President Ronald Reagan called Muammar Qaddafi a “mad dog” in 1986 when he ordered air strikes on Tripoli. A quarter century later, it might be the Libyan leader’s fellow Arabs who ultimately broker his downfall.
After opposing the Reagan response to Qaddafi’s terrorism, the 22-member Arab League is backing the bombing campaign led by Britain, France and the U.S. to ground Libya’s air force and halt Qaddafi’s attempt to crush a rebellion.
“Arab leaders want to be on the right side of history and don’t want to be seen backing a maniac dictator who’s killing his own people,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former analyst at the NATO Defense College. “The Arab world realizes it has to change and what we’re seeing is a collective reaction against the one state that totally rejects modernity.”
Before renouncing nuclear weapons in 2002, Qaddafi was a pariah as one of the earliest backers of terror attacks abroad, according to the U.S. and European governments. His regime has been responsible for the death of at least 440 people in four countries, as well as brutality in Libya.
Reagan’s military action followed the April 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque that killed two U.S. servicemen and a Turkish woman. Four people, including a Libyan diplomat, were convicted by a German court for participating in the attack. The German government said in 2004 that Libya agreed to pay $35 million in compensation to victims.
The 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed 270 people and the only man convicted of the atrocity is a former Libyan intelligence officer. It was followed a year later by the attack on a French UTA plane over Niger, when 170 people died. Qaddafi in 2004 agreed to pay $170 million in compensation, the French government said.
Qaddafi also provided arms to terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army. Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged in 2009 to support compensation claims from the victims’ families, who said Libya supplied explosives used in some IRA atrocities. Libya has refused to pay.
At home, Qaddafi’s worst acts include what Human Rights Watch described as a “mass killing” of as many as 1,200 people at Tripoli’s Abu Salem prison in 1996.
“His legacy is state-sponsored terrorism, ego-driven toxic politics, and despair and desperation for Libyans,” Shada Islam, a Middle East expert at the Friends of Europe policy-advisory group in Brussels, said in a telephone interview. “It’s easy to make fun of him, but he’s a very dangerous man.”
The final break with the Arab world came March 12 when the Arab League, meeting in an emergency session, asked the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, which has Africa’s largest oil reserves, to thwart attacks by Qaddafi’s forces on civilians.
While Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said on March 12 one or two members of the Cairo-based group had voiced concerns, he reiterated this week that countries remain “committed” to UN efforts to halt the 68-year-old Qaddafi.
Leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who Human Rights Watch says uses “violence and repression” to hold power, haven’t been the target of such measures, in part because regional groups like the African Union don’t back such steps.
The conflict in Libya erupted last month after the Middle East uprisings that started in neighboring Tunisia spread to Egypt and are still going in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.
Qaddafi’s four decades in power have been marked by terrorism, human rights abuses, international sanctions and disagreements with his Middle Eastern neighbors, including a spat with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
“Your lies precede you and the grave is ahead of you,” Abdullah, then crown prince, warned Qaddafi at a 2003 Arab summit. The Libyan leader verbally attacked him before the U.S.- led invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Qaddafi came to power in a 1969 military coup that overthrew Libya’s first and only monarch, King Idris, who had ruled from the former Italian colony’s independence in 1951.
An army officer, Qaddafi claimed to be creating a regime that gave power to the people through so-called popular committees of ordinary Libyans. Qaddafi gave himself the title “The Brother Leader of the Revolution” and regarded political parties as a source of strife, according to his manifesto, “The Green Book.” He never designated a successor in a country whose constitution he abolished and kept power by crushing dissent through a network of informants.
“He’s damaged his country mentally,” Katerina Dalacoura, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said in a telephone interview. “You can’t just look at the body count. His legacy will be to leave a country that’s so institutionally eviscerated that it’s hard to see how they’ll proceed.”
Outside Libya, Qaddafi is known for his eccentric behavior such as surrounding himself with an all-female bodyguard corps, Ukrainian nurses, and pitching a Bedouin tent in Paris and Rome during state visits to France in 2007 and Italy in 2009.
“The main adjective for Qaddafi’s 40 years of rule is erratic,” Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said in an interview. “He shifted from socialism to populism, but basically ended up as a tribal leader with oil.”
