To someone like myself who had followed and chronicled Muammar al-Qaddafi's revolution for almost a quarter century -- and repeatedly interviewed virtually everyone close to the regime -- the Benghazi uprising earlier this year initially seemed almost an exercise in futility. Barnacled with multiple layers of security organizations that had successfully protected Qaddafi for over four decades, the regime seemed impervious to any popular uprising or revolt. Yet, within eight months, the seemingly invincible security mechanisms the Libyan regime had created crumbled, and Qaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli.
How much do we really know about the private life of Libya's toppled tyrant?
The regime had grown so old by the time it collapsed that it was hard to remember where it all had started -- in those heady years of the late 1960s when it seemed, momentarily, as if the Arab world stood on the cusp of a wave of destruction that would obliterate the old monarchies and outdated regimes that had ruled the Middle East for decades.
Many older readers undoubtedly remember this image from the beginning of Qaddafi's 1969 revolution: the young, pencil-thin revolutionary in his carefully pressed military uniform or pin-striped suit, with closely cropped hair, smiling somewhat forlornly and shy at the cameras of the international media which he would -- as all dictators inevitably do -- court and villify for his own purposes throughout his reign in power. These are the early years -- when an almost deliriously happy Qaddafi is sitting on a brocaded sofa beside or walking arm-in-arm with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his hero -- this the young Qaddafi, a revolutionary who promised to return to the Arab world much of the grandeur and the power it had once possessed.
Seeing these remarkable early images, it becomes somewhat easier to invoke the zeitgeist within the Middle East at the time. When Nasser died in 1970, Qaddafi became the self-appointed guardian of his legacy, adopting the notion of Arab nationalism and unity as part and parcel of his revolution. For many in the West today, it is perhaps somewhat more difficult to understand what appeal Qaddafi once possessed for the Arab masses. But in Libya and in the Arab world, where the failures of non-alignment and of confronting Israel were keenly felt at the time -- remember, this 1969, two years after the Six-Day war -- the young Qaddafi represented, despite his blustering and often absurdly simple solutions, a voice for what many Arab rulers could no longer say. He spoke the unpalatable truths that others did not dare to articulate. He attacked both friends and foes alike with a sense of righteousness that antagonized his closest partners as much as his enemies.
To the young Qaddafi -- he was only 27 years-old when the Sept. 1, 1969, coup took place -- his ambitions of regional leadership during these early years seemed limitless. The old decrepit Sanusi monarchy of King Idris had been overthrown in a bloodless coup that was soon portrayed as a glorious and "everlasting revolution." This was to be a brave new Libya, driven by the certainty of the Colonel's convictions, by his unflagging energy for revolutionary movements, and fueled by the gold rush of oil revenues after the 1973 Ramadan war.
For almost a decade, the regime was eager to demonstrate its revolutionary credentials to the world: it supported Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian liberation cause; and shipped illegal arms to a number of causes the regime subscribed to, including the Irish Republican Army. Much of the oil money furthermore was spent on sophisticated military hardware, eagerly displayed by the regime as a sign of its prowess and modernity during its annual Sept. 1 celebrations. And at the heart of it all was the man who now, at his insistence, became known as The Brother Leader and The Guide.
But the disappointments of pursuing revolutionary regional leadership were soon visible. His increasingly open confrontation with the West and his alienation of his fellow Arab rulers kept Qaddafi isolated, left to attend interminable public receptions with dour-looking Eastern European and Soviet officials who had become his outside supporters. The Leader's dazzling smile from his earlier encounters with Nasser had sagged somewhat. His hair was now spilling out from beneath the military képi; the trademark oversized sunglasses starting to hide his eyes. In his meeting with Brezhnev an Arab-style cloak has replaced the previous military trenchcoats. The transformation from ascetic-looking Arab revolutionary to self-styled philosopher-king and eventually to the clownish figure we came to know so well had begun.
As the 1970s and 1980s proceeded, there were as well the darker images to the revolution the regime found increasingly difficult to disguise: the human rights abuses, the images of torture that had become widespread, the prisoners of an ill-considered war with Chad and, most infamously, the public hangings of opponents that forever soiled Qaddafi's image beyond redemption. The late 1970s and 1980s were as well the period of Qaddafi's rule imprinted most vividly on the West's minds: the terrorist incidents, the confrontation between President Ronald Reagan and Qaddafi, the bombing of Libya in April 1986, and the growing isolation of the regime. The Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, was the logical endpoint for a regime that had lost all international legitimacy. At home, the revolution was dying rapidly, and the Libyan ruler -- surrounded as all dictators are by sycophants, and tone-deaf to any kind of contrary advice -- simply went on as if nothing had changed.