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Patrick J. O Brien

With hindsight and thirteen years on, was killing Gaddafi a serious mistake for Libya and a lesson for the Middle East

Muammar Gaddafi and Prime Minister Mintoff waving to the crowd at the main entrance to the Auberge de Castille, Malta, 31 March 1979  (Image courtesy of author)
Muammar Gaddafi and Prime Minister Mintoff waving to the crowd at the main entrance to the Auberge de Castille, Malta, 31 March 1979 (Image courtesy of author)

Like many journalists, I smiled when Gaddafi was overthrown, and I was relieved when he was dead, because I was still naive enough to think revolutions brought democracy. They simply don’t. Gaddafi might have been a dictator, but he was a relatively competent and somewhat humane one, and managed to keep the Islamist tendencies of the idiots he ruled down. Meanwhile, the people he ruled were given part in the oil wealth, were supported by the State in what was essentially a welfare system, and had the highest standards of life in Africa. Now their country is a bombed wreck, torn apart by militias, civil unrest and Islamic gangs.

Libya under Gaddafi experienced socio-economic and political changes and transitions. Gaddafi rose to power when in September 1969 a group of some 70 army officers carried out a coup against King Idris I, who was the ruler of Libya. The coup was dubbed the Free Unionist Officers Movement, which eventually led to the old rulers and governing bodies being ousted and the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), taking full control. Initially there were speculations about who had launched the coup, but after Gaddafi was announced as the Commander in Chief of the army of Libya by the RCC, it became clear that the action was taken under Gaddafi’s command. Within a few days of establishing power, he embarked on initiating significant shifts and changes in economic and political relations nationally as well as internationally, with the foreign powers.

Today, the country is rife with armed militias including in the capital, Tripoli itself, competing for power and resources. In many instances, innocent people and foreign illegal migrants are kidnapped for ransom. Highlighting this fact, that migrants, in particular, have been targeted and there is overwhelming evidence that they have been systematically tortured. There is also talk of slavery against illegal African migrants. This particular crime has been documented a couple of times over the last decade or so. Illegal migrants taking the Libyan route to cross over the Mediterranean usually face a difficult time while in Libya, and their situation gets worse if they are caught and jailed.

Almost 13 years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above those of the Libyan people. U.N. efforts to broker a lasting peace have not yet succeeded, overshadowed by competing peace conferences sponsored by various foreign governments. Meanwhile, Libya’s borders remain porous, particularly in the southern Fezzan, facilitating an increase in trafficking and smuggling of illicit materials, including weapons.

At the sub-national level, many local conflicts reflect long-standing feuds between various factions, tribes, and ethnic groups. Though Libya’s national conflict has stalled in recent months, prospects for a political solution are complicated by the country’s deep political and tribal divides.
Despite his brutal regime Gaddafi was a welcomed guest on many foreign shores. In the small nation of Malta, my home, he described the Maltese as ‘blood brothers’ of the Libyans. In 1976 he attended an MLP rally and met the Labour Cabinet. Relations waned for some time in 1981  when he sent a submarine and a gunboat to stop an Italian oil rig from drilling for oil for Malta in disputed waters. Gaddafi gave  Prime Minister at the time, Dom Mintoff the cash he needed to be in a strong position to negotiate the closure of the British military base and was the only foreign head of state to visit Malta for the actual closure of March 31, 1979.

Just why Libya’s Arab spring went so badly wrong is a matter of hot debate. Some blame Nato for not following up with political support after its air campaign; some argue that it was the lack of institutions to make democracy work, or Libya’s atomised tribal structure that makes cooperation hard and magnifies distrust. Many have simply given up.

By almost any measure, Libya’s experience following the NATO-backed armed uprising has been a failure. Longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his kleptocratic family no longer lord over Libya. But Libyans are poorer, in greater peril, and experience as much or more political repression in parts of the country compared to Gaddafi’s rule. Libya remains divided politically and in a state of festering civil war. Frequent oil production halts while lack of oil fields maintenance has cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenues.

Critics of the 2011 NATO-backed intervention have likened the Libyan experience to Iraq, where the government of dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by a US invasion in 2003. But, thirteen years on, it’s important to dispel myths about why Libya went so wrong so as not to draw the wrong lessons.

About the Author
Patrick J O Brien is an acclaimed journalist and Director of Exante who has been working in the media for almost 25 years. Patrick who hails from Ireland is based in Malta and a contributor to some of the world’s leading financial and political magazines. Recently he returned from Ukraine where he was reporting at ground level on the escalation of war and spent time documenting the work of the Red Cross and many human right organisations