By Tarek el-Tablawy
CAIRO — For more than four decades, Moammar Gadhafi was the face of Libya. He withstood international isolation and U.S. airstrikes, managing to claw his way back to a degree of acceptance by the global community.
Now, the ultimate survivor is confronted by the biggest threat to his rule from a popular rebellion.
The anti-government battles that have reportedly left more than 200 people dead in the past week will indelibly alter Libya's political landscape. If Gadhafi is toppled, like the leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the lack of a clear institutional system in Libya thanks to the very system he set up, and the absence of any kind of established opposition bloc, leaves open the question of who could fill the vacuum.
Egypt and Tunisia had well-established — but corruption-plagued — governing institutions that allowed for a smoother transition and rebuilding of the nation.
Not so in Libya, where Gadhafi holds no official role in government. The so-called "jamahiriya" system that he set up is designed to give the appearance of a government, with a series of People's Committees and People's Congresses.
In reality, it's a system with the sole purpose of ensuring that power stays in the hands of the Arab world's longest-serving leader.
While former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "was playing tennis in Sharm el-Sheik, Gadhafi ... spent his time building up his power base," said Jon Marks, a Libya expert with London-based Cross-border Information.
"Every time you look at the different strands of Libyan society ... you see that there's one puppetmaster, and it's Gadhafi," he said.
Gadhafi turns 69 sometime this year — the month and day of his birth in 1942 is uncertain — and he came to power in a coup that ousted King Idris in 1969. One of the foundations of the revolution was a rejection of communism and capitalism — shunning anything linked to Libya's colonial history, and a determination to chart his own course.
With no constitution, the blueprint for governance was his "Green Book" — a slim volume of his philosophies that inspired an entire research department at one of Libya's main universities. Plaster representations of the book have been erected in cities across Libya.
in addition, no one branch of Libya's feared security apparatus has a monopoly on power.
One son — Mutassim — was picked to head one branch, while another son, Khamis, headed what analysts say is a British-trained unit. A third son, Seif al-Islam, has become the Western face of the regime and was put forth as the reformer, heading a variety of youth organizations.
All three were left to jockey for power while Gadhafi was depicted on billboards across Tripoli gazing into the distance.
Occasionally, he weighed in. For example, he once issued calls to dismantle the government because of corruption and distribute oil wealth directly to the people.
Each statement left observers scrambling for clues as to which son was more in favor.
All the while, Gadhafi watched, careful to remain firmly in control and ready to act in those rare occasions when the fear inspired by the security forces was not enough to maintain order.
The image of a leader unafraid to use force is one Libyans know well.
Seif al-Islam, in what many see as a thinly veiled warning of a possible escalation of the crackdown, said on state television early yesterday that the country could be headed for civil war and that Libya's army, which fully backed his father, was unlike the armed forces of Tunisia or Egypt.
The son's comments "showed that Gadhafi, or those close to him, want to fight it out and create a situation like in Somalia where they will leave behind them a broken society," said Saad Djebbar, a Libya expert with Cambridge University's North African Institute.
It's as if he were saying, "If I lose, you lose the country," Djebbar said.
Instead of a country with one of Africa's highest per capita incomes — about $13,800, according to the CIA — Libyans could find their vast oil wealth being fought over by various tribal groups.
Over the years, Gadhafi used his country's vast oil wealth to support militant movements and their leaders — from Abu Nidal and other Palestinian factions to Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal and the Irish Republican Army.
After the United States decided that Libya was behind a 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco, killing two American servicemen, a Turkish woman and wounding 200 others, it unleashed airstrikes on targets in Tripoli and Benghazi killed 41 people, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter.
But the man President Ronald Reagan famously dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" was undaunted, launching in 1988 an operation that led to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed all 269 people on board and 11 on the ground.
The incident may have cast Gadhafi — and Libya — as a pariah, but that ostracism only served to harden his resolve.
Gadhafi was also said to have had Mansour Kikhia, a former foreign minister and dissident, kidnapped while he was in Cairo for a human rights conference in 1993. Kikhia was said to have later been killed and his body melted down in a steel plant.
Much of his energy went into opposing Israel. In 1987, at an Arab summit in Algiers, he wore a white glove on his right hand to avoid contact with those who dealt with Israel. He also heaped scorn on his fellow Arab leaders. In one instance, he sat contemptuously at an Arab League meeting in the center of the room smoking a cigar.
The outbursts abroad were for domestic consumption. At home, he continued refining the revolution, drawing attention to perceived injustices in Libya with little concern that he and his family may be guilty of some of them.
He decried the corruption that allowed a limited number of Libyans to accumulate tremendous wealth. But Gadhafi and his family is believed to have amassed a fortune — often siphoned directly from the wealth accumulated from sitting atop Africa's largest proven reserves or crude or from a share in business ventures.
"Gadhafi's sort of joke jamahiriya system has mutated into some kind of crony capitalism," Marks said.
Libya's sovereign wealth fund, meanwhile, has almost $70 billion — putting it in the realm of other oil giants like the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. The country, a member of OPEC, produces almost 1.6 million barrels per day of crude. About 80 percent of its exports go to Europe.
Even with its oil wealth, Libya, with a population of slightly over 6.4 million, was far from reaching the levels of Norway, another major oil producer with a slightly smaller population. The difference stemmed, in part, from Libya's ostracism for so long.
While extolling the egalitarian nature of his country, Gadhafi went to great lengths to ensure that regions directly in his domain — such as Tripoli — got most of the benefits, while the east faced the harshest conditions and crackdowns.
The heaviest fighting and unrest has been around Benghazi, a city of about 700,000 where anti-Gadhafi animosity runs deep, especially after Libyan forces killed 1,200 inmates — most of them political prisoners — during prison riots in 1996.
Economic reforms that began to take shape after Libya renounced its weapons of mass destruction program and claimed responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing have reshaped Tripoli.
Foreign oil companies moved in, with giant BP PLC drawing tremendous ire amid often-denied accusations that it was instrumental — directly or indirectly — in helping bring about Scotland's compassionate release of the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. But others, from Exxon Mobil and Occidental Petroleum, to Italy's Eni, Royal Dutch Shell and Russia's Gazprom, are also hard at work.
International banks began to move in as well, and other Western companies were quick to set up shop in a country that had, until around 2005, been a sanction-decreed investment no-fly zone.
Against that backdrop, Gadhafi endured. More recently, he has been known as much for his eccentricities — his female Ethiopian bodyguards and a Ukrainian nurse, wearing Bedouin-style robes or bringing his own Bedouin-style tent on trips abroad — as for defying the West.
While Britain's government scrambled with a public relations nightmare after the jailed Lockerbie bomber it sent back to Libya was released, Gadhafi was unfazed, apparently confident in the knowledge that after paying about $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the bombing victims, the money was ready to flow back.
Change may have come in the form of an economic opening, but the country's political structure was unaltered, as was its attitude toward dissent.
Even if Gadhafi emerges from the current crisis still in power, the impact will reverberate in Libya. Analysts say that some oil production has already been affected as companies either pull or consider withdrawing their foreign employees.
Gadhafi "has lived with international isolation before. He's going to be tough nut to crack," Marks said. "They're going to have to take him out feet first."