Libya Since 1969

Posted on March 25, 2011
By Dirk Vandewalle

Libya’s Revolution in Perspective


The September 1, 1969 coup in Libya that brought Libya’s young military officers to power put an end to the Sanusi kingdom—at the time universally considered as anachronistic. But while the general expectation in the West and much of the Middle East had been that a number of senior military leaders would take over in the North African country, the coup leaders turned out to be overwhelmingly young officers and captains with no links to the monarchy or to senior military figures. Although the first few days brought the unavoidable confusion over who constituted its leadership, from the first official communiqués onward, it was clear that Libya’s new rulers were inspired by Arab nationalism and by a resentment of the West’s role in regional politics. They also seemed determined to chart a new political course for Libya within the Arab world and within the world at large.

A week after the actual coup took place, the name of the regime’s commander in chief, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, was revealed. He was identified as the chairman of a fourteen-member Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that was put in charge of the revolution. It would take another four months—until January 1970—before the names of the RCC members were made public. They included Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, Major Abd as-Salam Jallud, Major Bashir Hawadi, Captain Mukhtar Abdallah Gerwy, Captain Abd al-Munim Tahir al-Huni, Captain Mustapha al-Kharubi, Captain al-Khuwaylidi al-Hamidi, Captain Muhammad Nejm, Captain Ali Awad Hamza, Captain Abu Bakr Yunus Jabr, and Captain Omar Abdallah al-Muhayshi.

The new Libyan leaders clearly represented a break with the country’s past. Their populist and revolutionary rhetoric was no coincidence. Their socioeconomic and political backgrounds stood in sharp contrast to those who had provided leadership during the monarchy. Virtually all of them came from the country’s middle class, and from less prestigious tribes and families than those who had been affiliated with the royalist Sanusi government. Most came from rural backgrounds, and they were all young; all except two had graduated from the military academy in Benghazi in 1963, barely six years before the actual coup. Some of them were still captains at the time, including Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. These Free Officers, as they were collectively known, had all attended the Military Academy largely because, under the restrictive policies of the monarchy, they had not been able to qualify for a university education that required a special certificate.

If their backgrounds set the Free Officers apart from those that had managed the monarchy, their ideological program differentiated them even more. Clearly guided by Qadhafi, who possessed an unlimited admiration for Egyptian President Nasser, Libya’s new leaders clearly articulated their own vision for Libya in words and images that resonated strongly within the ongoing Arab nationalist language swirling around the region at the time. Qadhafi, like other young Arab nationalists who had followed the ideological debates and struggles within Arab nationalism, viewed Egypt’s Nasser as a dedicated Arab revolutionary who could return to the Arab world much of the grandeur and the power it had once possessed. That Nasser cloaked much of his vision in language that took the West to task only added to his appeal for the new Libyan leaders who viewed the presence of British and American military bases as an unacceptable compromise made by a corrupt monarchy, conveniently ignoring that negotiations regarding the United States’ withdrawal from Wheelus airbase had already started during the last years of the monarchy.

The arrival of Libya’s new leaders raised a number of tantalizing questions about how they would deal with the dilemmas the monarchy had left unresolved. Would the young military officers use their power to counter the process of political and bureaucratic benign neglect that had marked the country since independence? Would they be able and willing to construct the new political community they envisioned, while simultaneously, and for the first time, bring a greater sense of participation by incorporating the country’s citizens who had been sidelined during the monarchy? What would the impact of these efforts be on the structures of the country’s traditional society, and on the elaborate patterns of patronage that dominated Libya’s public life? And, finally, how would Libya deal with the West, at once seen as an enemy and as indispensable in running the country’s oil-based economy?

It was not until December 16, 1970, that the regime’s first clear political agenda emerged. It included a call for the removal of foreign bases and troops from Libyan territory, for neutrality, for national unity, and—mirroring the monarchy’s actions in 1952—for the suppression of all political parties. Much of the program was carefully interspersed with references to Islam, an attempt by the new regime to establish its own religious credentials in opposition to the old ulama once associated with the Sanusi leadership.

But there was no clear outline of how the new regime’s ambitious internal and international goals were to be accomplished at first. This oversight, and Qadhafi’s penchant for projecting political energy (and, eventually, much of the country’s riches) at the regional rather than the national level, would eventually open up fissures within the regime. Meanwhile, in 1970, the RCC proceeded with an attempt to destroy the lingering power of the monarchy’s economic and political elites. In purging the old regime elites, the RCC was forced, in practice, to act much more gingerly than its rhetoric suggested, simply because the new regime did not possess the requisite skilled manpower to overnight staff all the bureaucratic, diplomatic, and oil-related positions. Despite this, by October 1970, all the country’s ministries—except for the Ministry of Oil, where the regime simply did not have the expertise to replace existing personnel—were run directly by RCC members. At the same time, the Libyan army started to emerge as a major employment outlet for a young generation of Libyans.

With its position seemingly solidified, the regime turned toward mobilization of the population in earnest. On January 14, 1971, Qadhafi announced at Zawiya that the country would move toward popular rule: Popular Congresses would appoint representatives to the country’s parliament, and would directly elect the country’s president. RCC members fanned out across the country’s territory to encourage people to participate. Despite their efforts, however, the country’s first version of popular rule was quickly abandoned. Aware of the existing political apathy, the leadership then turned toward a more controlled system of mobilization. It announced the creation of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) on June 12, 1971, following Nasser’s earlier example in Egypt. Much like Egypt’s ASU, the Libyan version was seen as a vanguard party that would not only mobilize the masses for political participation, but would also help to consolidate the revolution.

In retrospect, the ASU never enjoyed the confidence of the RCC or of Qadhafi himself. Although it lingered on a while longer, it never assumed any real power. Much like the earlier attempt at establishing Popular Congresses, the ASU had not been able to sufficiently mobilize Libyans. Instead of producing a new revolutionary leadership, as Qadhafi had hoped, it recruited many of the country’s middle-class citizens and modernizing young bureaucrats, all of whom remained politically neutral. Tribal, personal, and regional solidarities still marked Libya, particularly in the rural areas. By 1973, as the regime took stock of its two experiments in popular mobilization, a sense of failure prevailed. Qadhafi then opted for a more radical strategy: removing all political barriers or intermediaries that stood between the country’s leadership and the people.

On April 16, 1973, the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s death, Qadhafi launched at Zuwara what he described as a Popular Revolution. Rather than mobilizing Libya’s citizens from above—as the ASU had attempted—the new strategy would rely on bottom-up mobilization. In reality, and despite the veneer of what became known as Popular Rule or People’s Power, the RCC remained firmly in control. Indeed, the Popular Revolution marked the beginning of what would become an enduring feature of Libyan political life that lasted until today: a growing bifurcation between the formal and informal instruments of political control and power in the country (see Chapter 2). The Zuwara announcement, more than anything, had been an indication of Qadhafi’s frustration at the political apathy within the country. The real revolution, he argued, was obscured and frustrated by elements within Libyan society that wanted to obstruct the country’s progress. The only solution, he proposed, was to let “people govern themselves by themselves.” The speech, thus, also marked an intensification of Qadhafi’s populist rhetoric, and foreshadowed the three elements that would come to dominate the more spectacular revolutionary directives after 1973 and into the 1980s: the dismantling of a host of political and economic institutions that could provide coherence to the country, the destruction of representative political institutions, and the emergence of what would eventually become known as the Third Universal Theory as the country’s ideological guideline.

The 1973 Popular Revolution was meant to create a locally based, youthful leadership drawn from the lower middle and lower classes that would have a substantially different socialization and education than that of the country’s traditional elites. The revolution’s success in achieving this aim also meant that many of the country’s new bureaucratic cadres were highly inexperienced. The regime’s inclination, furthermore, to create a growing number of government agencies whose activities were not coordinated created even greater confusion. This was further exacerbated by the fact that offices were often physically shifted around at short notice—a precursor of Qadhafi’s later attempts to shift ministries and institutions away from Tripoli. The combination of these factors produced a large amount of administrative and bureaucratic chaos in the country. By mid-1973, the country’s bureaucratic structures, which the regime, along with the army, saw as an outlet for indoctrination, had nearly doubled in size.

Economic Management in the Early Years


During the first few months after the revolution, the country’s new leaderships—preoccupied with consolidating the revolution and aware of its inexperience in economic management—had proceeded cautiously with its economic programs. Their concerns initially focused on two readily visible economic and social problems within Libya: the fact that the country had become a dualistic economy where, beyond the oil sector, a number of other inefficient sectors still employed the majority of the Libyan population. Furthermore, oil production in 1970 had reached a record 3.7 million barrels per day—a figure which represented the entire capacity of the country’s pipeline systems. It was a development the RCC considered detrimental to the long-term health of the oilfields. One year after the revolution, oil provided almost 99 percent of Libya’s revenues, and constituted all of its exports.

Also, the young officers were worried that the oil sector employed only 1 percent of the country’s active population, and that oil development had produced a number of undesirable social and economic ripple effects that could not easily be reconciled with the egalitarian tenets of the revolution. At the same time, the technocratic nature of the oil industry meant that Libya’s new rulers had little choice but to continue relying on whatever expertise was present in the country, much of it consisting of expatriate personnel. By 1970, Libya had one of the world’s most sophisticated oil infrastructures that constantly needed fine-tuning and upgrading. Under those circumstances, Qadhafi and his entourage realized that the nationalization of the Libyan oil industry was not an option at the time. By default, they turned to the country’s oil pricing mechanism as the one aspect of the oil extracting and marketing process over which they had some control.

Libya’s oil sector, however, exhibited some unique traits that could now be effectively exploited to the regime’s bargaining advantage. The assignment of large tracts of oil exploration areas to small independent producers, in addition to the so-called Majors, during the monarchy now gave the military regime the opportunity to consistently press for higher profits for Libyan oil through a divide-and-rule strategy. The weak bargaining position of the Independents at the time—many relied on Libyan oil for a substantial portion of their revenues—facilitated the regime’s strategy. For example, one of the country’s two major independents, Occidental Petroleum, received 97 percent of its total production from Libya. Under those circumstances, the Independents were clearly more vulnerable to threats of cutbacks in production, or of expropriation, even if only implied, than the Majors for whom Libyan production constituted a small part of their global output.

The Independents, furthermore, had few incentives to join the Majors to cut production in 1970, a move undertaken globally to restore prices as an oil glut developed. As a result of the 1961 amendments to the country’s petroleum law, the Independents in Libya had paid substantially less tax per barrel of oil than the Majors did.3 This favored position now hurt the Independents, as the Majors refused to help them when the revolutionary regime demanded higher taxes. By systematically targeting the smaller companies—their situation made worse by an acute short-haul shortage in Europe at the time—the Qadhafi government cut back their production, forcing companies to acquiesce to the regime’s demand for higher prices.

