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History, Qaddafi’s Regime

Libyan forces, Navy jets, Gulf of Sidra, Arab unity, Palestine Liberation Organization

By the mid-1970s Qaddafi’s domestic revolution was coalescing. The constitution of 1977 laid out the new political system, whereby Libya became a “state of the masses” (jamahiriya) ostensibly run by the people through a system of local and national committees. The country’s official name was changed to Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and a decade of economic upheaval began as the government seized most private property and instituted a radically egalitarian welfare state.

Under Qaddafi’s leadership Libya took a much more active role not only in Arab affairs but also in international politics. Opposing the peace initiative toward Israel of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, Libya took a leading part, along with Syria, in the so-called “rejectionist front” in 1978. Its support for the Palestine Liberation Organization later expanded to barely concealed subsidies for terrorists in other nations, and in the early 1980s the regime was believed to be linked to a campaign of assassinations directed against Libyan dissidents residing abroad. In 1974 Libya seized a segment of Chadian territory known as the Aozou Strip, claiming rightful ownership of the region under a colonial-era treaty. Over the next 15 years, Libyan forces intervened in a civil war in neighboring Chad. A peace treaty with Chad was signed in 1989.

Libyan relations with the United States deteriorated in the early 1980s. In 1981 U.S. Navy jets shot down two Libyan fighter planes that had intercepted them over international waters in the Gulf of Sidra. Libya, which claimed all of the Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters, decried the attack. In 1982 the United States imposed an embargo on Libyan oil imports. Another encounter in the Gulf of Sidra in March 1986 resulted in the destruction of two Libyan ships by U.S. Navy ships. In April, responding to heightened terrorism in Europe apparently directed by Libya against Americans, the United States bombed sites in Libya declared by U.S. president Ronald Reagan to be “terrorist centers.” Qaddafi’s home at one of the barracks was damaged and his infant daughter was killed, but the major damage was to other military sites.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Libya urged moderation, opposing both Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent use of force against Iraq. Ties with Egypt were strengthened during 1991, but those with the United States worsened, especially in 1992 when it was charged that Libya was manufacturing chemical weapons. In April 1992 United Nations sanctions were imposed against Libya for its refusal to extradite the two men suspected of the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The United States added further sanctions against Libya in 1996.

By the mid-1990s Qaddafi began moving away from his self-appointed role as leader of the opposition to the international system. Decades of disappointment with failed efforts to engineer Arab unity and the burden of international sanctions had taken their toll on the regime and the country. Moreover, developing Libyan opposition to the Qaddafi regime created difficulties at home. Starting in the mid-1970s many of the best-educated Libyans left the country, and some formed opposition groups. During the 1980s the United States supported elements of the exiled opposition, but they had little effect on the regime. In the 1990s, however, a new opposition developed. Although Qaddafi had come to power an advocate of Islam, he and the religious elite of Libya parted ways in the early 1980s, and Qaddafi’s version of Islam became increasingly heterodox. As a result, he faced the same kind of Islamist opposition many of the secular regimes in the Arab world confronted, and he found that his interests increasingly coincided with those of regimes he had once reviled. By the late 1990s observers suggested that Qaddafi had become interested in Libya’s participation in the international system not as a “rogue state,” as the United States had labeled the nation, but as a law-abiding member.

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