A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Almost Full Circle: September 1, 1969 and Today

Forty-two years ago today, King Idris of Libya was in Turkey for medical treatment, when a group of young military officers, calling themselves the Free Officers in emulation of Nasser's 1952 coup in Egypt, took power. King Idris, from Turkey, reportedly dismissed the coup as "unimportant." He was wrong.
Qadhafi on September 27, 1969, just weeks after the coup
According to many accounts, Libya was already awash in coup plots; the question was who would strike first. Oddly, for the first few days months after the coup it was unclear who, in fact, the new "Revolutionary Command Council" members were: they chose initial anonymity. (See David Mack's remarks in the comments.) At first they installed a civilian Cabinet, but eventually threw off the pretenses and ruled directly. It soon became apparent that the dominant figure in the RCC was a captain (quickly promoted to major and colonel,until he simply became al-‘aqid, "the" Colonel.) He was, of course, Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi. He was only a few years out of the Military Academy, sprung from Bedouin stock. He was not well-traveled, but he had trained for a while at Beaconsfield in the UK. He is said to have hated it.

Initially, a great many observers welcomed the coup. Nasser famously said that Qadhafi reminded him of himself, while both the US and the UK initially saw the young officers as idealists they could work with. (At the time the US had the big Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli and the British the Al-Adham Air Base near Tobruk; both would soon be expelled and renamed as Libyan Air Bases.) Qadhafi appeared as a young idealist, an avid Arab nationalist, and a man who saw Nasser as a role model.

It is hard to reconcile the Qadhafi of 1969 with the Qadhafi of 2011. His long and at times bizarre odyssey is well known if at times hard to fathom. The almost comic-opera uniforms and African and Arab robes; the bedouin tent he traveled with; the Green Book he promoted as profound political philosophy but which strikes most readers as juvenile theorizing; the long, rambling, sometimes incoherent speeches that were often lectures; the bizarre speeches at Arab and African summits and even at the UN: the man became a self-parody. Yet however unhinged he may have appeared, he was lucid enough to rule with an iron hand, and when Saddam Hussein fell, he quickly made his deals with the West, giving up his weapons of mass destruction, and even reaching this point of rapprochement:

Not, I suspect, a picture the Administration wants to circulate right now. Though Obama looks none too comfortable.

Lord Acton's famous dictum that all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely is no less true for having become a (usually misquoted) cliché. A man who claimed to be merely a "guide of the Revolution" yet ruled a security state as centralized as any, who claimed to prefer living in a tent yet whose children had lavish and extravagant palaces, who in the end made war on the very people who supposedly ruled his "Jamahiriyya" (a word of his own coining, related to the word for republic but based on a plural and meaning something like "state of the masses"): how to understand this man?

Qadhafi famously said earlier this year that he would hunt down his enemies "inch by inch, room by room, home by home, alleyway by alleyway." The last phrase, zanqa zanqa, soon was turned into a viral video as Zenga Zenga (by an Israeli musician no less). But on the 42nd anniversary of the "Great Green First of September Revolution," it is the "Guide of the Revolution" who appears to be the one being hunted down, alleyway by alleyway.

Some Libyan rebels are urging that September 1 this year be the day to remove every trace of Qadhafi's 42 years: the pictures, the slogans, the names on streets and squares.

The circle seems to be closing.


David Mack said...

One nit pick, Michael. You wrote, "Oddly, for the first few days after the coup it was unclear who, in fact, the new "Revolutionary Command Council" members were: they chose initial anonymity." With exception of Qadhafi, who was described not as leader but as spokesperson for the RCC, the names remained "secret" until January 1970. That did not keep the CIA from publishing a mostly incorrect list early in September. Since I was interpreter in the meetings where we met with them, and since we and the British had access to old military training files, their anonymity and pseudonyms gradually were dismantled. Nonetheless, for my senior in the US government, they still seemed "too young" to be the real leaders. Since I was their age, it seemed entirely appropriate!

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I've changed "days" to "months." Thanks for the reminiscence.