The government aggressively continued to pursue a policy of higher prices, greater ownership, and greater control over production. The frustration over the level of posted prices, determined by the oil companies, and left unaddressed during the monarchy’s last few months in office, led the government to establish a committee in December 1969 to discuss the increase of posted prices with the oil companies. The same month, it

reduced production allowances for individual companies, following and closely cooperating with Algerian authorities, who had started to take a series of increasingly aggressive measures aimed at the French oil interests in their country. When the small Independents in Libya—who produced more than half of the country’s crude oil at the time—capitulated to the government’s demands for higher posted prices, the rest of the industry had no choice but to fall into line. In January 1971, the government further ratcheted up both tax rates and posted prices.  The result of the negotiations—the Tripoli Agreement of March 20, 1971—raised the posted price for Libyan crude to $3.32 per barrel, a figure that included a Suez Canal Allowance, as well as a freight and low sulphur premium, and provisions for annual adjustments. By 1974, the price differential between Libyan and Persian Gulf crude was $4.12 per barrel—causing Libya to lose its cost advantage, and creating temporary difficulties for the country later that year. But the Libyan revolutionaries, in a series of audacious measures that added to their revolutionary élan, had proven themselves capable of inexorably ratcheting up their demands for greater revenues. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for the more intrusive demands they would make before, during, and after the oil crisis of 1973, which eventually led to a wave of nationalizations.

Although the increases between September 1969 and October 1973 were small, compared to what the quadrupling of oil prices would bring by the end of 1973, the actions of the Libyan government propelled the Qadhafi regime to a stature within the region that only its most ardent supporters had thought achievable. They also provided the Libyan leader with an unprecedented level of internal legitimacy. By the beginning of the 1973 October War, Libya had amassed reserves that would allow it to outlast a four-year economic embargo if necessary. In the wake of its victories against the oil companies, the government then turned toward strengthening the position of the LNOC, aiming to play a larger role in the actual management of the country’s oil industry. The LNOC took under its management twenty-three concessions that had been abandoned by the oil companies during and after the oil price negotiations.

Outside the oil sector, however, economic realities looked distinctly less attractive. During the last decade of the monarchy, the share of oil in the country’s GDP had jumped from 27 to 65 percent. By 1973, oil was the only commodity the country exported. Libya’s population in 1969 was estimated at roughly two million people—almost a doubling since independence. Of those, a few hundred, at best, were employed within the oil sector. The country’s other sectors were those of a more traditional economy, largely underdeveloped and marked by low investment, inefficiencies, and with a labor force that lacked the requisite skills for the kind of economic plans upon which the new revolutionary government would soon embark upon. As an example of the wrenching changes oil economies can engender, in 1969, agriculture and manufacturing contributed only 2.4 percent and 2 percent of the country’s GDP, respectively.

In many ways, Libya had already become the dualistic economy characteristic of many oil states. Although per capita income at $2,168 in 1969 had improved dramatically from the subsistence level at the beginning of the monarchy, the increase was almost solely due to aid and, later, to hydrocarbon revenues. When the first tentative and cautious directives for the country’s economy emerged in March 1970, it was not surprising that they were marked by a suspicion of the role of the private sector, and aimed to bring substantial parts of the non-oil sectors under state control. The country’s history of crony capitalism during the monarchy had sparked much anger among those who had led the coup, and they clearly considered private entrepreneurship suspect. The private sector was, at least temporarily, retained, but the new decrees clearly stated that it could not impinge upon or contradict the economic policies of the government. It was also clear that retaining the private sector was a policy the regime intended to correct when they were in a position to do so.

Many of the achievements during the first four years of the Qadhafi government—in light of the existing circumstances and lack of political and social cohesion during the monarchy—had been relatively easy. The monarchy had enjoyed oil revenues for less than a decade, and the patterns of economic competition and differentiation that invariably lead to organized and entrenched groups in oil exporters had not yet become visible in Libya when the coup took place. The relative ease with which the old elites could be replaced was heightened by the fact that the monarchy had retained few supporters that were willing to oppose the revolutionary regime. Much of this was, nevertheless, a remarkable achievement by the RCC in light of the difficult tasks they faced, not only in developing plans for the country’s future, but also in persuading Libyans to participate in economic and political enterprises from which they had been systematically excluded during the eighteen years of the monarchy.

But much harder tasks lay ahead. The transition toward the ASU, and then its abandonment, had been the first indication that political mobilization and indoctrination had not been as successful as the RCC had hoped. Libyans remained largely politically apathetic and showed little interest in the affairs of their country. To Qadhafi, who wanted to mobilize his citizens in support of his revolution so that the country could then become the vanguard of a larger regional movement, this was clearly unacceptable.

His emergence as the charismatic leader of the revolution—which relied for its success on a skillful blend of traditional and modern ways to legitimate his rule—and the concentration of power at his disposal, had started to turn the Libyan revolution into a personal crusade.

With a growing lack of checks and balances on the power of its leader, or on his ability to use the country’s resources in pursuit of his ideological zeal, it was highly problematic that the revolutionary regime showed little interest in systematically extending the power of the state. Beyond its nationalist and Arab nationalist language, the RCC had barely articulated a clear vision or program that could consolidate the country. The demise of the ASU as a political party, the repeated references to state institutions as antithetical to the implementation of the revolution, and the sustained use of populist rhetoric, all indicated Qadhafi’s frustration with the slow pace of reform. The adoption of People’s Power in 1973 had been the culmination of efforts to bypass the frictions that slowed down these reforms. As yet, however, the ideas behind its adoption did not contain the kind of programmatic unity and revolutionary fervor Qadhafi’s ideological primer, the Green Book, would soon provide.

On the eve of the influx of massive oil revenues that would forever alter the direction and intensity of the country’s revolution, Libya stood at an important crossroads. Qadhafi and the RCC seemed truly interested in mobilizing the population for the country’s political and economic development, and in pursuing a viable, long-term economic strategy for the country. But they had also, virtually overnight, come into possession of the physical and economic resources that would allow them to shape both processes in an extraordinary fashion, devoid of checks and balances. By 1973, Libya’s military leadership had, in many ways, already started to repeat the essentially distributive policies of the kingdom that proceeded it, in order to correct what it considered as a pattern of inequitable development during the monarchy. Whether they could, or would, go beyond this seemed much less certain. The Libyan revolutionaries had started to embark upon a course of increasingly dramatic and contradictory policies that simultaneously aimed at putting the state in charge of all economic activity, and tried to make it irrelevant as a focus for political identity. The contradiction between the two pursuits was seemingly lost on the Libyan leadership.


The Everlasting Revolution and the Green Book

Qadhafi’s Zuwara speech had been an attempt to bring some programmatic unity to the different initiatives meant to overcome political apathy. But the two years following the Zuwara announcement had been marked by chaos and confusion inside the country. The creation of the popular committee system at Zuwara had been an attempt by Qadhafi to bypass the more regularized procedures of the ASU. The attempt, however, led to conflict within the RCC. At the November 1974 meeting of the ASU, a split between two factions emerged publicly for the first time. It pitted those who wanted a more orderly, planned course of action that included a carefully designed economic plan—a technocratic solution to the country’s problems—against those who wanted to pursue a more activist policy that sacrificed some of the country’s riches for the sake of Arab unity and other ideological pursuits. As the struggle continued throughout 1974 and into 1975, the fortunes of both sides waxed and waned.5 Student unrest erupted in early 1975 and added to the tension, resulting in the RCC’s announcement of compulsory military service. Despite the measure, the unrest continued and spread further, leading to the first large-scale arrests of students in April 1975.

Rumors of attempted coups surfaced in the Arab press throughout the summer and, at one point in July 1975, army units loyal to Qadhafi surrounded Tripoli. When the government was restructured in the wake of the ASU Congress, the technocrats seemed to have gained the upper hand: only four RCC members remained, while a number of newly created ministries were assigned to young intellectuals with no broad, nationalist credentials. But the ongoing debate within the RCC indicated the lingering disagreements over what some considered Qadhafi’s growing personal power and over the rising costs of his pan-Arab pursuits, foreign adventures, and his aborted unity attempt with Egypt. There was also growing unease about the political interference of Qadhafi and his supporters in economic and development projects that some argued should be evaluated on purely technical merits.

The conflict between the two sides was highly ideological, focusing almost exclusively on the purposes to which Libya’s oil wealth should be put and, in a related matter, about the role the state should play in the country’s economic development. As the conflict intensified, both sides attempted to attract allies within the Libyan army to their side, leading to fears of another coup.6 In August 1975, RCC members Bashir Hawadi and ’Umar al-Muhayshi launched a coup attempt against the regime.Muhayshi, who was Minister of Planning at the time, refused to give up funds that had been earmarked for local development projects, and fled with a number of his supporters to Tunis in the aftermath of the failed coup.

The event marked a political, economic and ideological breaking point in the politics of revolutionary Libya, lurching the country forward in an activist direction that would not be curtailed for more than a decade. The RCC, still the most powerful organization in Libya, was now reduced to five members:Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi,Abu-Bakr Yunus Jabar, al-Khuwaylidi al-Hamidi,Mustafa al-Kharubi, and Abd as-Salam Jallud. The way had been cleared for increasingly draconian measures to implement Qadhafi’s vision of a stateless society. With no institutionalized opposition left, Qadhafi quickly moved to consolidate his own position, and the revolution inexorably became identified with his own personal vision. Throughout the remainder of 1975, civilian, military, professional, and technical personnel suspected of potential disloyalty were removed from the country’s planning institutes and ministries. Those who argued for a greater prudence in the country’s financial and economic affairs were systematically sidelined. Muhammad Mugharyif, the country’s comptroller and later, after his own defection, one of the regime’s most virulent and eloquent critics, was replaced. The coup attempt also marked the end of professional and technical criteria for military recruitment, and the beginning of a steady, but noticeable, influx of individual members of Qadhafi’s tribe—and later of his family—into a number of sensitive security and army positions.

In the wake of the attempted coup, Qadhafi seized the opportunity to push forward his revolutionary agenda, soon to be finalized in three slim volumes of his Green Book, the ideological primer of the revolution. It contains a compilation of Qadhafi’s utopian ideas on what Libya’s social, political, and economic organization should look like. He refers to this new state as a jamahiriyya—a political community marked by consultation, rather than representation. In it, ordinary citizens own the country’s resources, exercise authority, and directly manage the country’s administration and its bureaucracy through a system of popular congresses and committees. Each volume contains common themes: a distrust of the hierarchical bureaucratic structures inherent in modern states, and Qadhafi’s abhorrence for the presence of intermediaries who—via the impersonal structures of bureaucracies and administrative institutions—prevent individuals from directly managing their own lives. Qadhafi himself clearly viewed the Green Book as, above all, a manifesto for action. It was meant to intensify his earlier mobilization efforts that had been frustrated so far, he argued, because the country’s political system could not express the true voice of the Libyan people (Part 1), because Libyans were not directly in charge of the economic resources of the country (Part 2), and because of the country’s archaic social structures (Part 3).

The ideas are simple and, with their insistence on egalitarianism and lack of hierarchy, reflect a tribal ethos. The Green Book’s central tenet is that ordinary citizens can directly manage the bureaucratic and administrative institutions that shape their lives, and devise their own solutions to their economic and social problems. Hence, the Green Book contains the essential idea of statelessness, and of people managing their own affairs without state institutions. There is, as well, an emphasis on consultation and equality, and an explicitly voiced aversion to hierarchy and to the handing over of authority to state functionaries. There is, finally, a repeated insistence on “direct democracy” through which citizens will take control of the state. The new and cumbersome system of political governance—which included a total of almost one thousand representatives from throughout the country—was finally implemented on March 2, 1977. On that day, Qadhafi, at Sebha, announced that the “Era of the Masses” had arrived, and he renamed Libya Al-Jamahiriyya al-arabiyya al-Libiyya al-sha’abiyya alishtirakiyya— The Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya.


