Moammar Gadhafi’s final demise began in a drainage pipe. The former Libyan dictator, who had once called opponents of his regime “rats,” crawled into it after a NATO air strike stopped his convoy of vehicles as it attempted to break out of Sirte, his besieged hometown where regime loyalists were making a last stand against a popular uprising that began in February. He was followed there by fighters from the National Transitional Council, now the recognized government of Libya. One told the BBC that Gadhafi had begged him not to shoot. Exactly what happened next is unclear. He was alive when bundled onto the back of a truck and driven into the city. Video footage has emerged of Gadhafi dazed and covered in blood. He is then dragged from the truck. A crowd envelops him and he disappears from view.
As the news—and grainy cellphone videos of the wounded and then dead dictator—spread, celebrations erupted across Libya. There were jubilant scenes in the capital, Tripoli, as throngs filled the streets, hugging each other, chanting, honking car horns, and firing guns into the air. Security officials handed out treats. They called them “revolutionary mints.” “We have been waiting for this moment a long time,” Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s acting prime minister, told a news conference. “It means everything,” Abubaker Karmos, Libya’s chargé d’affaires, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “It means the end of a long and ruthless dictatorship and the beginning of a new Libya, a free and democratic Libya that all Libyans want.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a brief televised statement: “With the shadow of Gadhafi now lifted from their land, it is our hope that the Libyan people will find peace and reconciliation after this dark period in the life of their nation. We look forward to working with them.” Karmos said the new Libya will need all the help it can get from allies such as Canada. After four decades of dictatorship, Libyans have little experience with basic freedoms, and with democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary and honest police. “He destroyed everything, even the smiles of the Libyan people,” says Karmos. “It’s like we’re starting from scratch.”
Moammar Gadhafi’s death brings to a definitive end a regime where repression was constant—though often obscured by the weirdness of its leader, and by his willingness to reconcile with his enemies in the West, when necessary, to preserve his rule.
Gadhafi came to power in a bloodless coup that overthrew Libya’s monarchy in 1969. He admired the Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and for a while appeared to echo Nasser’s Arab nationalism. He dreamed about a united Arab belt across the African Sahel. He set up training camps and provided weapons and arms to various Arab and Islamist groups.
But Gadhafi’s ambitions for power and influence were capricious and not restrained by geography or ethnicity. He also backed some of the most blood-soaked sub-Saharan African tyrants, including Idi Amin of Uganda, and former Liberian president Charles Taylor, whose mercenaries trained in Libyan camps. He even courted the Irish Republican Army.
At home, Gadhafi’s rule was arbitrary and cruel. He espoused a quasi-socialist government of “revolutionary councils,” but in fact controlled everything and tolerated no opposition. He banned books and private enterprise. There were no independent media. He murdered political dissidents living abroad. But, says Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Gadhafi was also a shrewd ruler who developed pockets of support by doling out largesse to family and tribal networks. “I think he was a clever guy, certainly in terms of manipulating power structures in Libya,” he said in an interview.
In 1986, a bomb exploded in a Berlin nightclub, killing three people, including two American soldiers. Evidence linked the attack to Libya, resulting in retaliatory U.S. air strikes. Two years later, Libya blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 and solidifying its status as a pariah state.
It didn’t remain as such forever, though. In 2002, Libya offered compensation money to the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Then, spooked by America’s toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Gadhafi announced he had a chemical and nuclear weapons program and was willing to end it. Soon a parade of Western leaders, including then Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, showed up to shake his hand and angle for oil contracts in an enormous Bedouin tent Gadhafi set up on palace grounds.
Here, too, says White, Gadhafi demonstrated his pragmatism and survival skills. “He basically reached a modus vivendi with Western states and achieved a working relationship with them.” And pragmatism pushed the West to play along, White adds. “Moving him out of his role as a troublemaker and agitator and getting him out of the weapons of mass destruction business was useful.”
Gadhafi’s life might have continued in much the same fashion as it did in these years—interspersed with the odd rambling and incoherent speech at the United Nations—were it not for a 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi.
Enraged last December when municipal officials confiscated his cart and produce and slapped and humiliated him, Bouazizi subsequently set himself on fire. The incident sparked an uprising against the corrupt and undemocratic government in Tunisia, and a movement that spread across the region.
Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February. Peaceful protests in Libya began days after. Libyan security forces responded with murderous force. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, which indicted Gadhafi, estimated hundreds of Libyans were massacred in the early days of the protests, before all-out war began. “Shooting at protesters was systematic,” he said at a United Nations Security Council briefing.
Gadhafi called them cockroaches and urged his supporters to “cleanse” Libya house by house. In March, with Gadhafi’s forces bearing down on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the United Nations Security Council authorized armed intervention to protect civilians. NATO air strikes followed, effectively putting the alliance on the side of Libya’s anti-Gadhafi National Transitional Council in a civil war.
The NTC’s progress ebbed and waned throughout the spring and early summer, and there were times when it appeared as though the war might settle into stalemate. Throughout, the brutality of Gadhafi loyalists continued undiminished. They burned prisoners alive and shot their comrades who refused to murder on the regime’s behalf. A breakthrough finally happened in August, with the fall of Tripoli. Gadhafi’s rule was over. His own fate was sealed soon after, in a garbage-filled drain.