Oil accounted for more than 95 percent of Libya’s export earnings in 2010, with an average production of 1.5 million barrels a day, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The nation had $150 billion of foreign-currency reserves at the central bank and the Libya Investment Authority, equivalent to 60 percent more than its gross domestic product, at the end of last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF says unemployment is “high,” particularly among the young, without providing a figure.
“Qaddafi was the worst of the worst,” Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a researcher at the Paris-based French Institute of International Affairs, said in a telephone interview. “Tunisia, for all its faults, did develop a functioning economy and a relative prosperity. Egypt remained a cultural center for the Arab world with a reasonable openness. In Libya, nothing. In spite of its oil, it’s very behind economically.”
Qaddafi’s attempts to export the self-styled revolution to other countries put Libya under U.S. and United Nations sanctions in the 1980s and 1990s after the government was accused of sponsoring terrorism.
In London, a police officer was killed in 1984 by gunfire from inside the Libyan embassy, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported at the time. The Libyan suspects were allowed to leave the country under diplomatic immunity and the U.K. broke diplomatic relations with Qaddafi.
The turnaround in relations with the West started in 1999, when Qaddafi allowed the extradition of two Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie bombing. He abandoned nuclear weapons development efforts after 2002 and pledged to destroy a chemical weapons stockpile. He also renounced terrorism.
Libya paid $1.5 billion into a compensation fund for terrorism victims to settle claims related to attacks, including the 1988 bombing of the U.S.-bound airliner over Lockerbie, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified in 2008.
The actions led to an easing of sanctions and improved ties with the U.S. and Europe. Western investment to expand Libyan oil production followed, as did Libyan investment in the West ranging from a stake in Italian bank UniCredit SpA to a 1.5 million-pound ($2.4 million) donation to the London School of Economics. The LSE’s director, Howard Davies, resigned this month and said it was a mistake to take the money.
The visit to France four years ago came after Qaddafi was welcomed back into the international fold. U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair visited him in his tent in Tripoli in 2004 and said Qaddafi had found “common cause” with the West in fighting terrorism.
Scottish authorities released Libyan Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the jetliner attack over Lockerbie, on compassionate grounds in 2009 because he was said to be dying of cancer. He remains alive, according to Scottish officials responsible for monitoring him.
Qaddafi’s efforts led to a rapprochement of sorts with Italy, the country that had Libya as a colony from 1912 to World War II. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to spend $4.8 billion over 20 years, mostly paid to Italian companies, to build a road across Libya from Tunisia to Egypt.
At a Group of Eight dinner in Italy in 2009, which the Libyan ruler attended in his role as head of the African Union, he shook hands for the first time with President Barack Obama.
When it came to his fellow Arabs, Qaddafi’s relationships weren’t always cordial as he sought regional unity.
It was Lebanon, along with France, that presented the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the military operations aimed at Qaddafi’s forces.
While Lebanese politics in recent years has been marked by prolonged standoffs between a coalition built around Shiite militia Hezbollah and the pro-Western March 14 movement, both sides of the political divide are united by their dislike of the Libyan leader because of the 1978 disappearance of prominent Lebanese Shiite cleric Moussa al-Sadr in Libya. Lebanon issued an arrest warrant for Qaddafi in 2008 over the disappearance, according to a Human Rights Watch report last year.
Major Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former member of Libya’s revolutionary command council who resigned as the country’s ambassador to the Arab League on Feb. 20, said al-Sadr was killed and buried in Libya’s Sabha region. Al-Houni said his brother-in-law, who was the pilot of Qaddafi’s private plane, was tasked with transporting al-Sadr’s body to Sabha and was killed himself shortly after doing so to keep the crime secret, Al-Hayat newspaper reported on Feb. 23.
In 1988, at an Arab summit, Qaddafi kept a glove on when he shook hands with the king of Morocco, Hassan II, because the monarch had met earlier with Shimon Peres, the current Israeli president. At the same summit, he told other Arab leaders to “go to hell,” the New York Times reported at the time.
In 2003, during another Arab summit before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Qaddafi angered Saudi King Abdullah, then crown prince, when he said that the Muslim kingdom had aligned itself with the “devil” by allowing foreign troops in after Saddam Hussein had annexed Kuwait in 1990.
“Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and not an agent of colonialism like you and others,” Abdullah said, wagging his finger in Qaddafi’s direction. “Who brought you to power? Huh? Do tell me, who brought you to power? Don’t talk about things that you don’t know.”