(1942– ) Libyan leader
Muammar Qaddafi was born in the desert region of Sidra (Sirte), Libya, in 1942. He was the youngest child from a nomadic Bedouin family. Qaddafi attended the Sebha preparatory school in Fezzan, where he formed a secret society, the Free Officers, patterned on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s group in Egypt that championed the causes of pan-Arabism and Arab socialism. In 1961 Qaddafi was expelled from Sebha because of his political activism. In April 1963 Qaddafi became a trainee officer at the military academy in Benghazi and began to work his way up through the army officer corps. In 1966 he volunteered to go and study with the Royal Corps of Signals in Britain, where he learned radio electronics and telecommunications. He was able to develop a code that the secret Free Officers group used to maintain contact with one another throughout Libya.
Qaddafi and his close friends from Sebha became the core of the revolutionary group that overthrew King Idris and removed Italian influence from Libya. Qaddafi called off the projected coup against the king twice before going ahead with it on September 1, 1969. While Idris was out of the country, the Free Officers arrested the king’s leading supporters in a bloodless coup. The first objective was to take control of the main barracks and the radio station. After securing the radio station, Qaddafi gave an impromptu speech announcing that the monarchy had ended and that Libya had been given back to the people. Qaddafi was appointed president of the Revolutionary Command Council, the main governing body of the country. The Free Officers promptly refused to renew agreements with Britain and the United States for their military bases in Libya; they also emphasized Arab unity. They nationalized most banks and other business and declared Islam the religion of the state while stating that religious freedom would be accorded to all other faiths. In the midst of the cold war, the Western nations,—particularly the United States—were hostile to these changes and Qaddafi’s fiery brand of Arab nationalism.
In hopes of creating a pan-Arab state, Qaddafi proclaimed the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt, and Syria) in 1972, but the three countries could not agree on specific terms. In 1973 Qaddafi talked for the first time about his third universal theory, an economic and political philosophy that was neither capitalist nor communist. At this time he also nationalized all foreign petroleum assets. Increased revenues from petroleum during the 1970s enabled Qaddafi to initiate massive programs of domestic development and to build a modern infrastructure. At the same time, Libyan forces occupied the 60-mile-wide Aouzou Strip on the border of Chad. The skirmishes between Libya and Chad continued sporadically for years to come. Qaddafi gave massive amounts of financial aid to African nations and was a prominent figure in the Organization of African Unity.
In 1974 Qaddafi gave up all his political and administrative functions, but still remained head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. On March 2,
1974, Qaddafi proclaimed that Libya was to be known as the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya. He subsequently stepped down from all public offices but remained the real ruler of Libya from behind the scenes.
In 1975, Qaddafi published the first of three documents called The Green Book, which expounded his personal philosophy and political belief translated into a program of action. The Green Book became part of every Libyan’s life and was studied in schools; extracts were broadcast daily, and its slogans were publicized throughout the nation. Part one of the book, The Solution of the Problem of Democracy—The Authority of the People, concentrated on the political structure of Libya and rejected the concept of parliamentary democracy. Part two, published in 1977 and entitled The Solution of the Economic Problem—Socialism, discussed the weaknesses of both communism and capitalism. Part three, published in 1981 and entitled The Social
Basis of the Third Universal Theory, dealt with a wide range of issues including nationalism and the status of minorities and women.
Qaddafi’s hostility toward Israel and the West brought him closer to the Soviet Union. Western governments also blamed him for a series of terrorist attacks against civilian targets. In 1981 U.S. and Libyan air forces clashed over the Gulf of Sidra. Hoping to stop terrorist attacks, President Ronald Reagan authorized a bombing raid to assassinate Qaddafi in 1986. Although his adopted daughter died in the attack, Qaddafi survived this and other attempts on his life.
During the 1990s, Qaddafi began to adopt a more moderate approach to the West and provided financial compensation for some terrorist victims in order to repair diplomatic relations. Although domestic opposition to his regime continued to mount, he remained in power and seemingly began to groom his son as his successor.