Monday, February 21, 2011

Moammar Gadhafi: from revolutionary to despot

Moammar Gadhafi: from revolutionary to despot

Amid escalating protests in Libya and reports that Moammar Gadhafi may have fled his country, one thing remains clear -- the Libyan leader has earned his place as one of the Arab world's longest-serving and most perplexing despots.

Gadhafi's story began in 1969, when at age 27 he engineered a bloodless coup with a group of other young military officers to overthrow King Idris, the North African country's ruler of nearly 20 years.

To Western countries, Gadhafi soon became one of the region's most despised leaders for arming and funding radical groups.

Gadhafi came to the aid of numerous despots, including Uganda's Idi Amin, Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone rebel commander Foday Sankoh.

After spending some two decades as an international pariah, in 2003 he began trying to bring Libya out of isolation. He abandoned his programme for creating weapons of mass destruction, telling CNN at the time that the Iraq war and the fall of Saddam Hussein had influenced his decision.

Gadhafi also renounced terrorism and compensated victims of two terrorist attacks purportedly linked to his regime: the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Those announcements marked a turning point for Ghadafi's government. The UN and the United States lifted sanctions against his country.

Ghadafi had become Africa and the Arab World's longest-serving leader, but he continued to face accusations of human rights abuses.

Bedouin upbringing

Born in a rural part of the desert nation in 1942, Gadhafi began plotting to overthrow the monarchy while he was at military college.

"The Little Green Book," published in 1975, laid out his unique political vision -- an Islamic-socialist government in which elected councils ostensibly ruled and in which Gadhafi held ultimate authority but no formal title.

He set up a decentralized system of government called the "Jamahiriya" or "rule by masses," but still wielded the reins of power.

Alessandro Bruno, deputy editor of The North Africa Journal, told CTV News Channel that while Ghadafi promoted his government as the most democratic in the world, he designed the country's "idiosyncratic" power structure so that it would collapse should he die or be ousted.

Analysts say he retained power by skillfully exploiting the country's tribal divisions and the historic rivalry between the capital of Tripoli and Benghazi, the country's second-largest city.

Gadhafi also exercised a level of force on the people of Libya that made him notorious, even in a region well known for its repressive regimes.

Mona Eltahawy, a well-known Egyptian columnist based in the U.S., said the Libyan regime has shown its violent side "clearly" since Gadhafi took power 42 years ago.

In the 1980s, she said the long-time ruler had dissidents who challenged his authority hung in public, and broadcast their executions on state television. Then in 1996, she said a massacre at a prison in Tripoli left 1,200 dead.

"His brutality is known and his brutality is quite unprecedented in the region," Eltahawy said.

The violent crackdown on protesters in recent days has drawn international condemnation, including from leaders in the Europe Union, the United States and Canada.

On Sunday, one doctor in Benghazi told The Associated Press that 200 people lay dead in the morgue of his hospital after government forces fired on protesters at funeral marches on two separate occasions over the weekend.

There are also reports that fighter pilots have been ordered to bomb the protesters. However, the death toll from the unrest has been impossible to determine because of government-imposed media restrictions.

Flamboyant style

In contrast to his brutal reputation, Gadhafi's outlandish personality has also defined his lengthy reign.

According to documents from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli recently published by WikiLeaks, he never travels without his "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse, Galina Kolotnytska, with whom he is rumoured to be romantically linked.

The 68-year-old colonel often takes a Bedouin tent on the road as well. In 2007, he asked that he be allowed to pitch the tent in central Paris so that he could entertain guests while visiting France.

Gadhafi's security detail includes a phalanx of female body guards known as the Amazonian Guard, who are supposed to be virgins.

During one of his infamous rambling speeches, he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2009 that the Security Council should be renamed the "terror council."

In March of the same year, he walked out of an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia after proclaiming: "I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam (leader) of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level."

Yet the unrest in his country threatens to upend his authority, raising questions about who would succeed him.

Even before the unrest broke out in the oil-rich country, there were rumours that Gadhafi's four sons had been locked in a power struggle to see who might fill their father's shoes one day.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the eldest son, delivered a meandering televised speech early Monday morning in which he warned the country could be headed for civil war if the protests persist.

Bruno, of The North Africa Journal, called the speech "beyond fear-mongering" but said he wouldn't be surprised if one of Gadhafi's sons removed him from power.