whose hegemonic ambitions are limitless and who lacks all sense of perspective and reality” (Solomon & Swart, 2005:469) In this camp were many leaders who saw Gaddafi as imbalanced, or just an evil person (Solomon & Swart, 2005) who was set on causing terror and destruction in the region and elsewhere. However, there are others who distance themselves from this view, and instead, suggest that Gaddafi was a leader who was advocating ideas of Arab Nationalism, the role of Islam in domestic and foreign affairs, as well as the promotion of socialist programs (Solomon & Swart, 2005).
And it became evident quickly that Gaddafi and the RCC were willing to use their military to accomplish their foreign policy objectives. In fact, Gaddafi believed that he and his party had an obligation to help those in the global south (Solomon & Swart, 2005). Almost immediately after coming to power, Muammar Gaddafi and the RCC looked to secure weapons from other states, some from the West, even as Gaddafi publicly challenged the countries and their foreign policies. For example, it was not long after the revolution, about six months actually, that France and Libya were working on a military deal that would send 100 Mirage combat planes. And in 1970, the RCC actually decided to buy 110 total planes (throughout three years). This total deal was worth 300 million dollars. But not only that, but the deal actually allowed France to become close with Libya, by not only selling weapons, but actually training Libyan pilots, leading some to say that this was “a major economic and diplomatic coup” for France” (St. John, 2011: 144).
But France was not the only state to increase their military ties with Libya. For example, the Soviet Union, looking to expand their influence in Libya and North Africa, also worked to set up military arms agreements with Gaddafi. And there were somewhat successful. While their communist ideology was not accepted by Gaddafi, they were able to secure a weapons deal. In fact, following the initial RCC deal in 1970, “the RCC continued to purchase Soviet military equipment throughout the decade, including a $1 billion package in 1974-1975 that constituted its single largest arms agreement” (St. John, 2011: 144-145).
Muammar Gaddafi and the United States
For decades, Muammar Gaddafi had a tumultuous relationship with the United States (as well as other Western states such as Britain), and some could argue that there were never any strong periods of cooperation between the two, even dating back to Gaddafi and the Revolutionary Command Council’s rise to power in 1969. Gaddafi and the group at the time were speaking out against colonialism. And thus, Part of the reason that Gaddafi and his military supporters overthrew the government was because of the relationship that King Idris had with the West; allowing Western states to use Libyan soil for airbases, and be aligned with foreign policies was something that strongly upset Muammar Gaddafi. Thus, “[i]n order to legitimize the military coup and the overthrow of a traditional Sanussi monarch, Gaddafi felt obligated to declare his determination to expel imperialist forces, by removing the foreign military bases from Libya” (Solomom & Flux, 2005: 470). Now, it is important to point out that even without the coup, King Idris was not going to extend the agreements for the air bases (St. John, 2008). However, because of how upset people in the country were at the airbases, the RCC made it a point to immediately call for the withdrawal of foreign militaries (St. John, 2008). For example, St. John (2008) writes that “[i]n a public address on 16 October 1969, Qaddafi made the revolutionary government’s position quite clear[,]” saying:
Today’s stand towards the Mellaha [American base] which you ask should be eliminated, as become abundantly clear. Our attitude toward this and other bases is now longer equivocal. The Arab people which rose on September 1 can no longer live with foreign bases side by side. Nor will the armed forces which rose to express the people’s revolution tolerate living in their shacks while the bases of imperialism exist in Libyan territory.
The lifetime of the bases has become limited the same as that of the occupier. The fate of the bases in our land is already doomed for we accept no bases, no foreigner, no imperialist, and no intruders. This is a clear-cut attitude which is understandable to both friend and enemy. We will liberate our land from bases, the imperialist and foreign forces whatever the cost involved” (Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, 1969, in Ansell & al-Arif 1972, in St. John, 2008: 141-142).
Thus, it was evident early on that Gaddafi wanted to ensure that the U.S. and British left Libya. And it was for this reason that some have suggested the U.S. and Britain even received as much attention with the Revolutionary Command Council, something that was not granted to other states such as France or the U.S.S.R. (St. John, 2008). But even with Britain, Gaddafi was not particularly close, given how he viewed them as an imperial power, and how they were close to the former leadership in Libya (St. John, 2008: 140). However, even with the United States, in those first few months, there were not many times that the U.S. political leaders were able to meet with Gaddafi (St. John, 2008).
This continued distance with U.S. representatives was consistent during those early years after the coup that brought Gaddafi in power. For example, when the discussions about the U.S. base were over with, Muammar “[Gaddafi] moved on to other issues, including talks with the oil companies. Eager to cultivate a positive relationship with Qaddafi, the American embassy hoped at this time to discuss other questions with him, like a technology transfer agreement, but issues like there were simply not on Qaddafi’s agenda. Consequentially, the Americans could not get access to him. Ambassador Palmer, in the course of a three-year assignment, saw Qaddafi only three times: when he arrived, at the outset of the Wheelus talks, and when he departed” (St. John, 2008: 142-143). Interestingly, other U.S. ambassadors met with Gaddafi even less, just when they began their assignment in Libya (St. John, 2008).