Economic Development under the Green Book

The publication of the Green Book’s second and third volumes, The Solution of the Economic Problem: Socialism and The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory, marked the extension of populist measures to the country’s economy in a fashion that dramatically interfered with economic management after November 1977.With the help of the newly established Revolutionary Committees—whose creation had not been specified in the Green Book—the regime systematically implemented the ideas of the Libyan leader. The nationalization of all non-occupied dwellings began in 1976. The government reduced apartment purchase prices by 30 percent in late 1977. In May 1978, the GPC formally adopted a new real estate law that distributed confiscated real estate to mostly low-income earners.


The impact of the directives regarding the abolishing of so-called wagelabor had an equally profound impact. Starting in earnest following his 1978 speech on the anniversary of the revolution, the first wave of business takeovers took place. Overnight, the country’s merchants and small businessmen were reduced to passive onlookers in the country’s economic life. These groups of small-scale business entrepreneurs, retailers, and private farmers had initially formed the backbone of support for the revolutionary government following September 1, 1969. Clearly, the regime now felt emboldened enough to move against their interests. By the end of 1980, the more important and larger industries were put in the hands of Basic Production Committees—selected groups of workers within each business or enterprise. Popular Committees replaced their administrators. Only the banking system and oil-related industries were, once more, saved from these popular takeovers.

The role of traders was abolished. Those that managed to survive until 1980 had already been subject to the Secretariat of Finance’s selective and increasingly restrictive use of awarding or denying permits for business arrangements. In principle, the agricultural sector remained outside popular management. In practice, all available land in the countryside already belonged to the public sector from 1977 on, and survived only through heavy government subsidies. Individual farmers were only allowed to lease as much as they needed for their own requirements. By that time, the only land remaining in private hands was located along the coastal strip, owned by remnants of old landowning families or tribes. They would hold onto their land until 1980.

In his speech of September 1, 1980, Qadhafi emphasized that the country’s entrepreneurs (an estimated 40,000 individuals) were nothing but parasites because their economic activities did not contribute to productive activity within the jamahiriyya. Private businesses closed throughout the country, often with the help of the revolutionary committees. Their function was taken over by a number of state supermarkets that soon dotted the country’s landscape. Their construction effectively spelled the end of private commercial and retail transactions in Libya. Ten government agencies were responsible for the provision of all the country’s import needs, ranging from oil technology to consumer goods.9

Ultimately, however, Qadhafi’s entire Green Book experiment crucially depended for its implementation on the income from oil sales. Perhaps not surprising, therefore, the country’s oil industry remained carefully shielded from the revolutionary fervor swirling around it. The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the oil boom in its aftermath, found Libya halfway through the revolutionary regime’s first development plan. A few months earlier, in July 1973, the regime had followed up its earlier suspension of awarding acreage to oil companies by introducing so-called exploration and production- sharing arrangements (EPSAs). Under these new arrangements— which had been pioneered in Indonesia and gradually adopted by other OPEC members—Libya’s National Oil Company retained title to whatever acreage was exploited by international oil companies, and the latter, in effect, simply became contractors.

As a result of the 1973 oil crisis and the regime’s hard bargaining, the country was awash with petrodollars by the end of 1974. Despite its growing power over oil companies’ operations within the country, however, it remained highly vulnerable to the fickle conditions of the international oil market: by the end of 1974, the price of Libyan oil had dropped to slightly above $11. Some of the damage had been self-inflicted: in support of the Arab oil embargo, Libya voluntarily cut its production to the United States and the Caribbean refineries supplying the U.S. market to roughly 1.5 million barrels per day. It abandoned this boycott only in early 1975, almost a year after most producers had done so. The country’s oil output dropped 26.4 percent in 1974, and its exports fell to 912,000 barrels per day by mid- February 1975, the lowest level in more than a decade. This forced the Libyan government to rely on a substantial part of its financial reserves for the daily running of its economy. The result was a short-term financial crisis in the summer of 1975, fueled, in part, by the continuing heavy outlays for military purchases and for foreign adventures that had provoked the August coup. In 1975, Libya’s balance-of-trade dropped from a surplus of $1.8 billion to a deficit of $.5 billion. The government requested financial aid from Saudi Arabia that was promptly denied. The rapid inflows of oil money, however, resolved the country’s crisis soon thereafter, and Libya’s planners once more faced the dilemma familiar to many oil exporters during the 1970s: how to distribute revenues they could not expect their economies to use efficiently.

Regarding the country’s oil industry, the government seemingly paid little attention to the instability of the market throughout the 1970s, even though the country’s dependence on oil revenues now amounted to 99.9 percent of total income. Despite new contracts for offshore production in 1979, the “spontaneous takeovers” of the economic sectors by the regime’s militants—although still restricted to the non-oil and non-banking sectors— had a chilling effect on company-government relations, particularly with regard to European companies. The growing animosity with Libya forced several American companies—despite highly profitable contract terms—to start reconsidering their investments in the jamahiriyya. The government judged that, in the wake of the Iranian revolution,which more than doubled the price of Libyan crude between December 1978 and December 1979, actual divestment was unlikely. The 1978–79 price hikes pushed Libyan revenues to unprecedented levels, allowing the government to keep production levels untouched.

Technocrats at the LNOC, however, did not fail to notice that the real price of oil, even after discounting for indexation and inflation, had started to lag behind posted prices, indicating that a buyer’s market was on the horizon. By 1979, government officials were sufficiently worried about possible depletion of its oil reserves that they moved aggressively toward new exploration contracts, known as EPSA II. Despite growing unease about the country’s international reputation, and the fact that the terms of EPSA II were even less favorable to oil companies than those of its predecessor, interest proved high. As part of an attempt to make itself less vulnerable to outside pressure, the government also attracted East European companies to its upstream activities—a move that would consistently be resisted by the LNOC, who viewed these corporations as unreliable.

The involvement of the East European companies was an indication that, despite Libya’s continuing ability to attract participants to its oil industry, its fortunes were slowly starting to wane. Already in 1978, the United States had started to place restrictions on trade with Libya because of its suspected involvement in terrorist activities. The withdrawal of some U.S. oil companies from the country in 1981 and the U.S. embargo against Libyan oil that started in 1982 were further indications of Libya’s changing fortunes. In 1981, oil production tumbled from 1,700,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the first quarter to 600,000 bpd by the end of the year. Total production for 1981 was 40 percent below that of 1980. Of this reduction, roughly 500,000 bpd had routinely been delivered to the United States; the remainder of the cutback was due to phase-outs in production and the annulment of existing contracts by multinational companies. Furthermore, as a result of Libya’s need to offer incentives to the remaining companies, the price of its oil had dropped by four to five dollars per barrel. Libya’s balance- of-payments for 1981 showed a deficit of $4.8 billion, and the country’s international reserves tumbled from $15.5 to $2.4 billion.

The combination of rapidly fluctuating income and popular management of the country’s economy continued to take a heavy toll. The state’s ability to function as an effective regulator suffered tremendously. By the early 1980s, Libya exhibited all the characteristics of a resource-rich, but badly managed, economy where efficiency and real concerns for development had yielded to the political imperatives of the regime. Small handouts were used to keep the population quiescent, and more substantial outlays were given to the regime’s coalition of supporters, necessary to ensure the survival of the regime. The decline in the country’s oil revenues, and the obvious need for serious economic reform after the country’s oil boom provoked no serious corrective measures.

Between 1982 and 1986, the country’s revenues tumbled from $21 billion to $5.4 billion annually. Despite this, and despite the growing need for economic reform, the half decade after the 1979 oil boom witnessed an unabated spending of the country’s resources, and a continued resistance to economic reform. The revolutionary regime had managed to thoroughly transform Libya. Except for a few enterprises like the LNOC, the state’s bureaucratic and administrative institutions had been put directly into the hands of the people through a system of political congresses and committees, and all private economic activity had been outlawed. Revolutionary Committees were in charge of supervising and implementing the economic directives.

But the early 1980s also marked the beginning of another period of uncertainty for the regime. In light of declining revenues, the regime had a number of options it could pursue. All involved more rational and efficient use of the country’s revenues: reducing consumption at home, cutting back on development plans, and curtailing foreign adventures and military expenditures. None of these was particularly attractive sine every measure meant cutting back on programs that, for political or ideological reasons, were linked to important constituencies of the regime and, as a result, had become part and parcel of the revolution.

Furthermore, diplomatic reasons made the regime cautious about borrowing on the international market, and Libya had little medium or longterm debt. Initially, the government used some temporary measures to overcome its emerging difficulties—most notably, shifting the economic hardships toward the expatriate labor in the country, increasing its reliance on East European and Soviet Union expertise, and limiting consumer imports. But the growing difficulties and increasing restrictions as a result of the country’s confrontation with the West slowly, but steadily, decreased the number of economic options available to Libya.

Those options had also become more limited by the emerging realities within the Libyan economy since 1973: the massive, almost unregulated capital inflows; the removal of the country’s technocrats from virtually all institutions except the NOC; the populist directives that stressed distribution at the expense of regulation; and the lackluster attention paid to efficiency and consistent planning. The turn toward popular rule—without built-in measures for transparency or accountability—and the ability to further circumvent popular rule when it suited the regime, meant that regulation and planning, much like the country’s judicial and administrative institutions, fell victim to the ideological pursuits of the revolution during this long decade. What the kingdom had managed to accomplish through benign neglect, the revolutionary regime had achieved with a more deliberate, but equally disastrous, approach. Under both rulers, whatever formal mechanisms, rules, and checks existed to manage the country’s economy for the benefit of all Libyan citizens, were easily avoided by relatively narrow cliques of supporters of each regime.

The quadrupling of oil prices in 1973–74 had created a greater need for financial and monetary management if serious inflation was to be avoided and sustained development pursued. The country’s leadership needed to decide whether oil production should be limited and how to recycle oil revenues. This would have required the creation of much more elaborate and integrated information-gathering institutions for the country, as well as the implementation of a number of legal, disclosure, and accounting requirements that would have limited the political, revolutionary energy of the regime. Additionally, the rapid inflows of oil revenues vitiated any need for local, domestic savings, taxation, or other policies capable of curbing consumption throughout Libyan society.

Controlling the country’s inflation would have necessitated a deliberate and sustained management of its revenue flows—which the regime was seemingly uninterested in doing. Much like the king before him, Libya’s revolutionary leader primarily used economic resources to solve strategic political puzzles. The government abandoned serious attempts at planning, rather than carefully managing the country’s economy, as a hedge against the difficulties of operating a volatile oil economy that needed access to external resources for its expansion, management, and survival. Its actions inevitably provoked a massive brain drain and left local and international investors weary of operating in an environment devoid of some essential legal guarantees. At the same time, and little noticed because of the country’s non-transparent budgeting procedures, the regime invested heavily in military hardware throughout the decade.

At the end of the 1980–85 plan, economic management had suffered to such an extent that several of the country’s ministries no longer produced annual reports that could accurately be relied upon for future use. In 1986, Libya’s Central Bank temporarily suspended its yearly assessment of the country’s economic performance. A dispute with neighboring countries in August and September 1985 that led to the expulsion of approximately 100,000 expatriate laborers—many involved in providing the day-to-day goods average Libyans needed—added to hardships inside the country.

By that time, the country’s research institutions collected little primary information that would have allowed for more consistent and efficient planning. Many of the ministries’ and research institutions’ reports and planning papers became simple regurgitations of data provided by outside experts—data that often reflected the scenarios preferred by the regime without incorporating any real critical insights or suggestions. Except for the LNOC—that remained a privileged institution whose employees could collect data in an atmosphere untainted by revolutionary pursuits—most institutions in charge of gathering data needed for an efficient planning and management of the country’s economy produced idealistic projections divorced from reality.


