By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
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Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s stranglehold on Libya appears to have ended after 42 years, even if his whereabouts remain elusive. But through countless erratic decrees and iron-handed purges, he has carved deep scars into every facet of Libyan life. The mystery and speculation swirling about him marked a fitting close to a quixotic reign.
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Colonel Qaddafi, who was a 27-year-old junior officer when his coup deposed King Idris in September 1969, viewed himself as a desert philosopher, and he declared that his political system of “permanent revolution” would replace both capitalism and socialism.
But over the years, that revolution also swept away nearly every institution that could challenge him — or guide the country when he was gone. By the time he was done, Libya had no parliament, no unified military command, no political parties, no unions, no civil society and no nongovernmental organizations. His ministries were hollow, with the notable exception of the state oil company.
“This is my country!” he roared in a televised speech when the revolt first erupted in late February, shaking his fist and pounding the dais. “Muammar is not a president to quit his post! Muammar is the leader of the revolution until the end of time!”
By Monday, the territory he controlled had shrunk to pockets of resistance in Tripoli and his strongholds of Surt and Sabha. The uprising condensed into six harrowing months an ever more destructive version of the erratic rule that Colonel Qaddafi imposed on Libya over the previous four decades. He clung to power and refused to accept the rejection of his own people, railing against a spectrum of outside conspiracies from Islamic fundamentalists to rejuvenated colonialism. The country of six million people and vast oil wealth, meanwhile, gradually disintegrated.
To ensure his singular role, Colonel Qaddafi had long wielded violence both at home and abroad. He financed and armed a cornucopia of violent organizations, including the Irish Republican Army, the Red Army faction in Europe and African guerrilla groups. His government backed terrorist attacks, most notoriously in the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. He became an international pariah.
Colonel Qaddafi terrorized and intimidated Libyans by spasms of violence at least once a decade.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, he eliminated even mild critics through public trials and executions. Kangaroo courts were staged on football fields or basketball courts, where each of the accused was subjected to intense interrogation, often begging for mercy while a crowd howled for death. The trials were televised live to make sure no Libyans missed the point.
The bodies of one group of students hanged in downtown Tripoli’s main square were said to have been left there to rot for a week as traffic was rerouted to maximize the number of cars forced to pass by.
“Qaddafi’s ability to have survived so long rests on his convenient position in not being committed to a single ideology and his use of violence in such a theatrical way,” said Hisham Matar, the author of “In the Country of Men,” a novel that depicts the devastation of normal life under Colonel Qaddafi. “He deliberately tried to create a campaign that would terrorize the population, that would traumatize them to such an extent that they would never think of expressing their thoughts politically or socially.”
In the beginning, though, he brought them relative prosperity.
Libya had been desperately poor, living off the meager proceeds from exporting scrap metal left over from major World War II battles until oil was discovered in 1959. But a decade later, Libyans had touched little of their wealth.
The 1969 coup changed that. The new Libyan government forged a profound global change in the relationship between the major oil companies and the producing countries, forcing the oil giants to cede majority stakes in exchange for continued access to Libya’s oilfields. The oil producers also demanded a higher share of the profits. The pattern was emulated across the oil-producing states.
With the increased revenue, Colonel Qaddafi set about building roads, hospitals, schools and housing. Life expectancy, which was 51 in 1969, is now over 74. Literacy leapt to 88 percent. Per capita annual income grew to above $12,000 in recent years, though that is markedly lower than the figure for other countries endowed with vast oil income.
But Colonel Qaddafi’s mercurial changes in policy and personality kept Libyans off balance for much of his rule.
To consolidate his power, he eliminated or isolated all the 11 other members of the original revolutionary command council. Strikes or unauthorized news reports resulted in prison sentences, and illegal political activity was punishable by death. Western books were burned, and private enterprise was banned. Libyan intelligence agents engaged in all manner of skulduggery, reaching overseas to kidnap and assassinate opponents.
Colonel Qaddafi’s bankrolling of terrorist organizations set him on a collision course with the West.
