Muammar Gaddafi was the head of the Free Officers, a group of Arab nationalists that deposed King Idris I in 1969 in a "bloodless coup." He abolished the Libyan Constitution of 1951, considering it a neocolonial document. From 1969 until 1975 standards of living, life expectancy and literacy grew rapidly. In 1975 he published his manifesto The Green Book. He officially stepped down from power in 1977, and subsequently claimed to be merely a "symbolic figurehead" until 2011, with the Libyan government up until then also denying that he held any power.
Under Gaddafi, Libya was theoretically a decentralized, direct democracy state run according to the philosophy of Gaddafi's The Green Book, with Gaddafi retaining a ceremonial position. Libya was officially run by a system of people's committees which served as local governments for the country's subdivisions, an indirectly elected General People's Congress as the legislature, and the General People's Committee, led by a Secretary-General, as the executive branch. According to Freedom House, however, these structures were often manipulated to ensure the dominance of Gaddafi, who reportedly continued to dominate all aspects of government.
WikiLeaks' disclosure of confidential US diplomatic cables revealed US diplomats there speaking of Gaddafi's "mastery of tactical maneuvering". While placing relatives and loyal members of his tribe in central military and government positions, he skillfully marginalized supporters and rivals, thus maintaining a delicate balance of powers, stability and economic developments. This extended even to his own sons, as he repeatedly changed affections to avoid the rise of a clear successor and rival.
Both Gaddafi and the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, however, officially denied that he held any power, but said that he was merely a symbolic figurehead. While he was popularly seen as a demagogue in the West, Gaddafi always portrayed himself as a statesman-philosopher.
According to several Western media sources, Gaddafi feared a military coup against his government and deliberately kept Libya's military relatively weak. The Libyan Army consisted of about 50,000 personnel. Its most powerful units were four crack brigades of highly equipped and trained soldiers, composed of members of Gaddafi's tribe or members of other tribes loyal to him. One, the Khamis Brigade, was led by his son Khamis. Local militias and Revolutionary Committees across the country were also kept well-armed. By contrast, regular military units were poorly armed and trained, and were armed with largely outdated military equipment.
Development and corruption
By the end of Gaddafi's 42-year rule, Libya's population had a per capita income of $14,000, though a third was estimated to still live below the poverty line. A broadly secular society was imposed. Child marriage was banned, and women enjoyed equality of equal pay for equal work, equal rights in divorce and access to higher education rose from 8% in 1966 to 43% in 1996, equal to that of men. Homelessness was insignificant, and illiteracy had been largely eliminated, with literacy rates estimated at 88%, and average life expectancy rose from 51/54 in 1969 to 74/77.
Much of the state's income came from its oil production, which soared in the 1970s. In the 1980s, a large portion of it was spent on arms purchases, and on sponsoring militant groups and independence movements around the world.
Libya's economy is structured primarily around the nation's energy sector, which generates about 95% of export earnings, 80% of GDP, and 99% of government income. Libya's GDP per capita (PPP), human development index, and literacy rate were better than in Egypt and Tunisia, whose Arab Spring revolutions preceded the outbreak of protests in Libya. Libya's corruption perception index in 2010 was 2.2, ranking 146th out of 178 countries, worse than that of Egypt (ranked 98th) and Tunisia (ranked 59th). One paper speculated that such a situation created a broader contrast between good education, high demand for democracy, and the government's practices (perceived corruption, political system, supply of democracy).
An estimated 13% of Libyan citizens were unemployed. More than 16% of families had no members earning a stable income, and 43.3% had just one. Despite one of the highest unemployment rates in the region, there was a consistent labor shortage with over a million migrant workers present on the market. These migrant workers were the bulk of the refugees leaving Libya after the beginning of hostilities. Despite this, Libya's Human Development Index in 2010 was the highest in Africa and greater than that of Saudi Arabia. Libya had welfare systems allowing access to free education, free healthcare, and financial assistance for housing, and the Great Manmade River was built to allow free access to fresh water across large parts of the country.
Some of the worst economic conditions were in the eastern parts of the state, once a breadbasket of the ancient world, where Gaddafi extracted oil. Except for housing improvements and the Great Manmade River, little infrastructure was developed in this region for many years. For example, the only sewage facility in Benghazi was over 40 years old, and untreated sewage has resulted in environmental problems.
Several foreign governments and analysts have stated that a large share of the business enterprise was controlled by Gaddafi, his family, and the government. A leaked US diplomatic cable said that the Libyan economy was "a kleptocracy in which the government – either the Gaddafi family itself or its close political allies – has a direct stake in anything worth buying, selling or owning". According to US officials, Gaddafi amassed a vast personal fortune during his 42-year leadership. The New York Times pointed to Gaddafi's relatives adopting lavish lifestyles, including luxurious homes, Hollywood film investments, and private parties with American pop stars.