Revolutionary Authority and Informal Power Structures

As analyzed in greater detail by Mattes in Chapter 2, the creation of Revolutionary Authority in March 1979 marked the end of one aspect of the Libyan revolution and the beginning of another. On one hand, it constituted an admission that Libyan society was not reforming itself as quickly or as thoroughly as Qadhafi wanted. But it also marked the beginning of what has remained a dominant feature of Libyan politics until today: the persistence of a formal structure of government—centered around the popular congresses and committees—and an informal structure of power and authority. The latter includes a narrow circle of intimates around the Libyan leader (later formalized as the Forum of Companions of Qadhafi), supported and kept in place by a number of security sector institutions (most notably the country’s layers of intelligence organizations) and the Revolutionary Committees.

The final sentence of the first part of the Green Book, perhaps inadvertently, more accurately encapsulated the reality of power in Libya, as Qadhafi cryptically noted that “realistically the stronger part in society is the one that rules.” The fact that there were clear limitations on the competence and authority of the popular committees, and the fact that all of the country’s security sector institutions—army, police, and intelligence— were outside the jamahiriyya system, indicated that, much like in the economic sphere (where the LNOC was excluded from popular rule), the ultimate control functions in the jamahiriyyaremained tightly controlled at the top. Furthermore, the regime administered the country’s budget without any real oversight by the GPC—budgets were normally approved pro forma, without discussion. Until today, Qadhafi continues to argue he cannot be held responsible for economic or political setbacks since he no longer holds an official position. Every decision, once the Green Book’s directives had been adopted, was now the peoples’ responsibility.

In reality, however, the people’s authority had been challenged by the emergence of an institution whose existence had not been part of the ideological blueprint detailed in the Green Book: the country’s Revolutionary Committees, created after November 1977.10 Consisting of young, carefully selected individuals who are responsible directly to Qadhafi, they were seen as instruments for further mobilization and indoctrination. In particular, they were charged with encouraging greater popular participation in the Basic Peoples Congresses, where high levels of absenteeism persist even today. Clearly meant as an independent institution outside the control of the GPC—who, in principle, possessed all formal authority—their initial role, beyond indoctrination, remained undefined.

Qadhafi’s pronouncement created, for the first time, a clear separation between those in power (in principle the BPCs and GPC) and those guiding the revolution. The distinction further consolidated Qadhafi’s position since the Revolutionary Committees were entitled to replace BPC members judged unacceptable, thus allowing Qadhafi to have the people he preferred appointed. The Revolutionary Committees were, furthermore, directly responsible to Qadhafi, who coordinated their activities through a special Central Coordinating Committee for the Revolutionary Committees.

To further make the distinction between formal and revolutionary authority clear, Qadhafi resigned from the GPC—of which he had remained secretary- general—to commit himself fully to revolutionary activities. The formal separation came at the GPC’s second session on March 2, 1979. The remaining RCC members—Jallud, Yunus Jabr, al-Kharubi, and al-Hamidi—were also appointed to head the revolutionary authority structure, while all top positions within the formal authority structure became civilian. By the end of 1979, the Revolutionary Committees had fully insinuated themselves into the formal authority structure of the jamahiriyya and its public institutions: within the popular committees, the popular congresses, the Municipal People’s General Committees (MPGC; these had been created as an additional layer of administration in 1979), as well as within the universities and the professional organizations. They quickly became—except for the remaining RCC members and an informal entourage around Qadhafi—the most powerful group in the country. At the January 1980 GPC meeting, the country’s new civilian prime minister, Abd al-Ati al- Ubaydi, announced that “all People’s Congresses, no matter what their level, as well as the Secretariat of the General People’s Congress, and the secretaries of the Basic People’s Congresses are under the permanent control of the revolution and the Revolutionary Committees.” Some members of the Committees’ coordinating office at Bab al-Aziziyya became secretaries (ministers) within the formal authority structure.

When the Green Book’s second volume—on economic relations—was published, the committees were put in charge of supervising the implementation of its directives. They were further charged with rooting out corruption and the misappropriation of funds, charges that were often leveled against individuals—including remnants of the monarchy’s elites— the regime considered undesirable. In October 1980, they took over the country’s press, thereby concluding their first activist phase. Throughout the early 1980s, their functions expanded once more to officially include the right to propagate, guide, and control the revolution. Their final task was to defend the revolution at all costs, which included the power to pursue, hunt down, and physically liquidate (al-tasfiya al-jasadiya) “enemies of the revolution” abroad and at home. This led to a number of reprisals and assassinations abroad that would later contribute to the country’s worsening relations with the West.

Perhaps the most worrisome development in the struggle between formal and revolutionary authority, however, centered on the infiltration of the country’s legal system by the Revolutionary Committees, a process in which legitimacy was bestowed upon the use of violence. In 1980, the Committees were formally assigned the right to create revolutionary courts—mahkama thawriya—based on the “law of the revolution”—qanun al-thawra. Since 1969, the revolutionary regime had attempted to devise a legal system that would underpin and enforce its social, political, and economic directives. Initially, the country’s leadership had put forward the sharia as the only source of law applicable in Libya.With its clearly prescribed legal remedies and an emphasis on codification, however, it was hardly suited to the continual and changing nature of a regime that deliberately attempted to bypass formal and structured institutions. Several of the well-established principles of Islamic law regarding contracts and commerce, as well as the sharia protections of private property rights, for example, were inimical to the intentions of the government.

Already at Zuwara, Qadhafi had announced the suspension of all the country’s laws then in force. The creation of the jamahiriyya in Sabha made the directives of the Green Book the guiding legal norms of Libyan society, norms that superseded the regime’s first constitution of December 1969. In a number of major speeches throughout the 1970s, and then more formally during a prolonged and major debate with the country’s ulama at the Moulay Muhammad Mosque on July 3, 1978, Qadhafi argued that Islamic legal rules could no longer be used as a guideline for economic and political relations in modern societies.He, furthermore, insisted that those who argued for their application were not entitled to do so. At the same time, he also reiterated that the traditional guidelines for commerce and property rights in Muslim societies, based on the prophet Muhammad’s actions and sayings, had no legal standing in modern societies. The elimination of the private practice of law in May 1980—a measure that included all other professional occupations as well—removed the last obstacle to the implementation of a virtually unsupervised revolutionary court system that could be used by the Qadhafi government to pursue its own policies. Rather than relying on regular judges, the revolutionary courts were staffed by Revolutionary Committee members who were not bound by the country’s penal code. Not surprising in light of the absence of legal safeguards, the revolutionary court system was left open to a large number of well documented abuses, including several executions, throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

By 1980, the bifurcation between formal and revolutionary authority, as well as the manipulation of thejamahiriyya’s legal system, provided a clear indication of the narrowing power base within Libya. Although officially outside the formal framework of authority, Qadhafi virtually made all important policy decisions, channeling them, if necessary for purposes of legitimacy, through the GPC. In this, his small group of loyalists aided him in a fashion that much resembled the workings of the former royaldiwan. As in all oil states where decision making is concentrated in a small circle of elites and a praetorian guard, this kind of rule depended on careful management of coalitions crucial to the Libyan leader’s survival.

In Libya, this creation and re-creation of coalitions was inevitably accompanied throughout the 1980s by yet another zahf (wave, or march) of revolutionary activities and edicts that, hopefully, translated into support for the regime. The Revolutionary Committees were the most visible—but certainly not the last—of such attempts at (selective) mobilization and the retention of power at the top of the country’s political system. By their unpredictability, Revolutionary Committees and revolutionary justice also ensured that groups and individuals were left politically unbalanced. The Revolutionary Committees—once meant to invigorate the revolution— quickly turned into one more instrument of control, meant to ensure the physical survival of the regime. For almost a decade, the regime would pay little attention to formal legal rules. The increasingly repressive revolutionary justice system that enforced the regime’s directives would eventually be a major factor contributing to the growing tension within thejamahiriyya—and would lead to a number of restrictions on the Revolutionary Committees’ powers.

Qadhafi, however, quickly developed reservations about the effectiveness of the Revolutionary Committees. In his September 1 speech following the downing of two Libyan planes by the United States in August 1981 over the Gulf of Sirte, he reiterated the need for further mobilization and called for the creation of a new type of vanguard, the so-called Guards of the Revolution. In the same speech, he announced further popular takeovers, including those of overseas embassies, which were turned into People’s Bureaus. The Guards of the Revolution, however, never became a viable organization. The rapid rise and partial curtailment of the Revolutionary Committees, in the span of a single decade, was symptomatic of the balancing act the Qadhafi government skillfully performed to remain in power.


Opposition, the Power of Symbols, and Apathy

Although Libya, with its small population, could never claim equal status with other revolutionary nations, Qadhafi considered what had happened in Libya after 1969 as one of the great twentieth-century revolutions for social liberation. In the Green Book, the Libyan leader portrays the Libyan revolution as an inevitable, historical process of social, economic, and political development—hence, the grandiloquent claim of the jamahiriyya being the alternative to capitalism and communism. In his speeches and exhortations since 1969, the Libyan leader has constantly invoked a sense of uniqueness, grounded in Arab history and tradition, in ways that resonated within Libyan culture and experience. But, eventually, the use of a combination of symbols, myths, and attempts to carefully exploit the charismatic qualities of the Libyan leader assumed an instrumental purpose as well: bridging the gap between the Green Book’s precise delineation of the country’s formal political structures and the reality of an increasingly exclusionary political system.

When reading Qadhafi’s speeches, one is struck immediately by the repeated and powerful references to shared traditions within the country and within the region, to notions of a common history that has pitted Libyans against the West, and to symbols that are uniquely Libyan and deeply embedded within local culture. The Libyan leader’s speeches contain innumerable reiterations of words that reflect conditions in Arab society before state-building began in earnest: words like turath (heritage), furusiyya(chivalry), and diafa (hospitality). Dignity and the indignities suffered at the hand of the West have continually been used by Qadhafi to invoke a powerful sense of unity. History—and historical wrongs inflicted by the West on Libya—have been used from the beginning to create a sense of shared suffering and exploitation. The suspicion of outsiders was also richly nurtured as the Libyan government confronted first the oil companies and then the West more generally. Libyans were instructed to be vigilant against the West and to destroy those who would sell out the revolution for their own interests.

There is little doubt that Qadhafi’s statements and actions tapped deeply into a rich source of resentment among Libyans against the West. Through the oil negotiations of 1970 and 1971, and the evacuation of the military bases, the regime provided many ordinary Libyans with their own sense of dignity, even though the monarchy had started negotiations for the latter. It was similarly important, therefore, that what had happened on September 1, 1969, be portrayed as a collective action: the Libyan people had rejected the kingdom and its corrupt pro-Western clique, and the military planners of the takeover had simply implemented their wishes. In order to convey this image, the regime needed to deflect attention from the fact that the events of September 1 had only involved a very small number of military personnel. Moreover, it needed to downplay the reality that the new leadership had very few clearly developed ideas beyond some rudimentary principles that could be condensed into anti-Westernism, Arab nationalism, and populism when it assumed power.

It was important, finally, not only in light of the existing ulama, but because of a wider popular appeal, to portray the revolution as consistent with the general precepts of Islam. The Qadhafi regime had inherited a legal system in which codified Western law enjoyed primacy over religious and customary law. Despite the fact that the Green Book elevated religion and custom to the status of the law of society, in practice, both were displaced as sources of law by secular policies. This break with Islamic law and Libyan custom, however, was never officially acknowledged. The Green Book continued to stress reliance on “a sacred law based on stable rules which are not subject to change,” identified this sacred law with Islam and with the Qur’an, and Qadhafi claimed consistently that the revolution had reinstated true Islam.

