The bizarre events in the past 50 years of Libyan history read like a dystopian novel, but they are factual. In Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, author Alison Pargeter details the events that encompass Muammar Qaddafi’s ascent and abrupt fall from power in Libya. Qaddafi was an arrogant and self-centered ruler who thought he had the solutions to Libya’s problems. When he seized power from King Idris in 1969, Qaddafi “took the lead, insisting on a purity of purpose – despite the fact that he had no worldly experience or education to speak of, shocking other Arab leaders with his fulsome political naivety.”1 Although he held on to power for over 40 years, Qaddafi ultimately was taken down by the very people he claimed to represent.
In the opening two chapters of the book, author Alison Pargeter gives an overview of Libya before the harsh rule of Muammar Qaddafi. Going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, Libya had always been controlled by outsiders. Resentment toward foreign rule began after Italy gained control over Libya in the chaotic aftermath of World War I. Extreme resistance to Italian and Western rule would be the origin of the anti-Western rhetoric. Even today, “this brutal period in Libya’s history is still deeply ingrained in the Libyan psyche.”2 The United Kingdom of Libya was created by the United Nations in 1951, with King Idris at the helm. “He regarded the country’s new political structures as secondary to his own understanding of government, which was based upon Sharia (Islamic law).”3 King Idris had his advisors run the country and in response to his weak government, a young Muammar Qaddafi, along with a group of military officers, overthrew Idris’s rule and took control in 1969.
In the third and fourth chapters of the book, Pargeter explains Qaddafi’s vision for his Jamahiriyah system. To strengthen his rule over Libya, Qaddafi wrote the Green Book, which he claimed “contained the ultimate answer to all society’s ills.”4 Colonel Qaddafi, as he called himself, went on to create the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah, with one-party rule strictly enforced. Forcing his vague socialistic ideals on the Libyans, Qaddafi experimented with the daily lives of the people, using the country’s vast sums of oil money to fund his ill-fated dreams. His regime carried out public executions against anyone who dared oppose him. “‘Qaddafism’ was to seep into every part of life, and everything familiar was to be swept away, as the new leader endeavoured to turn his utopian vision into a reality.”5 Qaddafi’s bizarre interpretations of Islam proved highly inflammatory to Muslims and resulted in the loss of support of his Arab allies.
Pargeter illuminates the evolution of Qaddafi’s vision for Libya and the world in chapters five and six. Qaddafi shifted his foreign policy goals from the outdated pan-Arabism to random adventurous exploits in Africa. For example, to assist Idi Amin in his conflict with Tanzania, Qaddafi sent the notorious dictator 400 Libyan troops hoping Amin “would become a force for resurgent Islam in East Africa.”6 With wars, assassinations and corruption, the Libyan leader alienated his remaining allies. As Qaddafi’s disastrous foreign exploits in Uganda and Chad were supplied by Soviet weaponry and tanks, United States President Ronald Reagan perceived Qaddafi as a dangerous force destabilizing world governments. In response to the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in West Berlin in which two American servicemen died, Reagan “found his justification for teaching Qaddafi a lesson he would not forget” when he dispatched 18 bombers to the Bab Al-Aziziya compound, Qaddafi’s home residence.7 The attack destroyed the compound; however, Qaddafi escaped harm. Libya’s world relations further deteriorated in 1988 when Qaddafi’s refusal to turn over suspected Lockerbie bombers led to the United Nations’ imposition of international, economic and travel sanctions on Libya, crushing the already crumbling Jamahiriyah economy.
