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Reviewed by:
  • Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi
  • Jacques Roumani (bio)
Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, by Alison Pargeter. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2012. 289 pages. $30.

This highly readable account of Qadhafi, from the beginning of his dominion over Libya in 1969 through his brutal execution by rebels in October 2011, is well focused on the man, his ideology, and actions. It is the first book that astutely examines the unfolding story of the creation, implementation, and destruction of Qadhafi’s Jamahiriya (“state of the masses“) and its unsettling consequences for an entire generation of Libyans. Out of a 42-year history of a regime and society in constant change, the author has woven an absorbing and coherent story that allows the reader to grasp the reality of its various mutations, offering some significant but little-known details, along with glimpses into the Libyan scene before and after Qadhafi.

Qadhafi conceived his “revolution” as the way to erase Libya’s historic powerlessness, first and foremost by projecting Libya [End Page 148] on the world stage to destabilize the world order through radical anti-western policies, including support for sundry terrorist groups. At home, Libyans were to be empowered by permanent mobilization in the service of Qadhafi’s ideology of a stateless, egalitarian society based on an idiosyncratic blend of Islamic and Marxist precepts (Qaddafism, p. 78), and self-directed by the people, loosely gathered in Congresses and Committees, in which revolutionary cadres became a lethal instrument of an oppressive, omnipresent and multifaceted security apparatus. Qadhafi admitted in his Green Book that the Jamahiriya system would ultimately reflect the wishes of the strongest, namely himself, thus subjecting Libyans to a totalitarian, often brutal, one-man, personal rule. Alison Pargeter skillfully covers Qadhafi’s international adventurism, serious defeats, and internal challenges, none of which deterred him from pursuing his twin goals of revolution at home and abroad. But having failed to transform Libya into a revolutionary society, Qadhafi managed to neutralize his enemies, especially the better organized Islamist groups originating in Cyrenaican towns in the east. He then reverted to traditional alliances with powerful families and began manipulating a resurgent tribal system (p. 158), fostering extensive patronage and corruption through misguided and ineffective distributive policies. His own sons took part in Qadhafi’s schemes, with the eldest, Sayf al-Islam, ostensibly proclaiming to the outside world his vision of a reformed, democratic Libya at critical intervals to defuse various crises and leverage the lifting of international sanctions and hopes for reforms following Qadhafi’s surrender of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in late 2003.

Sayf’s cynical manipulation of public opinion explains, as the author rightly suggests, his changing course at the beginning of the rebellion and his complete identification with his father, as manifested in his unexpected, brutally aggressive speech to a bewildered nation on February 20, 2011 (pp. 228–230).

The start, maintenance, and collapse of Qadhafi in 2011, and his instruments of power and oppression is a story shared with other recently deposed Middle East tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein (see Roger Owen’s The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, 2012).

But how does Qadhafi fit in Libyan history?

Though a product of Libyan history, having fulfilled, in 1969, latent pan-Arab aspirations of young Libyans, he was an anomaly in the pantheon of Libyan leaders, but not entirely. He shared (but perverted) the reformist Islamic spirit of the Sanusis in 19th century Cyrenaica, as well as some of the ruling strategies and methods, including foreign adventures (piracy), of the Qaramanli dynasty in Tripoli (1711–1835). He was the antithesis of his one-time hero, Umar al-Mukhtar, a selfless pious man who single-handedly fought Italian colonialism for ten years in the 1920s.

Qadhafi could be seen instead more like Libya’s ruthless tribal strong men — “Big Chiefs,” implacably opposed to central authority, such as ‘Ali Burghul (late 18th century), Ghuma al-Mahmudi and ‘Abd al-Jalil (19th century) — or even like Ramdan al-Suwehli (killed in 1918) or Bashir al-Saadawi (1948–1950) whose destructive roles set back the process of...


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pp. 148-150
Launched on MUSE
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