The Libyan Head of State is neither a king, a president nor a prime minister. Colonel Gaddafi is always referred to in official documents as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. He came to power as the result of a coup d’etat in 1969 when Gaddafi was only 27, and a junior officer in the army.
He took over from ailing King Idris and his nephew the Crown Prince Sayyid Hasan ar-Rida al-Mahdi as-Sanussi. In 1977, he proclaimed a “People’s Revolution”, changed the name of the country to “The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, and established “revolutionary committees” to replace political parties.
Last year Libya celebrated the 40th anniversary of the revolution and today, without ever having been elected, because elections are forbidden, and without any official function at all, he still leads a country of 6 million people. He is the only person with executive powers, and no criticism or opposition is allowed. His policy was set out in his “Green Book” published in 1975; a mixture of socialism and direct democracy.
In response to the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, he has recently lowered prices for basic foodstuffs and medicines, and given easier access to credit. Over the years, living conditions for ordinary people have improved. Women’s rights have been reinforced. Women are in the forefront of Gaddafi’s security arrangements, an all-woman team accompanying him on all official engagements. In 1984, a bill was published in which polygamy was abolished, divorce was authorised, and forced marriage made illegal.
But these socio-economic advances have been offset by political regression. Political parties and trade unions are outlawed. NGOs are tolerated but only as long as their aims are in line with the Libyan revolution. Libya remains a tribal society, controlled by parental and family ties, even down to their football clubs. This complicates political movements and makes any effective opposition quasi-impossible. Any determined sign of discontent is paid off with the proceeds of Libyan oil fields.
At the summit of the African Union in February 2009, Gaddafi pursued one of his pet projects – to found a United States of Africa and to spread his revolutionary ideology across the continent. His elite audience included two of his most politically-minded sons, one an avid revolutionary and the other a reformer with a positive attitude towards the construction of civil society.