As Pargeter describes in the closing chapters, Qaddafi began to realize that support for him was non-existent. By the late 1990s, the United Nations’ sanctions had crippled the Libyan economy to the point that Qaddafi turned over the Lockerbie bombers for trial and paid large sums of money to the Lockerbie victims’ families. The U.N. and U.S. lifted the sanctions against Libya, which allowed the economy to begin some degree of recovery. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Qaddafi aided the United Kingdom and the United States in the war against terrorism, helping to heal Libya’s relationship with the West. Saif Al-Islam, Qaddafi’s son, became involved in reforming the Jamahiriyah, opening Libya to tourism and business ventures. However, the inability of the Qaddafi regime to fix Libya’s problems caused the Libyan people – young and old, conservative and liberal, rich and poor – to rise up against the Colonel during the Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011. The regime fought to keep its power, but following the fall of Tripoli, Qaddafi was forced into hiding. After opposition forces fought Qaddafi loyalists for nearly 12 months, Qaddafi was found and captured. Pargeter writes “[w]hat bitter irony that a man who had referred to those who had started the uprising as ‘rats’, should have spent his last moments crouched in a filthy sewage pipe.”8 Qaddafi was beaten by his captors, begged for mercy, and was ultimately shot. His body was dragged through the streets and put on display in a local meat freezer. This spectacle was necessary to many Libyans and “[s]eeing Qaddafi dead was confirmation that this utterly overpowering character, whose personality had filled every space in the country, and whose eccentric ideas had intruded upon and dominated every aspect of life, was no more than a man after all.”9 Qaddafi’s body was buried in the desert in an unmarked grave. Libyans came to view the body, and one remarked, “God made the pharaoh as an example to the others … if he had been a good man, we would have buried him. But he chose this destiny for himself.”10
In writing this researched account of Qaddafi’s rule, Pargeter attempts to understand how the Libyan ruler was able to keep his grip on Libya for so long. Through mass censorship, oppression, fear tactics and torture, Qaddafi remained in power for more than 40 years. Pargeter states “the history of modern Libya reads like a biography of his ambition and the lengths he was willing to go to fulfil it.”11 Instead of being driven by sound economic planning, Qaddafi’s economy was focused on his chaotic ideology. Violent court confessions and interrogations were often carried out as major public events. Libyans lived in constant fear, afraid to express their thoughts and views. By 2011, Libyans had finally had enough, ultimately unifying in revolting against the dictator. The author states that “perhaps the cruelest irony of all in this very public death was that after years of the Colonel calling on the masses to ‘rise up’ in the service of his revolution, when they eventually did heed his call, they did so in order to destroy him and all that he had created.”12
Author Alison Pargeter is a political analyst of the Middle East and North Africa, specializing in political Islam and radicalization. She was the Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and a Research Fellow at Kings College in London. Her professional experience and educational background make her an expert on this topic, and her writing is more factual than heavily opinionated. The general attitude of Libyans toward America in 2012, when Pargeter wrote this book, was favorable. Indeed, “people like it when a foreign power helps them oust a despised dictator.”13 Similarly, the attitude of Americans toward Libya was also positive, and “most Americans [believed] that the recent attacks against the American embassies in Libya and Egypt [were] the work of extremist minorities, not majorities…”13 Qaddafi’s recent death, along with these positive feelings in Libya, were likely the reasons Pargeter chose to write Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi a year after his demise. The book concludes that Qaddafi was an inconsistent dictator who was more “preoccupied with self –aggrandizing schemes to project himself beyond the country’s borders than with tackling the needs of a nation.”15
Book reviews for Alison Pargeter’s Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi are generally positive. The first, from Kirkus Reviews, gives credit to Pargeter for her academic expertise and historical approach. Although Kirkus states her account of the Libyan dictator’s regime is thorough, it finds it to be cliché-ridden and a “wooden examination of the making of Muammar Qaddafi.”16 Kirkus does highlight important events covered in the book, such as the coup to overthrow King Idris in 1969, the formation of odd alliances with terrorist organizations, and the removal of opposition parties. The review also comments that Pargeter read Qaddafi’s utopian Green Book and helps readers by dissecting it. Nevertheless, Kirkus finds that Pargeter’s prose, albeit full of clichés, “detracts from, but does not completely overwhelm,”17 the author’s examination of Qaddafi’s inhuman rule. Kirkus concludes by stating “[u]ltimately, readers will wonder why the populace waited so long to get rid of him.”18
Karim Mezran, Director of the Center for American Studies in Rome and visiting scholar for the Atlantic Council and Middle East Policy Council in Washington, D.C., wrote the second review sampled. Mezran found Pargeter’s account of Qaddafi to be thorough and concise. He states, “Pargeter’s talent then, and the clear strength of this book, is her ability to bring order where there was little, sign-posting the pivots and turns of Qadhafi’s quixotic rule so we can make sense of its progression.”19 Mezran believes understanding the first decade of Qaddafi’s rule is key to understanding Jamahiriyah, and that Pargeter sufficiently provides that background. The world came to know Qaddafi as a flamboyant and cruel dictator which was in part due to U.S. President Reagan’s high profile of the Libyan leader. Mezran writes, “Pargeter makes her own thoughts on the late Republican’s administration clear: ‘Qaddafi did not understand that he was up against a man who was almost as extreme as he [was].’”20 Mezran’s review concludes by stating that there is “still much to uncover and analyze, but Alison Pargeter’s work is a very good start.”21
Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi was a fascinating and detailed account of the Libyan dictator. The book offers a sequential telling of Qaddafi’s early years as a young Bedouin and his rise to power in Libya. Qaddafi “genuinely believed that he had the solution not only to the problems of Libya, but to all the ills of all mankind.”22 How he tried to accomplish this resulted in one of the most oppressive regimes in history. Qaddafi outlawed political parties, confiscated all personal land and forced private professionals to work for the state. He broadcast interrogations on state television, intent on instilling fear by the witnessing of torture and shocking scenes. Moreover, “[f]ear and intimidation had also become part of daily life, with Libyans afraid that the scruffy young zealots of the revolutionary committees would emerge out of the shadows at any moment to haul them off to an uncertain fate.”23 Although the book’s author states Qaddafi quickly learned how to manipulate the complexities of Libya to his advantage, he couldn’t find a way to stop the people of Libya from ultimately over-throwing him. “… [I]t was only with his death that Libya felt it could finally take its rightful place in the Arab world.”24 Pargeter leaves her readers feeling that this ruthless and contradictory ruler got what he deserved.