The revolution of September 1, 1969, according to the regime, was meant to initiate a wholesale cleansing of perceived stains of Western culture, colonialism, and the monarchy (with its links to global capital) from the country’s social fabric. A number of public and highly symbolic acts in the early years of the revolution were necessary to achieve this end, including the burning of Western books and musical instruments; the closing of nightclubs; the promotion of traditional Libyan dress; the conversion of churches into mosques; the adoption, in principle, of Islamic punishment; and the renaming of the Gregorian calendar. Oil was instrumental in achieving the regime’s goals, confronting the West, and restoring to Libya and to the Arab world the cultural and political power they had once possessed. The confrontation with the West—and Libya’s repeated efforts at creating alliances with other Arab countries—must thus be understood not only as a means of creating support at home, but also as fulfillment of the deeply-felt conviction that Qadhafi could indeed be the heir to Gamal Abdul Nasser within the region.

During the initial years of the revolution, one of the most powerful mechanisms for creating a following for the revolution was Qadhafi’s own charisma. Informal, non-institutionalized, charismatic leadership fit perfectly within the kind of personalized politics that developed within the jamahiriyya. In contrast to a monarchy that had been dominated by an older bourgeoisie and an aging king, and lacking a desire to clearly define Libya’s position within Arab politics, Qadhafi conveyed a sense of personal integrity and self-esteem. The overthrow of the Sanusi monarchy, a political system that had sidelined citizens since its creation, and had grown increasingly corrupt during the 1960s, initially added to the new leader’s standing among the population. His hard bargaining tactics with the oil companies, and the eventual vindication of Libya’s insistence on a greater share of oil profits, provided him with a stature far greater than that of those around him. His sense of righteousness and fearlessness, his willingness to take a clear position within intra-Arab politics, his sense of duty and of honor, his personal honesty—all these qualities put him in sharp contrast to what the country had experienced before. In a sense, Qadhafi was the revolution, al-qa’id al’mu’allim—the leader and teacher—as he became known in the jamahiriyya. His ability to insinuate himself—and the Libyan people simultaneously—into the troubled history of his country, by claiming that he followed in the footsteps of Umar al-Mukhtar and all those who had resisted the West, forged a sense of solidarity among Libyans.

Viewed against the backdrop of the monarchy that inevitably hovers in the background behind Qadhafi’s exhortations, the Libyan leader seemingly possessed all the qualities Arab nationalism touted: militancy in opposing the West, youthfulness, and a high level of political energy. Above all, he possessed the will to pursue his own vision of what a political community should look like, despite numerous setbacks and (often self-inflicted) crises. But charisma is by its nature a fleeting political resource that needs constant rejuvenation and renewal to remain valid. Thus, successive waves of mobilization and consistently unbalanced politics were powerful mechanisms Qadhafi used to prevent the routinization of his charisma, no matter how seemingly incoherent or irrational these policies appeared to observers. As a charismatic leader, Qadhafi also insisted on direct contact with ordinary Libyans that allowed him to claim a link and legitimacy no other RCC member could match. From 1969 onward, he put great emphasis on personalized exchanges with the population, continuously meeting groups of Libyans within highly formulized settings, delivering speeches throughout the country, reinforcing the message of the revolution, and exhorting citizens in a way few recent rulers in the Middle East have attempted.

It was also clear, however, that, despite this careful manipulation of symbols, myths, and charisma, the revolution had created a number of enemies: monarchical elites who had been dispossessed or forced to flee the country; fellow revolutionaries, who like Muhayshi and Muqaryif, Qadhafi’s former state comptroller and ambassador to India, took issue with the wasting of the country’s resources; the ulamawhose role had been severely restricted; and ordinary citizens who resented the unpredictability of theGreen Book’s directives and the deep impact of the revolutionary measures on their lives. As the revolution unfolded and intensified, a multitude of Libyan opposition groups formed in the West and throughout the Middle East. Some of these regularly produced publications containing their own viewpoints. The best known opposition group was the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), founded in 1981 by Muhammad Muqaryif. The NFSL also had a military wing, the Salvation Forces that, with French and U.S. support, conducted a number of military actions against Qadhafi in the 1980s.17 Eventually, the different groups started to organize themselves more effectively, led in part by the leadership of the NFSL. However, their cooperation remained precarious and showed the deep divisions that, in turn, reflected the different aspirations and interests of each group.

The fact that opposition failed to crystallize inside Libya can only be partially explained by the presence of the security sector institutions, the effectiveness of the use of symbols, the injunction against political groupings, and by Qadhafi’s appeal to the population. The constant new waves of mobilization against any group that potentially threatened the regime also provided an important clue. The result of the regime’s policies had, in addition to a level of apathy, also introduced a more insidious phenomenon: a depoliticization of the population and an atomization that took place as any type of organized activity was forbidden. This atomization was fostered by the fact that the state became virtually the sole economic provider under the directives of the Green Book. Under such circumstances, Libyans no longer possessed the kind of common economic interests that, in more productive economies, lead to common actions—and such common interests are, at any rate, unlikely to be expressed during economic booms. As a result, conditions that might have facilitated the emergence of broad-based organizations to defend particular interests lost their salience—economic handouts and political silence became an ingrained part of politics.

In addition, when it became clear to Libyan citizens that the gap between formal and informal mechanisms of governing had become an insurmountable reality of politics in the jamahiriyya, most learned to cope with a political system they had no chance of reforming. Perhaps fitting in light of the regime’s attempts to minimize the impact of the state on citizens’ daily lives, the state had, indeed, beyond its economic largesse, become much less relevant for most citizens. But this decreased relevance also led to depoliticization, as previously described, something that the regime, at least rhetorically, had tried to avoid. This depoliticization was thus due to the fact that Libyans stopped making claims on a state they could not hope to reform. Indeed, in Libya, this process became so pronounced that even opposition groups operating outside the country were unable to develop a common plan for what the country’s future should look like while Qadhafi remained in power.

The regime, nevertheless, did provide a number of symbolic outlets for citizens to vent their frustration. Qadhafi’s oft-repeated remark that every popular congress to which individuals belong constitutes an opposition may seem trivial, but is nevertheless important. The congresses allowed individuals, without challenging the structure of the political system overall, to voice their complaints. Being officially outside the formal structure of authority, Qadhafi has often encouraged those criticisms, even in public settings, to extend his own plans and directives.

At the same time, Qadhafi’s directives were meant to specifically prevent the emergence of any group that could potentially create an independent political base of support—whether as members of a tribe, a socioeconomic class, the Libyan military, a Popular or Revolutionary Committee, one of the country’s multiple security organizations, or a class of intellectuals and students. The system of Popular Congresses and Committees was closely supervised in Tripoli, allowing the regime to create a security sector capable of preventing the emergence of any systematic articulation of political interests. Even the once most powerful members of that security system— the Revolutionary Committees—were never allowed to assume any autonomous power.

The absence of sustained and organized opposition until the country’s fiscal crisis became acute in the late 1980s, however, testified once more to the resilience rulers in oil states like Libya possess in shaping, and holding in abeyance, demands for greater political input during boom periods— and, initially at least, during bust periods when reserves can be used to offset growing or persisting economic dislocations. By providing for Libyans’ material and everyday needs, Qadhafi was able to prevent a coalescing of political interests based on purely economic criteria. It is this power, in addition to a preemption of the Islamic activism described previously and the skillful manipulation of charisma, myth, and revolutionary rhetoric, that were keys in maintaining his regime during the 1980s, even as its political and ideological fortunes diminished dramatically.


Confronting the West

Since 1969, Qadhafi’s revolution has contained a strong element of anti- Western rhetoric that resonated strongly within the Middle East and North Africa, a region in the throes of Arab nationalism at the time. In Libya, the reaction against the West among the young revolutionaries was, in part, based on Libyans’ historical memory of the Italian colonial period. But it also encompassed a much broader resentment against the role of the West, and particularly of the United States, within the region—a role Qadhafi would describe as imperialist and linked to an unwavering support for Israel. Following from this, the Libyan leader decried the exploitation of the country’s resources by multinational companies that paid scant attention, he argued, to the needs of the country.

For most of the first decade after the coup, however, Libyan-U.S. relations remained characterized by caution and pragmatism on both sides. The United States, beyond its interests in the country’s oil industry, was concerned about keeping the country outside the Soviet Union’s orbit. The Libyan government, despite the nationalization of some American and British oil interests in 1973, showed no inclination during its early years toward an open confrontation with the West. Its opposition remained a rhetorical tool used primarily for mobilization purposes inside Libya. Gradually, however, opposition to the West came to assume a larger role within the revolution during the 1970s and 1980s. When Gamal Abdul Nasser died in 1970, Qadhafi—much to the consternation, and often derision, of other Arab countries—thrust himself forward as the heir to the late Egyptian president’s mission of creating a pan-Arab community that could blunt Western policies in the region. Qadhafi’s politics within North Africa, however, systematically alienated most of his neighbors, leading to a protracted skirmish with Egypt in 1977—Qadhafi clearly viewing the Sadat regime as antithetical to the ideals of Nasser. In 1980, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with the Libyan regime after a number of acrimonious exchanges over oil policies.19

That year, Libya’s total development spending reached $10 billion per year. In 1981 alone, however, this still left $11 billion at the discretion of the government. Much of the money was spent, in part, on military purchases and international adventures. In 1981, Libya renewed its involvement in a dispute with Chad (dating from the monarchy) over the Aouzou strip. During the early 1980s, defense and military spending grew rapidly, even as development and regular administrative budgets were curtailed: defense, as part of the country’s declared regular budget, climbed from $709 million to $1,149 million (16.7 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively) between 1982 and 1984.20 Qadhafi’s attempt to destabilize neighboring Tunisia led to a more open confrontation with France and the United States. In January 1981, the French government refused to implement a contract that had been signed between the oil parastatal Elf-Aquitaine and Lipetco, Libya’s official investment company. France became more openly aligned against Libya following the latter’s renewed invasion of Chad.

Libya’s major confrontation, however, increasingly focused on the United States. The United States accused Libya of supporting terrorism, of engaging in subversion in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, of boycotting the Middle East peace process and, eventually, of attempting to produce weapons of mass destruction. The assassination of Israeli athletes at the Munich 1972 Olympics and the 1973 killing of the U.S. ambassador to Sudan raised the first, albeit still unsubstantiated, questions about Libya’s involvement with terrorist groups. These concerns were further heightened by the fact that the regime increasingly and openly expressed its support for radical Palestinian groups, and attempted to ship weapons to the Irish Republican Army. Several radical Palestinian movements—including the Abu Nidal group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—had found a home in the jamahiriyya.21 In 1989, Washington accused Libya of supporting roughly thirty international terrorist and revolutionary movements worldwide.

Libya’s rhetoric against Israel remained intransigent as Qadhafi started to oppose U.S. efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, culminating in the Libyan leader’s public condemnation of the Camp David accords. Worried about these developments, and about the growing role of a Soviet presence in Libya, the Carter administration, in 1978, prohibited the sale of all military equipment to the jamahiriyya. By the end of the following year, Libya was put on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which extended the ban to include most economic assistance to the country. On February 15, 1980, the United States closed its embassy in Tripoli.

