Over 4 Decades, Libya's Gadhafi Consolidated Power

When Moammar Gadhafi seized power in Libya during a 1969 coup, he was a young military officer. He defined himself as a populist leader who was in touch with the country's traditional values. But over the decades, historian Ali Ahmida tells Renee Montagne, Gadhafi became an increasingly eccentric leader with links to terrorism.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When Moammar Gadhafi seized power in a 1969 coup, he was a young military officer in a country still emerging from a brutal colonial past. He defined himself as a populist leader in touch with the country's traditional values. Over the decades he became seen as an increasingly eccentric leader who was linked to acts of international terrorism - most infamously the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.

For more on the evolution of Gadhafi, we reached Ali Ahmida. He was born in Libya and he's the author of the book "The Making of Modern Libya."

Professor ALI AHMIDA (University of New England): The first 10, 15 years of his leadership, he was viewed in a positive way, because the government, his government, raised the salaries for our working class and middle class groups and they began to expand education for women, they began to negotiate in a very rigorous way with the oil companies.

They also saw him as something that symbolized ordinary people. He looked like Libyans. His accent's very Bedouin and very much a county accent. He ate like them. Many, many people thought that he's one of them, and he was shrewd and very charismatic in conveying the symbolism that ordinary people knew and wanted to hear.

And at the same time he knew Libyan history, Libyan social divisions, Libyan colonial battles and resistance, in and out, more than the intellectuals and the elite in the urban areas who really opposed him.

In the 1980s he became a little bit eccentric, but he was there to consolidate his power. He tried to introduce something like (unintelligible) socialism based on his green book.

MONTAGNE: That green book, let's just say, it's very similar to the little red book of Mao.

Prof. AHMIDA: Exactly, Renee.

MONTAGNE: It's his philosophy...

Prof. AHMIDA: His philosophy, economic philosophy. It's funny that you mention Mao Tse-tung, because he not only has a green book because Mao had a red book, but also he regarded himself like Mao: I am a leader, I'm not really a president after 1977. And this is really very odd because when you don't even recognize that you call the shots and you deny that you are really the president, it means that despotism and control is even much deeper than somebody who is just declared dictator.

MONTAGNE: So as he was becoming a despot in a very classic tradition, did this sneak up on Libyans?

Prof. AHMIDA: Yeah. That's an excellent question, Renee. Keep in mind that Libya is the richest country in Africa with only a small population. I mean, right now we have - we're talking about six million people - and (unintelligible) was even less than that. Gadhafi and the people around him had the luxury of not relying on taxation but oil revenues. So that allows, you know, him and his authoritarian rule more autonomy from society.

Many Libyans, they supported him the '70s. In the '80s they really did not support him, but they began to say, well, we are better than the Egyptians, better than other - the Tunisian, other neighboring countries, because we still have the welfare state, we have free health care. So, well, we could survive, you know, care about other things.

MONTAGNE: At this point in time, are Libyans, do they see him as, you know, U.N. Representative Susan Rice called him just earlier this week, delusional? I mean, do they see him the way the West does to some extent, as a little bit crazy?

Prof. AHMIDA: Delusional - that's an accurate description, yes. He, judging from his speeches and his answers to the international media, he seems to be really completely out of touch. I mean, earlier he was very sharp, whether we agree with him or not, in dealing with threats to his regime and articulating some answers. But I doubt that he's really grasping the realities around him.

Keep in mind, this is a guy who has been in power for 40 years, went from Third World liberator self-image to the king of kings in Africa. So I think the delusion is real, and I think many Libyans will share that view.

MONTAGNE: Professor Ahmida, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. AHMIDA: I enjoyed it very, very much.

MONTAGNE: Ali Ahmida teaches political science at the University of New England and he's the author of "The Making of Modern Libya."

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