The End of Time: Gadhafi’s Legacy

Throughout the forty-two years of his rule, Gadhafi was always a larger-than-life figure. With his personal-style rule, he embodied the regime that he created in Libya, which ultimately provided a focus of hatred for those that overthrew him. The eccentric Brother Leader, and Africa’s King of Kings, saw himself as “leader of the revolution until the end of time.” Now is the end of time for Gadhafi-but what role will his legacy play in newly-liberated Libya? Looking at Gadhafi’s inglorious demise and reflecting on his bloody reign, we must go beyond the immediacy and visceral nature of recent events to examine both the underlying conditions that allowed for his longevity and the broader ramifications of his death.
Beyond the cult of personality that he created and promoted, Gadhafi must be seen as a figure within the context of the conditions that allowed for his initial rise to power. The brutality of Libya’s colonial experience under fascist, Italian rule hollowed out all preexisting structures and institutions in society, killing hundreds of thousands of Libyans, primarily the educated elite of the country. In fact, the lingering effects of colonialism and of Libya’s unnatural birth were acknowledged in Italy’s 2008 apology and provision of $5 billion in compensation. Although Gadhafi is today an almost universally hated figure, his regime emerged through a military coup against the unpopular rule of King Idris al-Sanusi and initially had some amount of domestic support. Pursuing a pan-Arab agenda and socialist policies, he implemented “direct democracy” or “jamahiriya” through popular committees, ultimately using ideology as a front for the blatant aggrandizement of power.
Gadhafi reenergized Libya structurally after the depredations of colonialism, navigated international isolation and external pressures, and presided over a period of unprecedented social transformation in Libyan society at large. The fundamental paradox of his rule was emphasized by Libya expert Ali Ahmida at the recent symposium “Popular Protests, Governance, and Political Transition in the Maghreb,” organized by Harvard’s Program in Moroccan Studies. Gadhafi was able to find his way through the various crises he created, surviving international isolation and the pressures caused by the Lockerbie bombing and other incidents.  Meanwhile, Libya’s oil wealth allowed for high levels of economic development and rapid urbanization, causing a shift in the balance of power between urban and rural. As of 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook, 78% of the total population was living in cities, and Libya’s literacy rate of  82.6% falls among the highest in Africa. Ahmida described Libya as yet another case where the people were more modern than their rulers. Indeed, Gadhafi ultimately failed to address the question of political reform to keep pace with this social transformation and fully alienated all parts of society that could have become a base of popular support.
Gadhafi’s death could be considered no more than a fatal footnote in the larger context of the Libyan Revolution. His part in the story has been over since he fled Tripoli as the rebels came in triumphantly, and his increasingly desperate claims that he would regain power came to seem increasingly implausible and even pathetic. Nonetheless, the manner of his death illustrates and may intensify some of the central challenges that Libya currently faces. That Gadhafi was reportedly captured alive before being shot to death reflects the potential for lingering and legitimate resentments and reprisals. His corpse, initially  on display in a freezer has been buried in an unmarked desert grave, Gadhafi’s death is still under investigation by Libyan and international authorities, along with the extrajudicial killings carried out in Sirte in the final days of fighting.
While the atrocities perpetrated by Gadhafi and his security forces against the Libyan people are truly reprehensible, justice and accountability are the only sustainable foundation for reconciliation. Although the National Transitional Council has, thus far, taken a strong stand against revenge killings, there is little they can do in such a potentially explosive situation, and dueling legitimacies within and between their ranks may provide further sources of division. However, retribution can only lead to further bloodshed. Gadhafi will not stand trial before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. As the UN calls for an investigation into Gadhafi’s death, this seems an inglorious end. Yet perhaps his son Seif al-Islam will be held accountable for his actions. Although he is still at large and pursued by Libyan security forces, negotiations for his surrender may be currently underway. Whether he is tried domestically, in a Libyan court, or internationally, in the ICC, this would be a powerful image and symbol that Libya is moving forward in accordance with the rule of law and respect for human rights. 
Ultimately, the contested circumstances of Gadhafi’s death should not be conflated with the fall of his regime, yet both would not have been possible without external military intervention of Western powers. The precedent set by NATO’s campaign in Libya, regardless of justification, may prove to have dangerous implications. The indiscriminate interventions of the past few years undermine the very foundations of the international order, as enshrined in the UN Charter. Gadhafi is only one of many brutal strongmen in the region, not particularly exceptional in anything other than his eccentricity. In life, he aspired for Libya to set an example for the rest of the world, supporting nationalist and terrorist organizations from the IRA to FARC. Perhaps the nature of his death will similarly wreak havoc internationally.
At the center of this issue is the question of when the ‘responsibility to protect’ becomes compelling. When is intervention justified-and when is inaction inexcusable? There will inevitably be ambiguity, and any decision made could be seen as self-serving or hypocritical. Why Muammar Gadhafi and not Bashar al-Assad? How is NATO’s ‘picking sides’ in Syria any different from the GCC’s support of Bahrain’s Sunni elite over its Shia-majority population? Normative distinctions are not sufficient to prevent the ‘slippery slope.’ There is a reason why so many UN resolutions begin by reaffirming the sovereignty of all nations.

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