Following this, it seems that both Gaddafi and the United States were carrying out actions that were upsetting the other. For example, the Libyan government began taking over Western hospitals through nationalization. They did this with both the Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Benghazi, as well as the American Church in the city of Tripoli. And in both cases, they did not pay any sort of money to the churches (St. John, 2008: 143). Furthermore, they began to challenge U.S. actions around the world, but especially in the region. Moreover, Libya attempted to establish their control over the Gulf of Sirte (St. John, 2008). And for the United States, there was a case when Gaddafi wanted to buy C-130 cargo planes from the United States government, the government said that they could, although they also needed a license to export them back to Libya. However, this was no sure thing. Then, after Libya bought the planes, the U.S. government placed an embargo on them, and left them in the U.S. state of Georgia for over thirty years (St. John, 2008: 143).
Over the years, the relationship continued to sour. In 1972, as part of Gaddafi’s message of removing outside influence in Libya, he asked for the U.S., the Soviet Union, as well as other states (such as Britain) to cut the number of people working in the various embassies in the country. Thus, for the U.S., this meant not only a reduction in total staff, but also closing buildings such as a consulate, among other things (St. John, 2008). Plus, the U.S. was also upset at the growing relationship between Libya and the Soviet Union (St. John, 2011), something clearly a concern for America given the politics of the Cold War.
Gaddafi and his International Relations in Africa
Muammar Gaddafi’s international relations with states in Sub-Saharan Africa can be better understand when examining his relationship with the West, as well as with other North African and Middle East leaders. Gaddafi, throughout the recent decades, was becoming more and more isolated by many in the international system. Gaddafi’s problematic relationship with the United States has been well-documented, and his interference in the affair of other North African leaders left him with very few allies. Thus, “[l]long isolated and marginalized, Gaddafi was in dire need of a new source of foreign policy support, and Africa has shown itself ready, willing and able to share its solidarity with an isolated Libya. Infamous as a rogue state, pariah and sponsor of international terrorism, Libya has embarked on a quest to rejoin the international community as a valuable ally and partner” (Solomon & Flux, 2005: 470).
Scholars argue that Gaddafi’s international relations approach to Africa began in the 1970s, but continued in different manifestations later on during his time as the leader of Libya. For example, in the 1970s, Gaddafi was a very active leader to promote anti-colonialism in Africa. Related to this, he was highly outspoken of Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and aimed to reduce Israeli’s influence in Africa because of this (Solomon & Flux, 2005).
It was at this time in the 1970s that much of Gaddafi’s interest in Africa stemmed at least in part because of the importance of Arab nationalism not only to him, but to other leaders that he admired (such as Gamal Abdel Nasser). Nasser was in power from 1952 until his death in 1970. And during that time, he attempted to bring about a number of changes in the region, arguably none more than building ties amongst the Arab population in the Middle East and North Africa. And despite some challenges to Nasser’s power (such as the 1961 breakup of the United Arab Republic, as well as his defeat by Israel in the 1967 June War), the idea of Arab nationalism was still being held onto by some, and arguably, none more outspoken about Arab nationalism than Muammar Gaddafi. It seems that Gaddafi saw himself and the person carrying out Nasser’s legacy with regards to the ideology of Arab nationalism (Solomon & Swart, 2005).
However, not all of Gaddafi’s interests in the region had to do with Arab nationalist ideologies. In fact, Gaddafi became involved in the affairs of many other states for many other reasons. One such case is Chad, which was of high interest to Gaddafi. Chad was were anti-government individuals and forces such as Omar Shalhi, for example, tried to carry out raids against parts of Libya. And thus, Gaddafi maintained an interest in the country, with the culmination of an invasion of the country in 1980-1981. In fact, many leaders in the region began breaking ties with Gaddafi following this action, as they worried that he was trying to use the state to improve upon his influence in the region. It wasn’t until 1982 that the government, who was close to Gaddafi, was taken out of power (St. John, 1988, in Solomon & Swart, 2005). But even then, Libya never left Chad, continuing to control the northern part of the country through the 1980s. It was not until 1987 that Gaddafi agreed to take his military out of the country, where “Libyan forced remained only in the Aouzou strip, the uranium and mineral-rich territory along the Chad-Libya boundary” (Solomon & Swart, 2005: 475). However, even with Aouzou, it was not until an International Court of Justice decision in 1994 that Libya began to leave the area (Solomon & Swart, 2005).
But as scholars (Lemarchand, 1988, Soloman & Swart, 2005) explain, “the Chadian affair crystallized African attitudes towards Libya. In African politics, a radical, pro-Libyan camp emerged that included Ethiopia, Congo-Brazzaville, Benin, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, set against an anti-Libyan side comprising Morocco, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan” (Solomon & Swart, 2005: 475).
However, things slowly started to shift in the 1990s, where Gaddafi tried to frame his actions as those meant to help Africa. Much of this may have stemmed from the negative views people had of his actions in Chad, Sierre Leone, and elsewhere. And thus, Gaddafi wanted to show that he was able to act as a peacemaker in the region. So, he was involved in dispute settlement discussions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and also with regards to Sierra Leone in 1999. Thus, his discussion about Africa, and his statements about his commitment to various states on the continent improved his reputation amongst some leaders (Solomon & Swart, 2005). Throughout the 1990s, Gaddafi continued to advocate for rights and development in Africa, all the while criticizing the United States (Solomon & Swart, 2005).