Gaddafi said that he planned to combat corruption in the state by proposing reforms where oil profits are handed out directly to the country's five million people rather than to government bodies, stating that "as long as money is administered by a government body, there would be theft and corruption." Gaddafi urged a sweeping reform of the government bureaucracy, suggesting that most of the cabinet system should be dismantled to "free Libyans from red tape" and "protect the state's budget from corruption". According to Western diplomats, this move appeared to be aimed at putting pressure on the government to speed up reforms. In March 2008, Gaddafi proposed plans to dissolve the country's existing administrative structure and disburse oil revenue directly to the people. The plan included abolishing all ministries except those of defence, internal security, and foreign affairs, and departments implementing strategic projects. He stated that the ministries were failing to manage the country's oil revenues, and that his "dream during all these years was to give power and wealth directly to the people".
A national vote on Gaddafi's plan was held in 2009, where Libya's people's congresses, collectively the country's highest authority, voted to delay implementation. The General People's Congress announced that, of 468 Basic People's Congresses, 64 chose immediate implementation while 251 endorsed implementation "but asked for (it) to be delayed until appropriate measures were put in place". Some top government officials opposed the plan, saying that it would "wreak havoc" in the economy by "fanning inflation and spurring capital flight". Gaddafi acknowledged that the scheme, which promised up to 30,000 Libyan dinars ($23,000) annually to about a million of Libya's poorest, may "cause chaos before it brought about prosperity," but said "do not be afraid to experiment with a new form of government" and that "this plan is to offer a better future for Libya's children".
Human rights in Libya
In 2009 and 2011, the Freedom of the Press Index rated Libya the most-censored state in the Middle East and North Africa. In contrast, a January 2011 report of the United Nations Human Rights Council, on which the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya sat prior to the uprising, released a month before protests began, praised certain aspects of the country's human rights record, including its treatment of women and improvements in other areas.
The Libyan Arab Jamahiriya's delegation to the United Nations issued a report about human rights in Libya. The report said that the country was founded on direct people's democracy that guaranteed direct exercise of authority by all citizens through the people's congresses. Citizens were said to be able to express opinions to the congresses on political, economic, social, and cultural issues. In addition, the report stated that there were information platforms such as newspapers and TV channels for people to express their opinions through. Libyan authorities also argued that no one in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya suffered from extreme poverty and hunger, and that the government guaranteed a minimum of food and essential needs to people with low incomes. In 2006, an initiative was adopted for providing people with low incomes investment portfolios amounting to $30,000 to be deposited with banks and companies.
The Revolutionary Committees occasionally kept tight control over internal dissent; reportedly, 10% to 20% of Libyans worked as informants for these committees, with surveillance taking place in the government, in factories, and in the education sector. The government sometimes executed dissidents through public hangings and mutilations and re-broadcast them on public television channels. Until the mid-1980s, Libya's intelligence service conducted assassinations of Libyan dissidents around the world.
In December 2009, Gaddafi reportedly told government officials that Libya would soon experience a "new political period" and would have elections for important positions such as minister-level roles and the National Security Advisor position (a Prime Minister equivalent). He also promised that international monitors would be included to ensure fair elections. His speech was said to have caused a stir. These elections were planned to coincide with the Jamahiriya's usual periodic elections for the Popular Committees, Basic People's Committees, Basic People's Congresses, and General People's Congresses, in 2010.
Dissent was illegal under Law 75 of 1973, and in 1974, Gaddafi asserted that anyone guilty of founding a political party would be executed. With the establishment of the Jamahiriya ("state of the masses") system in 1977, he established the Revolutionary Committees as conduits for raising political consciousness, with the aim of direct political participation by all Libyans rather than a traditional party-based representative system. In 1979, some of the Revolutionary Committees had eventually evolved into self-appointed, sometimes zealous, enforcers of revolutionary orthodoxy. During the early 1980s, the Revolutionary Committees had considerable power and became a growing source of tension within the Jamihiriya, to the extent that Gaddafi sometimes criticized their effectiveness and excessive repression, until the power of the Revolutionary Committees was eventually restricted in the late 1980s.
The Green Book, which Gaddafi authored in the 1970s, was for years the principal text of political education. BBC cited a Libyan who said that teachers who called it "rubbish" could face execution. "The Great Green Document on Human Rights treats the right to life as an individual human right and calls for abolition of the death sentence, except in the case of persons whose lives endanger or corrupt society."
In 1988, Gaddafi criticized the "excesses" he blamed on the Revolutionary Councils, stating that "they deviated, harmed, tortured" and that "the true revolutionary does not practise repression." That same year, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya issued the Great Green Document on Human Rights, in which Article 5 established laws that allowed greater freedom of expression. Article 8 of The Code on the Promotion of Freedom stated that "each citizen has the right to express his opinions and ideas openly in People's Congresses and in all mass media." A number of restrictions were also allegedly placed on the power of the Revolutionary Committees by the Gaddafi government, leading to a resurgence in the Libyan state's popularity by the early 1990s. In 2004, however, Libya posted a $1 million bounty for journalist and governmental critic Ashur Shamis, under the allegation that he was linked to Al-Qaeda and terror suspect Abu Qatada.