In the 1980s as the United States began to shift from the liberalism of the 1960s toward conservatism, Libya had already been under Qaddafi’s rules and Jamahiriyah for more than a decade. U.S. President Reagan perceived Qaddafi as the “mad dog of the Middle East … [who] was little more than a Soviet puppet who should be eliminated.”25 US-Libyan relations had greatly deteriorated and President Reagan quickly broke off diplomatic ties with Libya after taking office. Pargeter’s view does not completely support the assessment of the United States’ move from liberalism to conservatism in the 1980s as it applied to relations with Libya. President Reagan was intent on removing the dictator from power and had no qualms about using force and economic means such as oil embargos to do so. However, there were critics in America who felt Libya was being picked on by the President. As one critic stated, “The despicable Qaddafi was a perfect target, a cartoon character Americans loved to hate … Libya was neither strategically nor militarily formidable. Taking on Qaddafi was the counterterrorism equivalent to invading Grenada – popular, relatively safe, and theatrically satisfying.”26
Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years, despite foreign and internal opposition. Author Alison Pargeter’s greatest skill lies in her ability to structure the highly haphazard events in Qaddafi’s life into an organized narrative. Without this order, identifying trends in Qaddafi’s policies would require vast amounts of time and energy. Pargeter elucidates the entire story of Qaddafi, from his rapid rise to rule to his fatal fall from power. Ultimately, Qaddafi’s regime came to a deadly end through the efforts of Western forces and those of his own people.
1. Kirkus Reviews. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.” Kirkus Reviews 1 June 2012. Web. 22 May 2016. <https://www.kirkusreviews. com/book-reviews/alison-pargeter/libya-risefall-qadaffi/>.
2. Pargeter, Alison. Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi. London: Yale University Press, 2012. 28.
3. Pargeter, Alison. 40.
4. Pargeter, Alison. 90.
5. Pargeter, Alison. 93.
6. Pargeter, Alison. 128.
7. Pargeter, Alison. 140.
8. Pargeter, Alison. 244.
9. Pargeter, Alison. 246.
10. Pargeter, Alison. 246, 247.
11. Pargeter, Alison. 66, 67.
12. Pargeter, Alison. 247.
13. Fisher, Max. “Libyans Now Like America Slightly More Than Do Canadians.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 22 May 2016. http:// www.theatlantic.com/international/ archive/2012/08/libyans-now-like-america
14. Telhami, Shibley. “Americans on the Middle East: A Study of American Public Opinion.” The Brookings Institution. Brookings Research, 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 May 2016. http://www.brookings.edu/research/ reports/2012/10/08-americans-middle-east-telhami.
15. Pargeter, Alison. 250.
16. Kirkus Reviews. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.”
17. Kirkus Reviews. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.”
18. Kirkus Reviews. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.”
19. Mezran, Karim. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.” Middle East Policy Council Winter 2012. Web. 22 May 2016. <http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-eastpolicy-archives/libya-rise-and-fall-qaddafi?print>.
20. Mezran, Karim. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.”
21. Mezran, Karim. “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi.”
22. Pargeter, Alison. 257.
23. Pargeter, Alison. 146.
24. Pargeter, Alison. 257.
25. Pargeter, Alison. 137.
26. Pargeter, Alison. 139.