“He made his entire career, at least internationally and with the Arab world, by being the bad boy,” said Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo. “He loved being provocative.”
In the early 1980s, after Colonel Qaddafi tried to extend Libya’s territorial waters across the Gulf of Sidra, President Ronald Reagan closed the Libyan Embassy in Washington, suspended oil imports and shot down two Libyan fighters.
In London in 1984, gunshots from the Libyan People’s Bureau, as the embassy was called, killed a policewoman and wounded 11 demonstrators. In April 1986, Libyan agents working in the embassy in West Berlin were linked to the bombing of La Belle disco there, killing two American servicemen and a Turkish woman and wounding 200 people.
Reagan retaliated 10 days later by bombing targets in Libya, including Colonel Qaddafi’s house in his compound at the Bab al-Aziziyah barracks in Tripoli. Colonel Qaddafi said his adopted daughter Hanna was among at least 15 killed, although some Libyans suggested that he had adopted her posthumously.
In 1988, in the deadliest terrorist act linked to Libya, 259 people aboard the Pan Am flight died when the plane exploded in midair. The falling wreckage killed 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie. In an echo of that operation, Libyan agents were believed to have been behind the explosion of a French passenger jet over Niger in West Africa in 1989, killing 170 people.
Nearly a decade of international isolation started in 1992, after Libya refused to hand over two suspects who had been indicted by the United States and Britain in the Lockerbie bombing. The United Nations imposed international economic sanctions, and when his fellow Arabs enforced them, Colonel Qaddafi turned away from the Arab world. He began his quest to become leader of Africa, a goal he achieved in 2009 when he was named the chairman of the African Union for a year.
In 1999, Libya finally handed over two Lockerbie suspects for trial in The Hague under Scottish law and reached a financial settlement with the French. The international sanctions against Libya were lifted in 2003 after it accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of the Lockerbie victims and two victims of other attacks.
Tripoli truly began to emerge from the cold after the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States by Al Qaeda. Colonel Qaddafi condemned them and shared Libya’s own intelligence gathering on the organization with Washington. After the American-led invasion of Iraq, Colonel Qaddafi announced that Libya was giving up its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a covert nascent nuclear program obtained from a clandestine Pakistani network, and said it would cooperate with the international community in destroying its stockpile.
A former military officer, Colonel Qaddafi, 69, adopted a string of titles over the years — the Brother Leader, the Guide to the Era of the Masses, the King of Kings of Africa and, most often, the Leader of the Revolution.
But he always presented himself as beloved guide and chief clairvoyant rather than the ruler. Indeed, he seethed when the popular uprising inspired by similar revolutions next door in Tunisia and Egypt sought to drive him from power.
He tried to crush the uprising with the same violence he had wielded to stay in power, deploying tanks and bombs against not only the rebels but also unarmed civilians. Increasingly, he relied on African mercenaries in his last desperate attempts to subdue his own people.
The mounting death toll prompted NATO to intervene, and the West extended diplomatic recognition to the often chaotic and rivalrous rebel government. Early rebel victories settled into a standoff, but the freezing of Libyan assets, continued NATO assaults and mounting defections took an increasing toll.
As the opaque circle around Colonel Qaddafi shrank, his sons played ever more significant roles as his advisers, but it was never clear that he had anointed any one of them as his successor. He was believed to play one against the other, granting and then withholding favor, just as he did with anyone who might challenge his authority.
After months of inconclusive fighting, the assault on Tripoli that at last drove Colonel Qaddafi from power unfolded at a breakneck pace. Insurgents captured a military base of the vaunted Khamis Brigade, where they had expected to meet fierce resistance, then sped toward Tripoli and through several neighborhoods of the capital effectively unopposed. The rebels reported capturing his two sons.
But Libya’s post-Qaddafi future looked to be as volatile as its past. There was still no clear plan for political succession or for maintaining security in the country. Colonel Qaddafi’s long attempt to eliminate the government left Libya in shambles, its sagging infrastructure belying its oil wealth.
“It has been 30 years of decay at a time when the world itself was completely transformed,” Ms. Anderson said.
Source: New York Times