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Libya carries on with a Gadhafi-shaped hole in its heart

Tunisians and Libyans living in Tunisia wave Libya's National Transitional Council flags and celebrate on October 20, 2011 in the Mohamed V street of Tunis after the announcement of the death of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

You did not need to spend long with Moammar Gadhafi to realize that he, even more than the rest of the dwindling group of absolute dictators, expected the world to be remade in his image.

When asked by a Canadian reporter one night, in his sprawling faux-Bedouin tent as a pair of camels rutted determinedly in the sand outside, about the possibility of introducing democracy to his six million subjects, he grinned imperiously and offered his pronouncement: "Very soon," he countered, "I expect Canada to be a Jamahiriya."

Now that he's dead, incredulous to the end that his citizens did not recognize his grandeur, we know that the Libya he had transformed, almost from the moment he seized power in 1969, into an extension of his own ego, was the world's first, last and only Jamahiriya – a word he coined to describe the vaguely Maoist utopia of his Green Book manifesto.

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Unlike other dictators, Col. Gadhafi did not transmit any larger ideas. There is no ideology of Gadhafism, for the Green Books are nearly comically incomprehensible and unrealistic, as even loyalists would acknowledge, and were never more than a foil for his own will and caprice.

He was Libya's sole proprietor. There was nothing beyond his ego – and without him, this slice of Sahara is a tabula rasa. Libya is left with a Gadhafi-shaped hole in its centre, where the usual institutions of state and concepts of nationhood would go. Not only did he fail to develop these things, but he usually made them illegal.

He declared political parties and organizations of all sorts (except, bizarrely, the Boy Scouts) a fundamental sin, banishing them as a constitutional evil and against the basic values of Libyans. He outlawed public gatherings, and in the 1990s international travel and foreign-language education. This made a political opposition impossible – which means that the people now trying to form a new government have no experience with its institutions.

But it also means that he was never able, and never tried, to form a Green Book party. Unlike the Baathists of Iraq or Syria, who remain loyal to the party's ideas after the death of Saddam Hussein and the decline of Bashar al-Assad, or the various Islamists and liberals of the region, there is no system of belief that survives Col. Gadhafi. He is the state, and with his death, so dies its animating idea.

And this will make some things easy for the National Transitional Council, for it is very unlikely that a Gadhafi party will become a significant opposition force.

But, at the same time, it could prove their undoing. For even if nobody really believed in Col. Gadhafi – certainly not the way he did – there were huge numbers who benefited from a state defined by his personality, much as thousands of lords and courtiers and lesser tributaries benefited materially from their proximity to the absolute monarchs of 17th-century Europe.

For decades, he was able to buy off most of Libya's tiny population by lavishing oil money on infrastructure and amenities that were considerably better than most African states (though he skimped on universities, which were mediocre, and hospitals, which were truly dire).

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The 1990s were a time of terrible isolation and extremism he imposed on his people. But the 2000s were a time of great prosperity in Tripoli, with consumer goods and fine automobiles flooding the oil-rich economy, infrastructure improving, and salaries the most generous in Africa. The people who prospered from those times could face a double blow: They have already lost their privileges and security, and they may face revenge attacks from the same triumphalist, undisciplined fighters who mobbed Col. Gadhafi.

Even his death was shaped by that sense that he owned the country. We don't know how many of Col. Gadhafi's loyalists stayed at his side because they felt loyal to him, how many because they feared the revenge of the rebels, and how many because they knew Col. Gadhafi would kill their families if they defected. But he vowed to fight to the death, he said, because it was his country.

Likewise, it is not so clear what ideas will take his place. He left six million people who, despite their characteristically Libyan pride and self-regard, have been humiliated before the world for two generations. As they cheer the richly deserved death of their abusive father, Libyans are slowly realizing just how little he left them.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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