Overall, when speaking about the international relations and foreign policies of Gaddafi with regards to Africa, scholars have argued that “[v]ery few of Libya’s alliances with African states were of a durable and lasting nature. Gaddafi easily discarded alliances and friends when they no longer served a useful purpose and switched sides with relative ease if it were in Libya’s national interest to do so. Of course, his own interests played more of a decisive role in foreign policy decisions of this nature. The Achilles heel of Libya’s foreign policy has been the highly centralized and authoritarian character it [came] to assume, largely due to Gaddafi’s almost larger-than-life personality” (Solomon & Swart, 2005: 476-477.
Arab Nationalism and Population Policy
Again, Gaddafi was highly influenced by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Gaddafi also adopted an Arab nationalist policy in Libya, at least earlier in his tenure. It could be argued that in the later years, Gaddafi moved from an Arab nationalism philosophy to a more pan-African position. This would evidence not only with Gaddafi’s support for the Organization and African Unity, but also in his positions on his role as the “King of Kings” in Africa.
Gaddafi, Governance, and Islam
According to scholars, Islam was not a frequent point of reference for Gaddafi after he first came to power. For example, “Qaddafi prepared the first public announcement of the revolution in haste and broadcast part of it impromptu. It contained no reference to Islam except in its description of Israel as ‘the enemy of Islam’, coupled with an illusion to the recent fire at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and in its description of the struggle against the Italians as being for Libya, Arabism and Islam. Its vocabulary suggests that Islam was of marginal significance in his political thinking” (Mitchell, 1982: 319).
In fact, much of his rhetoric was based on Arab socialism, something that was clearly from Nasser’s influence in the region. However, following Nasser’s death, not only did Gaddafi continue the message of Arab nationalism, but he also started to make more references to Islam. For example, in 1971, Gaddafi preached at a mosque in Tripoli on Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday. He continued preaching at other mosques throughout the years. In addition, he also founded Muslim organizations such as the Call of Islam Society, along with the Supreme Council of National Guidance (Mitchell, 1982: 321). He also called for translations of the Quran, Islam’s holy scripture. In addition, Gaddafi referenced Islam when speaking about politics, freedom, and the fight against things such as colonialism and communism, amongst other political and economic ideologies (Mitchell, 1982).
However, one has to be careful to suggest that Islam was the only source of inspiration for Gaddafi. Islam was of course important to him. However, he seemed to believe that his ideas about socialism and anti-colonialism were not just for Muslims. He even speaks about the equality of faiths with Islam (Mitchell, 1982). Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the political contexts of the 1960s and 1970s, which can help explain Gaddafi’s careful reference to Islam. In the 1960s, we saw the rise of political Islam, particularly following the 1967 war. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood was a very active and popular Islamist movement in the region. Thus, leaders in the Middle East and North Africa were trying to find ways to both appease the religious base, but to do so in a way that still challenged the Islamist powers that were a political threat to these respective regimes. It is for this reason that Gaddafi heightened Islam, but also criticized and suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood (Mitchell, 1982). Plus, we saw later in his tenure that Gaddafi often tried to sponsor Sufi interpretations of Islam, in part as a counter to Islamist movements in the country, something that many others in the region were also doing (Muedini, forthcoming).
Asser, M. (2011). The Muammar Gaddafi Story. BBC. 21 October 2011. Available Online: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12688033
Lemarchand, R. (Hg.) (1988), The Green and the Black: Qadhafi’s Policies in Africa, Bloomington, 125-138.
Mitchell, E. (1982). Islam in Colonel Qaddafi’s Thought. The World Today, Vol. 38, No. 7/8 (July-August 1982), pages 319-326.
Muedini, F. (Forthcoming). Sponsoring Sufism. How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” in their Domestic and Foreign Policies. New York, New York. Palgrave Macmillian
Qaddafi, M. (1969). Address Delivered by Col. Mu’ammar Qaddafi in Tripoli on 4 Sha’ban 1389= 16 October 1969, ” in The Libyan Revolution: A Sourcebook of Legal and Historical Documents, Vol. I: 1 September 1969-30 August 1970, eds. Meredith O. Ansell and Ibrahim Massaud al-Arif, Stoughton, WI: Oleander Press, 1972: Page 90
Sammut, D. (1994). Libya and the Islamic Challenge. The World Today, Vol. 50, No. 10, October (1994), pages 198-200.
St John, R. B. (1988). » The Libyan Debacle in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1969–1987 «. René Lemarchand (Hg.), The Green and the Black: Qadhafi’s Policies in Africa, Bloomington, 125-138.
St. John, R.B. (2011). Libya: From Colony To Independence. Oxford, England. Oneworld Press.
Solomon, H. & Swart, G. (2005). Libya’s Foreign Policy in Flux. African Affairs, Vol. 104, No. 416, July (2005), pages 469-492.