Libya’s regime at 40: a state of kleptocracy

About the author

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was most recently Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats / Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) research professor at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (Barcelona Institute for International Studies / IBEI). He was from 1985-2008 professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and subsequently professor emeritus there

Fred Halliday's many books include Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011); Caamaño in London: the Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010); Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language (IB Tauris, 2010); 100 Myths about the Middle East (Saqi, 2005); The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (Saqi, 2001); Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi, 2000); and Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

The fortieth anniversary of the Libyan "revolution" of 1969 - more accurately a coup d'etat by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and some of his associates and relatives - brings to mind a conversation I had just after that event with a friend who was (and remains) a senior Algerian diplomat. The Algerian government had been as surprised and bemused as any other about the emergence of this bizarre, radical and eccentric regime in a fellow north African state. The then Algerian president, Houari Boumedienne, had asked my friend to visit Tripoli and assess the new leadership there.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. He was formerly professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. He is a widely known and authoritative analyst of middle-eastern affairs, he appears regularly on the BBC, ABC, al-Jazeera television, CBC and Irish radio. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005)

Among Fred Halliday's columns in openDemocracy:

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Sovereign Wealth Funds: power vs principle" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (13 May 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (26 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (15 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

"The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

"Iran's revolution in global history" (5 March 2009)

"Iraq in the balance" (26 March 2009)

"The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

"Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

"Yemen: travails of unity" (3 July 2009)

"Iran's tide of history: counter-revolution and after" (17 July 2009)
When my friend's mission was completed, I asked him how he had found the Libyan leaders, who at the time included Major Abdessalem Jalloud, a long-term ally of Gaddafi (who was eventually, in 1993, excluded from power after an alleged coup attempt) as well as the colonel himself. The Algerian diplomat‘s response, in elegant French, was unforgettable: Ils ont un niveau intellectuel plutôt modeste. In more Anglo-Saxon terms, they were pretty stupid.

A state of misrule

There are many ways to enter the strange story of al-Jamahiriya ("the state of the masses"), whose originating event was marked on 1 September 2009 by a spectacular celebration in Tripoli filled with extravagant stage-management and kitsch special-effects. The event was seen in much of the world outside Libya against the background of the concurrent media and diplomatic controversy over the release from a Scottish jail on 20 August 2009 of the only person convicted of any part in the Pan-Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie in December 1998, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi (who, incidentally, belongs to an influential branch of the Magariha tribe, which links him to Major Jelloud).  As a result, the experience of these four decades in Libya's history - and their impact on the Arab world and beyond - has been somewhat overshadowed. A pity, for these offer some sobering lessons in the politics of illusion.

Indeed, these forty years have done little - if anything - to invite any revision in the Algerian's judgement. True, Libya's maximum leader and his cohorts have throughout much of this period deluged the world with rhetoric about the country's supposed "third way" as codified in the colonel's two-volume Green Book (1976 and 1980) - a collection of platitudes that helped attract to Libya a similar breed of  leftist and "third-worldist" radicals as that which was seduced by Mao Zedong's "red" predecessor a decade earlier. The mutation in the state's official titles reflects its leaders' evolving grandiosity: from the "Libyan Arab Republic" of 1969 to the eulogistic "Socialist People's Libyan Arab al-Jamahiriyah" of March 1977, further qualified as "Great" in April 1986.

During these decades, the Libyan elite's vaunting ambition led it to seek to establish leadership over the Arabs (before then shifting attention to Africa); it even for a time appeared to present a provocative and in part anti-clerical interpretation of Islam.

There are many measures of the regime's failure. Its manipulations of language and its administrative incoherence are but two (interestingly paralleled by that far shorter-lived "third-world" experiment in making the world anew in the late 1970s, namely Pol Pot's Cambodia).  

The first I witnessed during a visit to Tripoli in 2002, whose official programme inevitably included a visit to the "World Centre for Green Book Studies" (though it was a pleasant surprise to find in a bookshop near my hotel that of the thirty-four translations of the book made available, the most prominently displayed were those in Hebrew and in Esperanto). Colonel Gaddafi was so enamoured of the idea of "green" that  he even considered naming the main government building in Tripoli the "Green House", until its English gardening connotations were pointed out.  More reminiscent of other revolutionary trajectories was his renaming of the months of the year (the Roman words being too reminiscent of the Italian imperial yoke), and his attempt to replace all English words by Arabic (even such good friends of the people as "Johnny Walker" [Hanah Mashi] and "7 Up" [Saba'a Fauq].