In several ways, Libya’s confrontation with the United States became a self-fulfilling prophecy as Qadhafi and successive U.S. presidents portrayed each other as outcasts in the international community. President Reagan’s denunciation of Qadhafi as the “mad dog of the world” allowed the latter to deflect much of whatever internal criticism was gingerly voiced through the GPC, creating, as it did, the image of a highly unequal and hypocritical antagonism that the Libyan leader gladly exploited. President George H.W. Bush’s later statement that “the politics and actions of the Government of Libya continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”22 only added to the Davidversus- Goliath image Qadhafi was able to use for his own internal purposes.

Clearly, however, the transfer of power in Washington from the Carter to the Reagan administration in January 1981 had marked a significant threshold for U.S.-Libyan relations. President Reagan, in part eager to demonstrate American strength in the region in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, viewed Libya as a highly visible and worthy target of his new policy of opposing regional adversaries. The United States moved with determination to further contain Libya.Arguing that thejamahiriyya was actively engaged in the destabilization of local regimes and in the promotion of international terrorism, in May 1981, the administration closed the Libyan People’s Bureau (embassy) in Washington. The relations between the two countries continued to worsen when Washington accused Libya of attempting to assassinate U.S. officials. In August 1981, the confrontation took on a more ominous aspect when the United States’s Sixth Fleet shot down two Libyan jet fighters over the Gulf of Sirte, which Libya claimed as its territorial waters, but which Washington viewed as an international waterway.

The dogfight and the way the dispute was addressed by both sides indicated the rapid deterioration of relations and the unwillingness of both sides to engage in constructive talks. In December 1981, U.S. citizens were prohibited from traveling to Libya, and President Reagan urged all Americans to leave thejamahiriyya. Soon afterward, in March 1982, all crude oil exports from Libya were embargoed, and exports of sophisticated oil and gas equipment prohibited.Meanwhile, on April 17, 1984, personnel at the Libyan People’s Bureau in St. James Square in London shot and killed Yvonne Fletcher, a local policewoman who was on duty during an anti- Qadhafi demonstration taking place in the square. Reaction to the murder marked the beginning of more concerted efforts by the Europeans to isolate the country diplomatically—although, much to Washington’s consternation, the European countries proved unwilling to move toward imposing economic sanctions. On the other hand, the U.S. boycott was further extended in November 1985 when President Reagan banned the import of refined petroleum products from Libya. A month later, terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports were linked to the Abu Nidal Organization, which, in turn, had close ties to Libya. As a result, in January 1986, President Reagan invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that put a halt to all loans and credits to the jamahiriyya, prohibited all financial transactions of U.S. citizens with Libya, and froze Libyan foreign assets in the United States. In a message that showed how personalized the conflict between the two leaders had become, President Reagan clearly warned that the United States was willing to take further, and more decisive, steps if Qadhafi did not modify his behavior.23 That next step—the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986—would prove a decisive turning point in the U.S.-Libyan confrontation, and would mark the beginning of a slow change and internal reappraisal of Libya’s policies as well.

From the beginning of his tenure in office, Reagan attempted to destabilize the Qadhafi regime through covert actions, in addition to pinprick military confrontations over the Gulf of Sirte. Libyan opposition groups in the West and in Chad—where the administration supported the Chadian government of Hissen Habre in the war over the Aouzou strip—enjoyed U.S. support in an effort to further destabilize the regime. The covert efforts increased further after a June 1984 CIA assessment that asserted the overthrow of Qadhafi would be necessary to put a halt to Libyan aggression.

The Libyan government skillfully exploited the confrontation with the West for its own purposes. In the wake of the Gulf of Sirte incident, in August 1981, Qadhafi attempted once more to mobilize Libyans in defense of the country, deftly using anti-American rhetoric for the purpose.25 This time, the Libyan leader proposed a general militarization of the jamahiriyya—the creation of a popular militia that would gradually take over the functions of the regular army. Although Qadhafi had previously mentioned the idea on several occasions—and some arming of villages and indoctrination had started earlier under the guidance of ex-RCC member al-Hamidi—the 1981 attack provided the catalyst for this latest zahf.

The skirmish also acted once more as a self-fulfilling prophecy for the regime. In addition to the surrounding countries that constituted Libya’s “traditional enemies”—Egypt in the east, Tunisia in the west, Chad, aided by France, in the south—the country’s leadership could now point to the United States as having crossed its self-proclaimed “line of death” in the Gulf of Sirte. The internal effects of the growing confrontation with the West were, at the time, seemingly of little importance. In many ways, the regime skillfully managed to exploit Libya’s traditional distrust of outsiders. But the combination of diplomatic isolation—which made traveling outside Libya virtually impossible for its citizens—as well as the growing economic dislocations at home, had seemingly started to diminish Libyans’ acceptance of their revolutionary leader’s directives. In April 1986, when the United States bombed Benghazi and Tripoli, the attack was met by almost total apathy among the population: “One saw more demonstrators in Khartoum and Tunis than in Tripoli where the number of foreign journalists outnumbered Tripolitanians.” Several attempts by the regime to organize demonstrations in its wake were abandoned for lack of participants, and Qadhafi disappeared from the Libyan media for several weeks.

The worsening relationship with the United States, highly politicized by both sides for the sake of each country’s political purposes, put increasing pressure on U.S. oil companies to review their investments in the jamahiriyya after the Reagan administration came to power. Exxon—represented in Libya by Esso Standard Libya, Inc. and Esso Sirte, Inc.—announced on November 4, 1981, that it would withdraw from operations in the country. Within a few months, on March 10, 1982, the U.S. government adopted a measure that prohibited the import of all Libyan oil into the country, and started to restrict the flow of U.S. goods to the jamahiriyya. In January 1983, Mobil followed suit and withdrew from operations after months of unsuccessful negotiations with LNOC officials.  By that time, several other companies had reviewed their own exposure in the country and, as in the case of the French parastatal Elf-Aquitaine, decided to at least temporarily halt the implementation of earlier signed contracts.

The Libyan government recognized the danger of a possible snowball effect and, throughout the 1981–84 years, consistently offered incentives to the remaining companies to maintain production. Occidental, one of the largest independent producers was offered a four-dollar price cut in October 1981 in order to stimulate its production. The result was that prices of Libyan oil throughout 1983 remained substantially below the already low 1982 prices. The jamahiriyya was in the midst of an ambitious new development plan, and its planners had little choice but to offer incentives when the country’s revenues were cut by one-third overnight as the United States implemented its boycott. Much of this financial crunch would be alleviated by the fact that European importers proved eager to take larger shares of Libyan production. But it meant that Libya, from July 1982 until the end of 1984, saw itself forced to consistently produce oil far in excess of the OPEC quota it had been assigned; during the first quarter of 1983, for example, it marketed 1.8 million bpd, an excess of 800,000 bpd.


United States’ and Multilateral Sanctions

Between December 1979—when Libya had been put on the U.S. State Department’s first list of state sponsors of terrorism—and the April 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, several developments in the deteriorating relationship between the United States and the jamahiriyya had taken place. These included the closure of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and of the People’s Bureau in Washington, the embargo of crude oil, and then of refined petroleum products from Libya, and, finally, in January 1986, the comprehensive trade embargo against the jamahiriyya. Six years later, in April 1992, the United Nations, as well, would extend an economic embargo after Libya refused to turn over suspects involved in the December 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie.

In order to understand the impact of both sets of economic sanctions, it is important to note that Libya’s overall economic performance during these years steadily worsened. One aspect, certainly, was the decline of oil prices starting in the early 1980s, made worse by the dramatic plunge in 1986, when the Reagan administration imposed its first set of sanctions. With revenues from oil exports—which still made up 95 percent of the country’s overall revenues—dramatically declining, and with the regime initially unwilling to cut back on military expenditures, the curbs on imports forced Libya to abandon a number of important projects that would have led to a greater diversification of the economy. The country drew down its international reserves, sought to conclude a number of barter deals rather than paying in cash for projects, and committed less money to making payments on its trade debts. A second point to consider is the impact of the economic directives of the Green Book during the regime’s revolutionary decade, as described previously. While Libya may have outspent most other oil exporters in the region during the 1986–2001 period, its economic performance consistently lagged behind countries that were exposed to similar oil shocks. The turmoil surrounding the Green Book’s economic directives must be blamed, to a large extent, for that economic downturn.

In light of these two factors, the direct impact of the United States’ unilateral sanctions between 1986 and 1992 was relatively small. Its importance was not so much in influencing Libyan economic decisions directly, but in heightening the country’s vulnerability to the multilateral sanctions that were to follow in the 1990s: it also forced Libya to conclude deals with economic partners, particularly in the oil industry, it would normally have eschewed. Despite the fact that the United States had been the single largest importer of Libyan oil in 1981, the 1982 ban on imports of Libyan crude had been offset by the country’s ability to sell to the European market, and by its ability to bring crude on the U.S. market via the spot market or as a refined product. Greater damage was done, however, by the impact of the U.S. ban on the country’s investment pattern. Since the early 1980s, Libya had started to invest considerable amounts of money in downstream activities in Europe, acquiring a network of gasoline stations across Western and Eastern Europe, Egypt, and Malta, in addition to refineries for its oil. These investments had been made in part in anticipation of, and in part as a reaction to, the U.S. ban, in order to guarantee that the country would be able to find steady outlets for its oil. There was, in addition, a political dimension to these investments as well: Tripoli clearly considered that they would help to solidify closer relations with Europe. Once the U.S. ban had been expanded to all exports to thejamahiriyya, the impact on Libya became more onerous as the country faced the withholding of aviation technology, airplane parts, and other types of high technology for its oil industry. In 1983 alone, the United States had vetoed almost $600 million worth of large civil aircraft export licenses to the country. Libya proved able to secure most of these embargoed imports from other sources, but at a considerably higher cost.

Similarly, the 1986 freeze of all Libyan foreign assets in the United States was relatively benign since Libya had been careful not to make substantial investments in the country, and had shifted most of its liquid assets to other venues in anticipation of U.S. measures. Overall, it was estimated that less than 2 percent of Libya’s total overseas investments of roughly $5 billion were affected.29 United States’ pressure on international lending agencies to avoid extending loans to Libya also proved, at best, a minor irritant since the jamahiriyya was either not eligible to borrow from the World Bank because of its relative wealth, or simply refused to do so. In part because of political considerations, but also because of a lack of sophistication in managing its financial fluctuations, Libyan policymakers, rather than increasing the country’s foreign debt to offset balance of payments deficits simply ran down its foreign reserves, cut back on imports, temporarily suspended payment of trade debts, or swapped oil for imported goods. Hence, Libya’s foreign debt remained quite small throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. There was, however, an unavoidable demonstration effect to the U.S. sanctions and to the unorthodox methods Libya used to meet its financial obligations. Some Western export credit agencies refused to extend further government medium- and long-term credits to the country, and some banks, shipping companies, and assorted international companies reviewed their exposure to Libya, wary of the country’s reputation for unpredictability and of the chaos brought about by the Green Book’s directives.

