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Qadhafi Era Military

The military was among the most representative institutions in the country, drawing its membership from all strata of society. The integration of the different forces, organized before 1969 under separate commands, and the disarming of the Cyrenaican tribes were generally regarded as significant first steps toward establishing national unity. According to some authorities, these steps will eventually breakdown tribal, regional, and parochial tendencies.

Until the early 1980s, service pay, special commissaries, and related benefits placed the average soldier in a privileged position relative to the population as a whole. Military leaders nevertheless sought to avoid the public display of material ostentation with which many officers under the earlier monarchy had been associated. Most of the senior officers were noted for their austere, almost puritanical, personal habits. For more than a decade after the coup, the rank of colonel, which Qadhafi assumed after taking power, acted as a ceiling on grade level. Although the rank of general was subsequently adopted by some service chiefs, it was announced in mid-1986 that the rank of colonel would again be the highest in the armed forces. Observers noted, for example, that Kharrubi was being referred to as colonel instead of general. The ranks of many other officers may also have been reduced, in some cases as a result of dissatisfaction with their responses to the American raid a few months earlier.

In his public conduct, Qadhafi was the archetype of the ascetic behavior that characterized senior Libyan officers in the early days of the revolution. He cultivated an image of incorruptibility and of simple personal habits, promoting the idea that military service was a patriotic obligation for which little material reward should be expected.

In general, the morale of the military was high as a result of Qadhafi's extravagant modernization program, which was accompanied by new weapons systems, opportunities for training abroad for younger officers, and major construction projects. Moreover, experience gained in operations in Chad enabled the military to address some of the deficiencies revealed in the clashes with Egypt and in Uganda.

In spite of the historical importance of the military in the overthrow of the monarchy and its participation in the government during the first decade under Qadhafi, underlying tensions between civil and military authorities became visible during the early 1980s. Although there was little discernible dissension among the most senior military figures, whose fortunes were closely linked with Qadhafi, there reportedly was disgruntlement among more junior officers, who rejected the adventurist policies that had needlessly provoked the hostility of Libya's Arab neighbors. The economic austerity arising from the drop in oil revenues and Qadhafi's bizarre economic theories contributed to the disaffection. As a result of budget stringencies, military pay was often two or three months in arrears, commissary stocks were little better than the meager supplies in government-run shops, and military construction projects were scaled back sharply.

On numerous occasions, Qadhafi declared that ultimately the traditional military establishment should "wither away," to be replaced by an armed citizenry. This eventually conformed with the Third Universal Theory in that the populace would then be directly involved in assuring their own security. Accordingly, all members of society must be prepared to function as soldiers. Although Qadhafi seemed to treat the disappearance of the professional military more as a theoretical goal than an imminent reality, his remarks added to the deteriorating morale of the officer corps.

Qadhafi and knowledgeable observers recognized that only the army represented a separate source of power that could threaten to overturn the existing regime. A government journal warned in 1982 that "armies believe the power to bear arms is by proxy for the masses and they thus create dictatorial classes which monopolize the weapons and crush the masses with them." This was followed by an extraordinary campaign unleashed against the military in 1983. The ideological weekly of the revolutionary committees, Al Zahf al Akhdar, branded officers as reactionaries, guilty of corruption, smuggling, and smoking hashish. These fascists "must be immediately removed," said the editor, because they "mock the people and get drunk with the bourgeoisie." Although these views could not have been published without official sanction, Qadhafi refrained from associating himself fully with them. He said the army was not corrupt and that the officers with a bourgeois orientation were only remnants from the traditional royal army.

Although Al Zahf al Akhdar moderated its charges following Qadhafi's intervention, its campaign, focusing on the luxurious cars, dwellings, and working quarters of the officers, was resumed in 1984. Assuming that Qadhafi could muzzle these denunciations of the military if he chose, he may have failed to do so because of suspicions of military disloyalty and a desire to deflate the prestige of the military establishment as a potential competing political force. Thus, in spite of his dependence on the armed forces to execute his wide-ranging ambitions, Qadhafi may have felt constrained to seek some balance by giving freer rein to the Revolutionary Committees and by strengthening the People's Militia.

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Page last modified: 23-10-2013 19:13:02 ZULU