On September 1, 1969, a group of military officers led by Muammar al-Gaddafi staged a coup against Libya's first and only king, Idris, 80 years-old and in Turkey for medical treatment. Idris was pro-Western. He had been a supporter of the British during World War II, and after the war the British had supported his elevation from emir to kingship, created with Libya's newly won independence in 1951 – a weak tradition easily undone by Gaddafi and company. The king's nephew and crown prince was put under house arrest. The monarchy was abolished and Libya was renamed from the United Kingdom of Libya to the Libyan Arab Republic.
Gaddafi had been trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in England. He was an admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser, another military man, who had organized the overthrow of the king of Egypt and the Sudan, Farouk, in 1952 – another king associated with the British. Gaddafi and his friends in the military were admirers of Nasser's Arab nationalism and opponents of Nasser's foremost enemy, Israel, which had defeated Nasser and Egypt in 1967. Gaddafi and fellow officers are reported to have felt shame from having stood by helplessly during that six-day war. They saw their overthrow of Libya's king as a contribution to Arab unity in the wake of Egypt's defeat.
The British disliked Nasser and Nasserism, and they remained loyal to Libya's monarchy and had a plan to undo Gaddafi's coup. But U.S. strategists were opposed to the idea, apparently not wanting to offend Arab sentiments against a colonialist appearing intervention – the same thinking that led Eisenhower to oppose British and French actions during the Suez crisis in 1957. The U.S. was afraid that actions against Gaddafi would further radicalize Arabs, and they saw Gaddafi as sufficiently anti-Marxist. Gaddafi's asked the U.S. to vacate its huge Wheelus Air Base in Libya, and the U.S. complied, believing that it didn't need the base anyway.
The U.S. strategy, described by Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's National Secretary Advisor at the time, was "to seek to establish satisfactory relations with the new regime. The return of our balance of payments and the security of U.S. investments in oil [were] considered our primary interests." According to Kissinger, "Western Europe chose actively to curry favor with Libya's radical ruler. Europe, of course [had] made itself far more dependent on imported oil, much of it Libyan." (Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, p. 860)
In 1970, Gaddafi pursued his Arab nationalism further by ordering Libya's Italian population to leave. The Italian population in Libya, described as 20 percent and also as 12 percent, all but disappeared, leaving behind lengths of railway, roads, farmland, buildings and ports. They also left behind too the name Libya. The name "Libya" had been resuscitated in 1903 by the Italian geographer Federico Minutilli – a name used by the ancient Greeks for all of North Africa except Egypt. In 1934, the Italians combined their two colonies, Italian Cyrenaica in the east and Italian Tripolitania in the west, and named the combination Libya.
Gaddafi was most concerned about consolidating his power. Libya remained a land divided by tribal loyalties. There are about 140 tribes and clans in Libya. Gaddafi made allies of his family and his own tribe, the Gaddafa (also spelled Qaddafa) and two larger tribes with close ties to his own tribe: the Warfalla and the Margharha. These three tribes – but mostly the Gaddafa – were to dominate the ranks of Gaddafi's militias and armed forces and to remain a base of support. He moved to diminish other tribal influences. He created districts that did not match tribal territories, and he appointed administrative officers in place of tribal leaders.
Gaddafi and his friends in the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) believed that the separation of state and religion was an artificiality that violated the Koran and relegated sharia law to an immoral secondary status. Libya had a dual court system: religious and secular. In 1973, this division was abrogated. Secular jurisprudence was obliged to conform to sharia.
In trying to unite Libya, the RCC established the Arab Social Union, a political assembly similar to what Nasser had in Egypt. Everyone was supposed to belong, and The RCC banned all rival political parties.
On April 16, 1973 (the Prophet Muhammad's 1.402nd birthday) Gaddafi delivered a speech outlined a program for his cultural revolution. All existing laws were to be replaced by new laws that served his revolution. Administrative reforms were to rid the country of "all forms of bourgeoisie and bureaucracy." Popular committees were to be created that give power to the people. All "imported poisonous ideas" were to be discarded in order to advance "the people's genuine moral and matirial potentialities."
According to Ruth First, in her book Libya, the Elusive Revolution, published in 1975,
Within days of the speech, two overlaying waves of arrests took place. In some instances individuals were denounced by Popular Committees, but the majority of arrests were carried out by secret police. University lecturers, lawyers, and writers, employees of government ministries, including the attorney general's office and the Tripoli Chamber of Commerce, younger members of prominent coastal families – most of them seemingly individuals identified in the past with Marxist, Ba'thist, Muslim Brotherhood or other political circles – were siezed. (Quoted by Mansour O. El-Kikhia, Libya's Qaddafi, p. 47)
In 1975, Gaddafi published his Green Book – his attempt at political ideology.
Libya's Qaddafi: the Politics of Contradiction, by Mansour O. El-Kikhia, University of Florida Press, 1997.
Copyright © 2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.