Until the imposition of the multilateral sanctions in April 1992, Libya’s oil production and export levels remained in line with its OPEC quota. The LNOC assumed operation of the oilfields once run by U.S. companies as soon as Washington announced the sanctions. As a result, when U.S. companies were told in 1986 to curtail their operations in producing and marketing almost one-third of Libya’s oil for the European market, the LNOC readily took over the responsibility. But most observers agreed that the Libyan oil sector was in urgent need of modernization, in part because some of the fields had been producing since the 1950s and needed new recovery technology.30 U.S. technology, know-how, and equipment had been instrumental in building and maintaining the Libyan oil industry since the 1950s. The LNOC not only had difficulty acquiring the needed spare parts as the unilateral sanctions were put into place, but simply did not have the needed expertise and technological knowledge to maintain production at a steady level. In addition, many European firms proved reluctant to provide that expertise and manpower, despite a number of “gentlemen’s agreements” between them and the U.S. government to watch over claims of American companies in the country.

Overall, the U.S. sanctions on Libya’s oil sector by themselves had an almost negligible direct impact—Libya would unlikely have had the capability to produce substantially more oil during the 1980s, even if the sanctions had not existed. The regulations under the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) of 1996 proved of marginal value in deterring investment. Investment patterns in Libya hardly changed after its passage, due, in large part, to the fact that the country—except for a major overhaul of some of its infrastructure—was not in need of substantial investments that would have superseded the $40 million limit imposed by ILSA. In addition, companies simply amended old contracts to accommodate new investments, and avoided signing new contracts that could have triggered ILSA regulations. But the combination of ILSA and previous sanctions did create an environment in which the long-term prospects for the country’s oil industry became more closely circumscribed, and the earlier set of U.S. sanctions made the country’s economy overall more sensitive (if not vulnerable) to additional pressures that would soon materialize in the form of multilateral sanctions. In many ways, the U.S. sanctions magnified the overall existing problems in Libya’s oil sector, creating greater uncertainty in the process.

The seven-year period of multilateral sanctions (April 1992–April1999) against Libya, combined with existing conditions within the country, proved much more damaging than the United States sanctions alone had been. Libya’s economy grew only 0.8 percent a year during the period, and, at the same time, the country’s per capita GDP fell from $7,311 to $5,896.31 In 1998 alone, the country’s export earnings had dropped to roughly $7 billion, the lowest since the oil price crash of 1986. The financial impact of the multilateral sanctions had, as in the case of the U.S. unilateral ones, been mitigated by shifting Libyan assets away from vulnerable locations. But, as a result, Libya’s ability to earn income abroad hampered its ability to pay foreign companies. In the more restrictive economic climate of the 1990s this proved a much bigger irritant than it had been in the previous decade, forcing Libya to further limit trade, and making it more difficult to secure short-term credit at a time when oil prices further declined.

The trade restrictions under the multilateral sanctions proved much more difficult to deal with. Adjusting and shifting trade patterns, as Libya had done previously, no longer proved possible. The ban on imports particularly affected Libya’s downstream oil operations and its aviation industry. Its inability to obtain equipment for the maintenance of its refineries forced Libya to search for substitute technology and parts (often, on the black market) that were often suboptimal, and were several times more expensive than normal international market prices. It also made it necessary for Libya to forego upgrading its refineries, making it impossible to produce more gasoline for domestic consumption. It also meant that Libya had to spend increasingly scarce foreign reserves for purchasing lighter fuels abroad, rather than being able to use its own best quality crude for producing more lucrative high-end fuels. The country’s airline industry was also dramatically affected: with a halt in passenger traffic, a shortage of spare parts, and a deteriorating technical capability, the damage went far beyond the estimated financial loss of $900 million during the period.

The uncertainty surrounding the sanctions proved, as always, to make matters worse. Subject to review by the Security Council every four months, the fear of additional, more stringent measures, as well as the continued pressure from the United States for such actions, proved a deterrent in several ways. The value of the Libyan dinar declined, and inflationary pressures were exacerbated by the fact that all commodities had to be brought into the country overland or by sea, and by the growing pressure of a burgeoning black market. The sanctions also forced Libya to maintain an unnecessarily high level of reserves, not knowing whether or not additional sanctions would be imposed. With domestic investment virtually halted, the government was forced to curtail several development projects, and the country suffered shortages of foreign exchange throughout the period of the multilateral sanctions. In addition, the continuing uncertainties, the lack of international flights into the country, the sheer inconvenience of gaining access to the country, and the lack of financial resources to devote to it forced Libya to further invest in several sectors, notably tourism, which had been earmarked for expansion.

As a result of the sanctions, international companies grew more reluctant to work in Libya, and the premium required for their services reflected the high price the country paid. As described in the next section, within the energy sector, Libya proved able to continue attracting largely Western and Eastern European investment, but, on some occasions, it had to rely on companies it would, except for the sanctions, have avoided. Several of these were small- to medium-sized companies with limited production capabilities or services that preferred to invest in projects with short-term payoffs rather than the more complex and long-term agreements the Libya government hoped to conclude in order to expand exploration beyond the Sirte basin. As the country’s oil infrastructure aged, as the sanctions started to impinge on the ability of the country to get cutting edge technology, and as production leveled off, Libya’s oil industry often relied on second-rate technologies, and proved able to attract only a few companies that had sufficient know-how for the kind of enhanced oil recovery techniques it needed.

The oilfields that had been taken over from U.S. companies by the LNOC slowly declined in production as Libya struggled to manage them with increasingly outdated U.S. equipment. Production from LNOC-operated fields declined, on average, 8 percent annually after the take-over. Finally, Libya also hoped to exploit its enormous, and largely unexploited, natural gas reserves, primarily for the European market, but also to substitute natural gas for oil on the domestic market. Although several companies expressed an interest, it was clear that interest among international companies remained limited as long as the sanctions were in place. In 1993, LNOC ultimately signed a large $5.5 billion joint venture for development of the Western Libyan Gas Project with one of its oldest customers, Italy’s Agip-ENI. It involved an undersea pipeline—since constructed—to bring the gas, via Sicily, to Italy. Agip-ENI argued that, since the original contract had been signed in 1993, it was exempted from ILSA’s regulations. The controversy surrounding the contract, however, ensured that further development of the country’s enormous natural gas fields would remain suspended until more propitious times made international investments possible again.


The Limits of Revolutionary Fervor

In retrospect, it is quite clear that the April 1986 bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as the combination of U.S. and multilateral sanctions, created considerable difficulties for the Libyan leadership. It also, in some ways, came to represent a watershed for the country’s international politics. The bombing, in particular, created a high level of consternation among the country’s leadership. The country’s defenses, in the face of the attacks, had proven feeble. Some Revolutionary Committee members had quietly abandoned their positions, and there were rumors of organized resistance in the eastern part of the country immediately after the attack. The response of the population to calls for massive anti-U.S. rallies by the Libyan leader were, at best, lackluster. The psychological shock that the United States would actually target Libyan cities—and, it was hinted at, the Libyan leader himself—left a deep despondency and an initially confused attempt to evaluate what the country’s options were.

For weeks after the bombing, the Libyan leader did not appear on television. When he finally did so, he defiantly called for tawsi’ ath-thawra—an extension of the revolution. But beneath the veneer of traditional rhetoric, this new wave of reforms represented nothing but a careful recalibration of the country’s structures of control. Aware that the previous decade had witnessed the introduction of a number of nefarious measures—particularly the expansion of the unpredictable revolutionary authority system that had raised considerable concern and uncertainty among Libyan citizens—the “extension of the revolution,” in reality, meant its opposite: a curtailing of its more disliked political and economic revolutionary measures. Qadhafi, in his speeches after April 1986, castigated Libyans, in his usual populist fashion, about their waste and lack of initiative, and decried the impact of some of the “revolutionary means of governing,” and of the isolation the country found itself in. These concerns were taken up publicly at the February 1987 GPC meeting in Sabha.33 The delegates at the meeting, as well, voiced a number of public concerns about economic management of the country, their specificity and sophistication indicating that the criticisms had been approved in advance by the regime.

Throughout 1987 and in 1988, Qadhafi publicly deplored the excesses of the country’s security organizations and of the Revolutionary Committees. Particularly, the latter were singled out for their behavior. A special committee was appointed under the leadership of the country’s Minister of Justice, responsible for investigating charges of corruption and of abuse of power by Revolutionary Committee members. By December 1988, the Revolutionary Committees started to lose power, as their presence in the intelligence, police, and security sector was curtailed. A Ministry of Mass Mobilization and Revolutionary Leadership was created under Ali Al-Sha’iri, one of the regime’s most trusted members. His task was to control the Revolutionary Committee movement, and to bring its task more narrowly back from an overall guard dog of the regime to its original role as an ideological vanguard.34 Simultaneously, the regime attempted to expand its liberalization to a wider audience. In 1987, and throughout 1988, scores of political prisoners were released.

After the difficult years of the country’s revolutionary decade, these small, but symbolically important, measures provided the regime with breathing room that had not existed before. It reached out, furthermore, to entice Libyan exiles back to the country, making promises of employment and of immunity from prosecution. Confiscated passports were returned to Libyan citizens, and their issuance was now entrusted to Popular Committees rather than to the security sector organizations. The Libyan leader also met with some opposition figures, hoping to bring them back to Libya as a show of support for the regime, but largely failed to do so.

In one of his most remarkable declarations since 1969, Qadhafi then adopted the Al-Wathiqa al-Khadra al-Kubra lil-huquq al-insan fi ‘asr al- Jamahir—the Great Green Charter of Human Rights in the Era of the Masses—a document meant to provide greater personal rights to Libyans, and to halt the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the country’s previous revolutionary decade.35 Its Article 11, for example, recalled the earlier revolutionary directives on private property, and declared it “sacred and protected.” There were further references to accountability for everyone, much in the same vein as the earlier criticism of the Revolutionary Committees.

Qadhafi’s attempt to bring greater predictability and accountability must be viewed, therefore, within the larger context of the country’s political life, and particularly within its formal and informal power structures. The Great Green Charter did not contain any stipulation that would have allowed political opposition, nor did it make the expression of such opposition in any public setting possible. As the Libyan leader continued to argue, Libya was a jamahiriyya ruled directly by its citizens. Hence, the rules of opposition and of free expression did not apply. In effect, the Great Green Charter did not provide either the civil or political rights that are normally provided under international law nor, as one long-term observer noted, “the privileges of citizenship.”36 In the end, many of the Charter’s stipulations and guarantees were eviscerated in the early 1990s as opposition to the regime intensified. The simultaneous reshuffle of the country’s cabinet that followed the announcement of the Great Charter further heightened existing uncertainties. Two of its newly appointed ministers were long-time “Green Men”—dedicated revolutionaries. Their appointment indicated that the regime was not taking any chances. Furthermore, Qadhafi’s reconfirmation at the March 1990 GPC Congress of the separation between formal and revolutionary authority was the final confirmation that, for all its promises, the Great Green Charter would never be allowed to affect or diminish the control functions of the regime.


The Limits of Economic Reform

The relaxation of some of the regime’s revolutionary measures was matched in the economic arena by an attempt to reduce the hardships of the Green Book’s directives regarding the role of the state and of private enterprise in the jamahiriyya. While Qadhafi skillfully blended populist appeals with his usual blunt criticisms and exhortations for greater personal involvement, Ahmad Jalud at the GPC Secretariat meeting of July 18, 1987, dissected the structural origins of Libya’s economic difficulties in a more technocratic fashion.He pinpointed the persisting mismanagement of the economy, the difficulties in establishing coherent acquisition programs for the country—in light of the growing impact of the economic boycott by the United States—high levels of inflation, and an inability to guarantee distribution of goods for both industrial and consumer purposes.

