An enormous gap has long existed between the ideas, beliefs, and myths that constituted Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ideology and the respective realities that they purported to explain. The depth and breadth of the gap expanded over time, especially in periods of reform, as Qaddafi loyalists sought to reconcile outdated theoretical concepts with incompatible new policies. As the regime has moved toward a more open, market economy, for example, regime spokesmen rationalized privatization, clearly outlawed in The Green Book, as the “extension of popular ownership.” Qaddafi’s recent proposal to dismantle most of the Libyan government has strained the tenuous connection between theory and reality to the breaking point—and has provoked debate inside the country that might point to a new style of decision making.

From the outset of his 1969 revolution, Qaddafi employed revolutionary ideology (expressed first through the “Third Universal Theory” and later in the three slender volumes of The Green Book) as both a drive and a tool. It was a drive in that it dominated the thinking and actions of the Libyan leader and his most devoted followers. It was a tool in the sense that he and his disciples used it to generate obedience and support among the general public. Over the decades, central elements of Qaddafi’s early ideological context have changed dramatically, but the Libyan leader continues to articulate and defend the anachronistic theories found in The Green Book. His ability to use ideology as a tool to generate popular support for revolutionary policies, however, has ended for all practical purposes.
Still Right after All These Years
In recent months, Qaddafi’s efforts to reconcile the present with the past—in reality an attempt to justify four decades of mismanagement—have reached new heights. Speaking from his tent in Kiev during an official visit to the Ukraine, Qaddafi in early November suggested that Western attempts to deal with the current global financial crisis were nothing more than an “under the counter” attempt to steal ideas he had first expressed three decades earlier in The Solution of the Economic Problem “Socialism” (1978), part two of The Green Book. About the same time, he appeared in a white safari suit emblazoned with a map of Africa and said that he had foretold recent events, especially Barack Obama’s election to the U.S. presidency, almost three decades ago in The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory (1979), part three of The Green Book. In the brief excerpt from The Green Book he referenced, he suggested that Africans one day would prevail in the world.
Qaddafi’s Newest Idea
Dissatisfied with the reforms introduced over the last six to eight years, Qaddafi, in a September 1 speech marking the anniversary of the 1969 coup d’état that brought him to power, promised to enact broad new economic and political reforms that would dismantle most government ministries by the beginning of 2009. Charging the ministries were centers of corruption, graft, and mismanagement, he also promised to distribute directly to the Libyan people the petrodollars the ministries controlled. The speech was vintage Qaddafi in that he has often tried to escape public censure for unsuccessful policies, such as the slow and uncertain pace of reforms, by reshuffling the country’s leadership and blaming them for policy failures.
When Qaddafi continued to press for a massive reorganization of the government and a redistribution of public resources, his plan came under public criticism, something new in Libya where any criticism of the leader has traditionally been a fast track to jail or worse. In mid-November, television viewers in Libya experienced a rare event, a public debate between Qaddafi and senior government officials in which the latter challenged the leader’s proposal. Farhat Omar Bin Guidara, governor of the central bank, correctly suggested that the distribution of massive amounts of money directly to citizens would fuel inflation, devalue the Libyan dinar, and create a balance of payments deficit. In turn, al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi, Secretary of the General People’s Committee (the Libyan equivalent of prime minister), championed an alternative approach in which citizens would be given shares in banks, manufacturing plants, and telecommunications companies through portfolios managed by financial institutions.
If implemented, Qaddafi’s plan would clearly be a recipe for economic disorder, something he admitted himself when he warned that the early years of the plan would be chaotic until society learned to manage its own affairs. Although he showed no signs of compromise during the televised debate, arguing that government officials opposed his plan in order to protect their privileges, his approach again was vintage Qaddafi. In the past, the Libyan leader has often retreated from unsound or unpopular proposals by distancing himself from them, suggesting any reconsideration only reflected the strength of the Libyan system of direct democracy. In so doing, he has often succeeded in turning a potential setback into a political gain. The televised debate appeared to set the stage for a similar Qaddafi volte-face. At the same time, it also exposed the real limits of Qaddafi’s idiosyncratic, personalistic ideology as a mobilizing tool in modern-day Libya.
Change of a Different Sort?
What is encouraging about the present policy debate, when combined with other recent developments, is the possibility that a different form of decision-making may be emerging in Libya. In the past, Qaddafi and a small coterie of advisers made all important socioeconomic and political decisions. With economic reform outside the oil and gas industry moving at a snail’s pace and political reform not moving at all, there is mounting evidence that an increasing number of Libyans inside and outside government have come to reject old style, top-down decision-making. In an August 2008 address to a youth rally in Sebha, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, Qaddafi’s eldest son by his second wife and a possible successor, called for a strong civil society and reform of the Libyan political system. In early November 2008, anti-regime demonstrations broke out in Kufrah and Benghazi, and a female caller to a radio talk show criticized both Muammar al-Qaddafi and Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi on the air, a first in this tightly controlled state. In mid-November 2008, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi said that he expected a constitution providing for democratic elections would be adopted before September 1, 2009, the fortieth anniversary of the revolution that brought his father to power. While he had mentioned this possibility before, this was the first time Saif added a target date for a constitution. The televised debate between Qaddafi and government bureaucrats, when coupled with these events, suggest technocrats and common citizens alike increasingly favor a more open decision-making process. If that proves to be the case, socioeconomic and political reform may yet come to Libya in spite of, rather than because of, Libyan leader Qaddafi.
Ronald Bruce St John, an independent scholar, is author of Libya: From Colony to Independence (2008), Historical Dictionary of Libya (2006, 1998, 1991), Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife (2002), and Qaddafi’s World Design: Libyan Foreign Policy, 1969-1987 (1987).