The second measure, administrative chaos, has proved one of the most costly aspects of the Libyan revolution. Again, I recall during that 2002 visit being told in an embarrassed fashion by some officials and academics - those who did not engage in lengthy disquisitions on The Green Book - that their country had "management problems". Between the lines, the reference to Gaddafi's style was unmistakeable.

Many members of Libya's elite at the time were educated in the west (one professor reminisced fondly about a Durham pub); their knowledge of the world, and citizens' access to Italian television, intensified the evidently widespread (if resigned) frustration. The chaotic management system then prevailing was revealed in the announcement that on a particular Sunday there would be a meeting of ministers, in effect a cabinet meeting: but since Libya officially has no capital city, no one knew where this would be held, and senior officials and their advisers spent hours driving around the desert from one place to another trying to find out where they were supposed to meet.

A tight embrace

Al-Jamahiriya has survived many periods of international tension and crisis - from the bombing by United States forces in April 1986 to the Lockerbie saga itself. Its rehabilitation by the international community came after 9/11, when Libya took a strong rhetorical stand away from its earlier use and endorsement of state terrorism; the process was reinforced when in a deal agreed in December 2003 led to it abandoning its effort to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Since the early 2000s it has become common to argue that Libya is changing. Libya has for sure altered its foreign-and defence-policy course: many countries do in the course even of a long period of rule by a single leader - even Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union or Kim Jong-il's North Korea, for example. But at home, and the regime's heart, the changes are cosmetic.

Libya remains controlled by the whimsical leadership around Gaddafi. Arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and disappearance still take place; relatives or close colleagues, like Major Jalloud in the early days, come and go, as do supposedly "modernising" ministers. The junior members of the family, some perhaps well-intentioned, others perhaps self-deluded, play intermittent public roles, and command media and commercial attention abroad; but since there is no constitutional system, and since all information is speculative, no one - not even these younger members themselves - can say what it means.

It can however be assumed that, as in other dictatorial regimes (not least in the middle east) the real power is held by those who less visible - above all those who control the intelligence services. Musa Kusa, the foreign minister who spent fifteen years as head of Libya's secret service, probably has more influence than those associates of the regime who promote Libya's image abroad - even if his name is only rarely in the news.

Moreover, it is clear is that for all the rhetoric about "revolution" and the "state of the masses" the Libyan leadership has squandered much of the country's wealth twice over: on foolish projects at home and costly adventures abroad. Libya, with a per capita oil output roughly equal to that of Saudi Arabia, boasts few of the advances - the urban and transport development,  educational and health facilities - that the oil-endowed Gulf states can claim. Tripoli, the de facto capital, retains the impressive white buildings and squares of Italian colonial rule; but its surface charms notwithstanding, it is more the Arab equivalent of Havana than a Maghrebi version of Dubai or Doha.

Libya has not introduced significant changes to its political system, and especially not with regard to human rights or governance. The Jamahiriyah remains in 2009 one of the most dictatorial as well as opaque of Arab regimes. Its 6 million people enjoy no significant freedoms: the annual reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watchon Libya offer a glimpse of the real situation, one of continued and systematic abuse of human rights. Those who oppose the ideology of the Gaddafi revolution may, under Law 71, be arrested and even executed. There is not even the flicker of diversity found in such neighbouring dictatorships as Egypt or Sudan. 

The exiled writer Hisham Matar gives a flavour, via a description of his father's incarceration:

"We were kept in this state of uncertainty for three years until one morning a letter, written in Father's careful handwriting, and smuggled from within the notorious political prison of Abu Sleem in Tripoli, was delivered to our home in the trembling hands of a young friend of Father's who had carried it across the border. When he entered our house he went over to the music system and turned up the volume. He embraced Mother and whispered in her ear. There was something white in his hand. I thought it was tissue paper. He pushed it into her palm, but then couldn't let go. They were both crying.

The single sheet of paper was folded several times. It gave an uncompromisingly detailed account of what had happened to him since he had disappeared. Father had been taken from his home in Cairo by Egyptian secret service officers and delivered to the Libyan secret service. Izzat Youssef al-Maqrif, another Libyan dissident who was living then in Cairo, had been taken on the same day. Both men were bundled into a car. Yellowing newspapers had been papered across the windows. After a while the road surface became smooth and he began to hear a humming sound that grew louder as the car picked up speed. The car stopped and when the passenger door was flung open Father saw that he was under the giant belly of an aeroplane. Three hours later he was in Tripoli."

