25 years on - and Gaddafi is still a one-man revolution: Charles Richards in Tripoli reviews the career of the maverick Libyan leader

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The Independent Online
BUNTING is out in Tripoli for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's big anniversary celebration tomorrow. Huge stadium lamps turn night into day at Green Square, named in imitation of Moscow's Red Square, after the colour of its would-be Islamic revolution, started 25 years ago.

Few revolutions have been so closely associated with one man. Yet nothing underlines the failure of the revolution more than the difficulties the hundreds of guests from friendly countries and sympathetic organisations have experienced in reaching Tripoli.

Libya is cut off from the world. Its refusal to hand over two Libyan intelligence agents suspected of the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 led in April 1992 to the imposition of a UN air embargo on the country. But the Libyans do not help their own cause. The head of state of Niger, in observance of the air embargo, had to fly to Tunisia and then travel overland. Even he was obliged to tarry nearly an hour at the border while the usual Libyan committee of immigration officials, police and security men competed to see who could be most dilatory in stamping the honoured guests' passports.

Colonel Gaddafi was born into a poor Bedouin family of the lowly Gadadfa tribe. When he led his group of army officers to seize power on 1 September 1969, he had been politically active since his teens. His main target was the corrupt and decadent monarchy of King Idris. And throughout the past 25 years, Colonel Gaddafi has imposed his own austere blend of tribal culture and Islamic puritanism on the country. Alcohol was banned. Entertainment is limited.

His curious blend of religion and nationalism, of Islam and Arabism, was inspired by his hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his book The Philosophy of the Revolution. Colonel Gaddafi believes in the fundamental natural justice of Bedouin society, with its absence of formal structures and hierarchies. Yet he conforms depressingly to the mould of Arab leaders: a junior officer who seized power in a military coup and then clung on to it through a repressive and pervasive security apparatus posing as 'the will of the people'. The press is circumscribed. Freedom of expression is limited. Political activity is banned.

His fertile imagination led to an act of political alchemy in 1977 with the coinage of the term Jamahiriya - 'an entity of the masses', formally calling the country the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. On the world stage, the Libyan leader has earned a reputation as an oddball. His support of fringe groups, from the Provisional IRA to Muslim separatists in Thailand and the Philippines, and his backing of some of the viler Palestinian extremists such as Abu Nidal, has aroused anger all over the world. The disappearance of the Lebanese Shia divine Imam Musa Sadr in Libya in 1978 has never endeared him to the Iranians.

Externally his policies have been characterised by failure, ridicule and disastrous confrontation. He demonstrated his early political naivety by trying to buy a nuclear bomb from the Chinese. He was shown the door.

For all his trumpeting of the need for Arab unity, his projects for union with Egypt, Sudan and Syria in various combinations have never been implemented. He has engaged in costly adventures in Chad, had a brief border skirmish with Egypt in 1977, and been on collision course with the United States since the Reagan administrations of the 1980s, culminating in the bombing of Tripoli by US warplanes in 1986.

Yet the profoundest influence he has had on the history of the past 25 years has been economic. In 1970, the Libyans began what proved to be a highly successful policy of isolating individual oil companies and putting pressure on each of them rather than gunning for the industry as a whole. Libya's negotiating position was greatly enhanced by the fact that it had become Europe's largest single source of petroleum. Libya's actions shifted control over pricing from the oil companies to the producer governments. The effect has been high oil prices and higher energy costs ever since - and huge revenues for producers.

(Photograph omitted)