Jalud’s expose had captured the by now familiar dilemmas of development in oil states. Libya’s first oil boom during the monarchy, as well as the oil booms of 1973 and 1979, had represented peculiar challenges to the country, such as how to efficiently use the sudden windfalls for purposes of general economic development. In the jamahiriyya, this process of spending and of foregoing regulation to manage the local economy had gone far beyond simple benign neglect, and had been exacerbated and purposefully extended by Qadhafi’s insistence that state institutions were to be smashed. Even more than in other oil exporters of the region, the distribution of the country’s revenues, and the virtually unlimited spending, even as economic clouds gathered on the horizon during the early 1980s, were meant to achieve political goals. The spending had implicitly imposed upon the country’s citizens a social contract during the boom years that, in return for political quiescence, promised that the state would take care of citizens’ daily economic needs.

The economic and political reforms in Libya after 1986 were, therefore, intrinsically linked—for real economic liberalization and reform would have meant the introduction of markets and competitive market processes that inevitably create conflicts between citizens about access to economic resources. Markets also invariably create disparities in income. Indeed, it was to avoid both phenomena—which Qadhafi viewed as detrimental to citizen interaction in a political community—that the Green Book had eschewed a reliance on market mechanisms. Economic liberalization efforts in Libya, therefore, represented a fourfold challenge to the regime: a need to create new institutions to better regulate and make economic transactions more transparent, to reform institutions whose primary goal often focused on simply distributing revenues gathered by the state, to introduce markets and competition for resources, and, finally, to contain whatever political fallout the three previous sets of measures might entail. Qadhafi clearly understood the implications of what a sustained economic liberalization effort would mean but, despite his reservations, embarked upon a liberalization of the country’s economy: a first attempt between 1987 and 1990, followed by a second set of initiatives after 1990.

The first set of reforms centered around the introduction of tashrukiyya (self-management) enterprises that allowed for the creation of cooperatives that workers could manage collectively. Simultaneously, the ban against the retail trade was lifted, allowing private shops to reopen. In September 1988, the state’s monopoly on imports and exports was abandoned, as well as subsidies on tea, flour, salt, and wheat. Farmers’ markets— officially abandoned, but reluctantly tolerated, during the revolutionarydecade—reappeared. Professionals were allowed to resume private practices, even though the government maintained its role in setting fees.


The measures taken after 1990 were meant to reinforce and extend this earlier wave of reforms. Qadhafi now argued publicly for a clear distinction between the private sector and the state, in order to “take the burden off public institutions.” He suggested the closing of unprofitable state enterprises, the imposition of higher fees for state-provided services like water and electricity, and a reduction in the number of state employees. A number of state and commercial banks were created. Hoping to capture some of the capital flows that sustained the informal economy, special laws were passed to offer protection for reinvested capital. The second wave’s final directives, in the spring and summer of 1993, focused on efforts to promote tourism—hoping to capitalize on the country’s desert and archaeological sites—and to provide greater guarantees for foreign investment. Convertibility of the Libyan dinar was taken up by the GPC in January 1994, but remained unaddressed for the time being.

At the surface, the number and range of measures suggested in the adopted legislation would have made the Libyan economic liberalization one of the most dramatic in the region’s history of economic reform during the 1980s and 1990s. It would also have dramatically recalibrated the position of the state within the economy and, by implication, altered the way in which the regime could use economic patronage for its own political goals and, ultimately, for its survival. In the end, the liberalization effort faltered. In effect, the attempted reforms could, perhaps, be best described as a subterfuge, where a hesitating, newly created private sector was allowed to provide and distribute what the state—through its inefficient distribution system of state supermarkets—could not deliver to Libyan citizens, leaving the state in charge of the distribution of welfare provisions.

As a result, by the mid-1990s, Libya was filled, once more, with the kind of consumer goods and food supplies it had enjoyed before the revolutionary decade. The lack of confidence in the local economy, however, was demonstrated by the fact that, for most everyday purchases, the U.S. dollar had become the currency of choice.

The failure of the reforms furthermore revealed, in stark fashion, the deleterious impact of the long-term neglect of the economy, and of the impact of the revolutionary measures on the economy and on the country’s political system. In addition, as one of the country’s top policymakers admitted in retrospect, reform of the economy was unlikely to take place under the difficult circumstances that resulted from the sanctions. In desperation, in 1997, the General People’s Congress adopted Law No. 5 that allowed for foreign direct investment in the country. But it was a sign of the times that the measure generated virtually no response.

Libya’s economic dirigisme, once imposed according to Qadhafi’s Green Book precisely to avoid the economic differentiation and the intense struggles that regulating private sector activities entails in market economies, could no longer be sustained as a result of the economy’s inefficiencies, the rampant corruption, and the growing impact of the multilateral sanctions. But the challenges to the country’s economic and political mechanisms were enormous after decades of centralization and lack of regulation. The very purpose of the country’s liberalization had been to introduce market mechanisms. This would have necessitated, on the part of the country’s rulers, an attempt to create functioning regulatory and administrative institutions that could support a market economy. A sustained liberalization in Libya would, at least temporarily, have meant a greater involvement by the state in making an economic transition possible—to tax, to collect and disseminate information, to dispense law, and to define and enforce property rights. This “perfection of the state” very clearly remained unacceptable to Qadhafi, whose basic philosophical tenet still focused on the lessening of the state’s impact on citizens’ lives.


In addition, the dirigisme of the country’s economy had, long ago, become an important mechanism of control for the Qadhafi government. Not surprisingly, therefore, local reactions to the country’s attempts at reform and liberalization revealed the interests and power of different constituencies in Libya. The initial phase met with little resistance since the liberalization of trade and the end of import regulations benefited consumers and small entrepreneurs who were now free to import food and consumer goods from abroad. This first set of measures also did not affect the fortunes of those groups deemed vital to the Libyan leader’s maintenance of power: the country’s top technocrats within LNOC, and other privileged and protected state institutions, managers of state enterprises, the military, and those entrepreneurs with close links to the military. Indeed, the first phase strengthened their fortunes: they could now more easily gain access to credit, engage openly in import and export transactions, and use more readily available foreign currency for major capital goods imports.

The second wave, if implemented, would have hurt virtually all groups in the country. Real import regulations and free access for everyone to a liberalized banking system, for example, would have ended the economic riches provided to those who could obtain licenses. For the average Libyan, the second wave proved unwelcome as well. The loss of wage policies and subsidies that had kept their standard of living (at a relatively low level) would perhaps disappear. The idea, furthermore, of becoming entrepreneurs in a political system that had been marked for almost two decades by high levels of unpredictability produced little enthusiasm. The Qadhafi government had fostered this unpredictability, and had implicitly, through its distributive policies, fostered citizens’ inclinations to avoid personal initiative and risk. In the end, no group in Libya considered the economic liberalization strategies in their interest—an ominous omen for the renewed liberalization efforts a decade later (see Chapter 9).

The End of the Revolution

By the year 2000, three decades after his 1969 military take-over, Qadhafi’s attempts at statelessness and popular rule looked increasingly tarnished, if not in outright disarray. Neither the successive waves of mobilization, nor outside military action against the jamahiriyya, had managed to maintain or rekindle a measurable level of popular support. Despite the regime’s attempts to portray itself as a victim of U.S. and international aggression, and to link the country’s economic difficulties to the imposed sanctions, none resulted in a hoped-for surge of support and legitimacy for the regime. The Popular Committee and Congress system persisted as the country’s sole political institution, but few Libyans had any illusions as to its actual power. As in most other oil states in the region, legitimacy in the jamahiriyyaremained intricately linked to the regime’s ability to provide a certain level of economic well-being to local citizens. As the sanctions took hold, inflation soared, and the delivery of goods often became erratic and unpredictable. The everyday lives of Libyans had become measurably more difficult. At the end of the 1990s, wages, often at a dismal 250–300 dinars per month, even for highly qualified personnel, had been frozen for almost two decades. Petty bureaucrats and professionals alike were moonlighting to make ends meet. The regime had allowed the reemergence of some retail trade in the cities, while the state supermarkets stood abandoned or were transformed into government offices. Despite these palliatives, however, the diplomatic isolation that made travel and education in the West more difficult—and, in the case of the United States, impossible—still imposed a heavy toll.

The “extension of the revolution” after the U.S. bombing in 1986, the two waves of economic liberalization, the Great Green Charter of Human Rights, the halting diplomatic attempts to bring Libya back into the international community, the temporary curtailment of the Revolutionary Committees: all were meant to rejuvenate support for the regime at a time it felt besieged. None of these, however, altered the country’s basic political structures that concentrated power at the very top around Qadhafi, protected by a bevy of security apparatuses and informal groups. Although the economic liberalization and the curtailment of the Revolutionary Committee movement fleetingly tempered the confusion and the arbitrariness that had marked daily life in the jamahiriyya since the early 1970s, there were, as yet, no signs of any kind of political transparency, accountability, or the rule of law that could have consolidated both sets of reforms on a more permanent basis. In the end, the regime reaped what it had so deliberately sown: unwilling to remove the kinds of unpredictability that made Libyan citizens reluctant to participate either economically or politically in running the country, most had simply become bystanders in a system they had no chance of reforming. So profound was this depoliticization that even opposition groups operating outside Libya confessed their inability to affect events inside thejamahiriyya until the Qadhafi regime had been removed.41

It was ironic, therefore, that, despite the use of continuous revolutionary exhortations for self-reliance and activism, the jamahiriyya had become a county where virtually everything—from food to high technology items— was imported. Libyans absorbed all the benefits bestowed upon it by an oil economy, but politically stood cowered and silent. Opposition was, by the fact that Libyans, in principle, ruled themselves, impossible. This enduring contradiction between Qadhafi’s incessant calls for activism, and the passivity the political system itself engendered, stood starkly revealed as Libya moved toward the new millennium.

The failure of the two waves of economic liberalization provided important indications of the intimate links between the politics and the economic development problems of the country. After three decades of centralization, of poor decision making, of outright neglect, and of making economic development subject to the whims of revolutionary pursuits, Libya had developed intricate patterns of patronage that, in effect, constituted major political, as well as economic, liabilities to serious reform. The state’s ability to provide (decreasing levels of) welfare to the general population had—as long as the oil boom lasted—became part and parcel of the regime’s populist rhetoric, and of its ability to handsomely reward its close supporters. Both sets of entitlements were under siege by the end of the 1990s.

Such is the resilience to reform in oil exporters like Libya, however, that it would take another two-and-a-half years before the spectacular announcement of Libya’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction in December 2003 opened up the road toward full-fledged international normalization, and toward badly needed economic reconstruction and possible reform. As the new millennium dawned, however, seasoned observers and participants alike realized that—whatever the outside pressures on Libya were, and for a number of internal reasons as well—Libya’s revolution had run its course. Qadhafi himself, in a number of adroit speeches, tried to portray Libya’s shifting policies—in such sharp contrast to his old rhetoric—as a new beginning: the “liberation stage” of his revolution had successfully ended, and a new page could now be turned. As the daily reading of a fragment of his Green Book on Libyan television proclaimed, the world was now ready for its own international version of the Enduring Revolution. The jamahiriyya should take up its historic role in facilitating its adoption everywhere. Except among a handful of the regime’s core supporters, the exhortation no longer had the power to even provoke serious debate.



Excerpted from Libya Since 1969 by Dirk Vandewalle

Excerpted from Libya Since 1969 by Dirk Vandewalle. Copyright (c) 2008 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

DIRK VANDEWALLE is author of Libya Since 1969 and is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.