Dictators in History: Muammar Gaddafi

In anticipation of the launch of the paperback edition of Revolution Day on 24 April (7.30 pm in Holmfirth Library – the e-book is also available today only for 99p/99c) – I thought it was time to do another in my occasional series of posts discussing the careers of historical dictators and comparing them to Carlos Almanzor, the ageing dictator in my novel. Today I’m looking at Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, whose fall, together with that of other dictators during the ‘Arab Spring’ was a major influence on the novel.

Gaddafi was born in 1942 in Sirte to a poor Bedouin family. In 1963 he entered the Libyan Royal Military Academy and later spent 9 months in Britain during his training. As he rose through the ranks he founded the clandestine Free Officers movement, influenced by the Arab Nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser in neighbouring Egypt.

In 1969 the Free Officers took advantage of the absence overseas of the Libyan king, Idris, to depose him in a relatively bloodless coup d’etat. Gaddafi then proclaimed the Libyan Arab Republic. In the four decades of his subsequent rule Gaddafi implemented a form of socialism, combined with nationalism and elements of sharia law. His political philosophy was set out in the Green Book, in which he rejected capitalism and representative democracy and espoused a form of direct democracy. In practice, however, Gaddafi remained in control, enforced by ruthless suppression of opposition.

During his career Gaddafi gained – and often subsequently lost – international support from various quarters. Initially he was close to other Arab states, particularly Egypt, though relations with Nasser’s successor Sadat were poor. He had good relations with the socialist regimes in Latin America and latterly with other African nations, becoming chairperson of the African Union in 2009-10.

For most of his career, however, Libya’s relations with the West were very bad, due to its enthusiastic support for terrorist organisations overseas, including the IRA; its responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie air crash; and its chemical and nuclear weapons programmes. There was a surprising rapprochement in the first decade of this century, based on the recognition of a common enemy in fundamentalist Islam.

This was not to last, however. When in 2011 the Arab Spring spread from neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia into Libya, Gaddafi responded to the protests with brutal military force, earning him global condemnation and eroding support at home. UN-authorised NATO air strikes helped tip the balance of the conflict in favour of the rebels, forcing Gaddafi to quit the capital Tripoli for his home town of Sirte. Even here, though, the forces of the opposition National Transitional Council closed in exorably, finally cornering him 20 October. He died horribly, first injured by a grenade burst, then captured, beaten up, bayoneted and shot, pleading in vain for his life.


Gaddafi and Carlos

There is a real-life link between Gaddafi and Revolution Day in that were it not for him, the novel would probably never have taken the form it did. A few years back, I had at the back of my mind an idea for a novel about someone who has enjoyed great power and is beginning to lose his grip – initially, the idea was that it would be an old king. Then, as the Arab Spring happened and Gaddafi, Mubarak and other dictators who had seemed unassailable were toppled one after the other in the space of a few months, a thought occured to me: ‘hey, I could write that novel about a dictator’! Since my particular interest was not so much in the background to the Arab Spring itself but the wider issues it raises about the corrupting effects and ultimate fragility of power, I decided to set the novel in Latin America, with its long association with dictatorship and hey presto! Carlos Almanzor was born!

Though the character of Carlos was not based on Gaddafi, there are some notable parallels between the two. Both were (initially, at least) broadly socialist in their political beliefs, though Gaddafi has the additional elements of Islam and Arab nationalism which are of course absent in Carlos. Both enjoyed several decades of power, making use of brutal repression and the cult of personality in order to keep it. And both became deluded by it as the years went on.

There are notable differences too. Carlos’s background is middle-class, not poor; his route to politics via the law not the Army. Though ruthlessly authoritarian in his own country, he does not foster terrorism overseas as Gaddafi did. And for all his faults, he is ultimately more human, less deranged, than Gaddafi.

Though Gaddafi became a rather pathetic figure at the end, he had done many very bad things in his career. I was saddened by the manner but not the fact of his passing. Nevertheless, I do owe him a strange debt, as a source of inspiration for my novel.


Revolution Day on Amazon: http://authl.it/4yo

Revolution Day full



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