A path of blood

The improvement in Libya's international profile in recent years reflects the abandonment of the regime's nuclear-weapons programme and its policy of hunting down Libyan dissidents living abroad (including their kidnap and murder). But this regime has shown scant regret, and those who ordered such actions as the shooting dead of the British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in central London in March 1984, the blowing up of passenger airlines, and the transfer of sophisticated weaponry and material to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) remain in power. The official response to the Lockerbie trial and al-Megrahi release reflects an attitude of mind that rejects real contrition or admission of responsibility. It still attempts to bully governments it has been in disagreement with, such as Switzerland.

The prominent guests at the celebrations of 1 September 2009 in Tripoli included Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the International Criminal Court (ICC)-indicted Sudanese president. Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Another honoured invitee was Mohammad Abdi Hasan Hayr, the Somali fisherman believed to be a leader of the pirates operating off Africa‘s longest coastline. The character of Libya's friends in Europe tells its own tale: among them are Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (a frequent visitor) and the country's former chief political fixer (and mafia collaborator) Giulio Andreotti, who gave the Libyans advance warning of the American air-assault of 1986.

For my own part, I do not forget the fate of another indirect casualty of that event: my fellow student of Yemeni affairs, the British academic Leigh Douglas. He was kidnapped in Beirut (where he was teaching) in the aftermath of the American attack, together with his compatriot and colleague Philip Padfield. Both men were shot dead by their captors; a third, the United Nations journalist Alec Collett, was also murdered. 

A regional wrecker

The Beirut killings in 1986 are a reminder that the damage Libya's leadership has wrought over these forty years both goes wider and is closer to home than the western connections of Lockerbie, the IRA and (reportedly) the Basque paramilitary group ETA. For Libya's reputation among other Arab states and peoples is abysmal, if the state is not actually an object of contempt.

It may be that for reasons of commerce or Realpolitik, western businessmen and politicians have come to take Libya more seriously than hitherto (even as the ranks of political fellow-travellers have migrated to the likes of Venezuela or even Iran); but I have never met anyone in the Arab world who has ever had any reason to. No wonder: Libya has over the years of Colonel Gaddafi's rule interfered in and helped worsen political situations in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Palestine.

In Lebanon, for example, it was the disappearance (and presumed murder) of the Lebanese Shi'a leader Musa Sadr during his visit to Libya in 1978 that opened the way to the rise of the Hizbollah movement: I once endured a long rant from the then Libyan ambassador to Tehran, denouncing the Shi'a as in effect accomplices of western imperialism. Yet Tripoli (perhaps out of resentment that Iran had displaced Libya as the patron of radicals in the country) has also long championed chauvinist anti-Iranian and anti-Shi'a rhetoric.

In Yemen, I can testify to Libya's destructive influence in the 1970s and 1980s: inciting a war between North Yemen and South Yemen in 1972, then promising large-scale aid to the south's leftwing regime in the 1980s, only to cut off this aid abruptly when the Yemenis disagreed with Libya over events in Ethiopia. In Aden, one of the most visible sights in the early 1980s was the shell of the unfinished Libyan hospital in Khormaksar - its funding stopped from one day to the other.

In Palestine too, Libya has been a wrecker. It long fomented division within the Palestinian nationalist movement, at one time backing the Abu Nidal faction that sought to assassinate Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials who negotiated with Israel. Libya has continued to express extreme anti-Israeli views: its official position is that Israel should be merged into a single state, Isratina, an innovative way of proposing the state's elimination. On the eve of the fortieth anniversary celebrations, Colonel Gaddafi even told a meeting of African Union leaders on the eve of the anniversary celebrations that Israel was responsible for many of the conflicts and problems in the continent.

An end to fantasy

Libya is far from the most brutal regime in the world, or even the region: it has less blood on its hands than (for example) Sudan, Iraq, and Syria. But al-Jamahiriyah remains a grotesque entity. In its way it resembles a protection-racket run by a family group and its associates who wrested control of a state and its people by force and then ruled for forty years with no attempt to secure popular legitimation.

The outside world may be compelled by considerations of security, energy and investment to deal with this state. But there is no reason to indulge the fantasies that are constantly promoted about its political and social character, within the country and abroad. Al-Jamahiriyah is not a "state of the masses": it is a state of robbers, in formal terms a kleptocracy. The Libyan people have for far too long been denied the right to choose their own leaders and political system - and to benefit from their country's wealth via oil-and-gas deals of the kind the west is now so keen to promote. The sooner the form of rule they endure is consigned to the past, the better.