Military Takes Charge in Libya Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

King Idris and the monorachy were swept aside as the army rallied behind a coup in Libya. Shrouded in secrecy, a revolutionary council was established, and Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi emerged as the nation’s charismatic but quixotic head of state.

Summary of Event

In 1969, Idris I, king of Libya—who earlier in his career had succeeded at commanding popular support as both a political and a spiritual leader—was no longer able to maintain the delicate political balance in Libya, which he had done while maintaining alliances with the United Kingdom and the United States. Although the country had gained independence in 1951, the new breed of pan-Arab Pan-Arabism[PanArabism] nationalists in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and other Arab lands were quick to denounce Idris for his support of the United Kingdom and the United States against Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis. Suez Canal crisis (1956);and Arab nationalism[Arab nationalism] Arab nationalists were also concerned over the presence of American military bases and the control of Libyan oil resources by Western companies. Libyan coup of 1969 Revolutions and coups;Libya Anticolonial movements;Libya [kw]Military Takes Charge in Libya (Sept. 1, 1969) [kw]Libya, Military Takes Charge in (Sept. 1, 1969) Libyan coup of 1969 Revolutions and coups;Libya Anticolonial movements;Libya [g]Africa;Sept. 1, 1969: Military Takes Charge in Libya[10420] [g]Libya;Sept. 1, 1969: Military Takes Charge in Libya[10420] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 1, 1969: Military Takes Charge in Libya[10420] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 1, 1969: Military Takes Charge in Libya[10420] Qaddafi, Muammar al- Nasser, Gamal Abdel [p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;Arab nationalism Idris I San{umacr}s{imacr}, al- San{umacr}s{imacr}, A{hsubdot}mad al-Shar{imacr}f al- Rommel, Erwin

Seizing the moment on September 1, a small group of military officers led by Muammar al-Qaddafi staged a coup d’état against Idris while he was in Turkey for medical treatment. They abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab republic (the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya), with Qaddafi as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” the new nation’s head of state.

The story of Idris’s rise to power provides the context for understanding Qaddafi’s coup and is similar to that of many other colonial leaders on the African continent, where tribal chiefs were bolstered by Western colonial powers to consolidate their power and to dominate their rivals. These tribal heads would later learn, rather belatedly, that their alliance with the Western powers had merely created a nest for rebellious movements and resentment that would eventually lead to their downfall. Idris, the grandson of al-Sanūsī, founder of the Sanūsī Muslim San{umacr}s{imacr} Muslims[Sanusi Muslims] sufi order, inherited the position of head of the order in 1916 following the resignation of his uncle, Aḥmad al-Sharīf al-Sanūsī. The British, who at the time were seeking to break up the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire by enticing allies within its domain, quickly recognized Idris as the emir of the newly created territory of Cyrenaica, a province in what later became Libya. Libya, independence of

In the wave of nationalism and pro-independence movements in North Africa, Idris as emir of Cyrenaica fought hard to maintain independence for his territory as Italian forces moved to colonize the entire region. Although the Italians had recognized him as emir, in 1922 Italian colonization efforts intensified, Italy;colonial possessions and the emir fled to Egypt, where he organized a guerrilla movement against Italian forces. The outbreak of World War II opened new opportunities for the emir and his people as they joined British forces to fight and defeat the Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan, whose forces were led by Germany’s Erwin Rommel. The emir soon returned to his capital in Benghazi and was invited to include the territories of Tripolitania and Fezzan, the three traditional regions that became modern Libya. With the support of the United Kingdom and the United Nations, the emir of the newly amalgamated territory of Libya negotiated the independence of Libya as a country and was proclaimed the king of Libya on December 24, 1951, Libya’s independence day.

Ironically, the torrent of events that brought independence to Libya and many other countries in northern Africa also brought a new breed of Arab nationalism that sought, more than self-rule, the complete repudiation of all ties to the Western forces that had helped to create the new states. The pan-Arab movement, which sought the unification of peoples and nations of the Middle East in the postwar period, was aimed at dismantling the domination of the Ottoman Empire. At war’s end, the movement had become opposed to colonialism and Western intervention in the Arab world. Architects of pan-Arabism, in their quest for independence from the Ottoman Empire, had sought and received the support of the United Kingdom to establish a unified state of Arabia, as stated in the 1915-1916 Hussein-McMahon correspondence, Hussein-McMahon correspondence (1915-1916)[Hussein Macmahon correspondence] a series of letters between the leader of the Hejaz (later part of Saudi Arabia), Husayn ibn Ali, and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt. In his second letter (October 24, 1915), McMahon stated:

The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation. Subject to that modification, and without prejudice to the treaties concluded between us and certain Arab Chiefs, we accept that delimitation. As for the regions lying within the proposed frontiers, in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to interests of her ally France, I am authorized to give you the following pledges on behalf of the Government of Great Britain, and to reply as follows to your note: That subject to the modifications stated above, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and uphold the independence of the Arabs in all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca.

In 1916, however, the United Kingdom and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916)[Sykes Picot Agreement] which divided major parts of the Middle East into British and French zones of influence rather than pursue plans to create a unified Arab nation, as earlier agreed.

The spirit of pan-Arabism was later rekindled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian president who combined an aggressive doctrine of Arab nationalism with a deep-seated rejection of Western intervention in Arab affairs. Nasser’s tough stance against the United Kingdom, France, and Israel during the Suez crisis Suez Canal crisis (1956);and Arab nationalism[Arab nationalism] defined the division between most Arabs and the United Kingdom and its allies in the unfolding Middle Eastern conflicts. Nasser’s failed attempt to nationalize the Suez Canal nonetheless was hailed by pro-Arab radicals in the region.

Skirmishes between Israel, on one side, and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, on the other, culminated in 1967 with the Six-Day War with Israel, Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] which conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israeli victory on the battlefield and its continued suppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories became the source of agitation for more aggressive leadership by radicals in the region.

Biographers of Muammar Qaddafi say that he led the military coup d’état that overthrew King Idris I. Thus, Qaddafi was connected to a core of militant revolutionaries who were admirers of Nasser, the Egyptian pan-Arab leader. As early as 1963, while studying at the Military Academy in Benghazi, Qaddafi had joined a militant organization that was aimed at overthrowing the Libyan monarchy. On his return from Britain, where he had undertaken further military studies at the Royal Academy in Sandhurst, Qaddafi became a commissioned officer in the Signal Corps in 1966. As the aging Idris left for Turkey to undergo medical treatment in 1969, Qaddafi and a small group of military officers seized power and announced the deposition of the king. Qaddafi and his group replaced the deposed king with his nephew, Crown Prince Ḥasan al-Sanūsī, San{umacr}s{imacr}, {Hsubdot}asan al- only to depose him a day later, when they abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan republic.

In his earliest official government statements, Qaddafi is referred to only as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.” He proclaimed his regime as a strand of Arab nationalism with some similarities to a welfare state. He said the political system, “Islamic socialism,” would thrive on “direct popular democracy” and accommodate private ownership of small businesses while the government controlled the large corporations, imposed Islamic laws, and outlawed alcohol and gambling.

Qaddafi later maintained an aggressive anti-Western foreign policy, especially against the United States, and was accused of complicity in mass acts of state-sponsored terrorism in many Western capitals in the 1980’s. Among these were the 1986 terrorist bombing of a discotheque in Berlin, in which two American servicemen were killed, and the bombing in 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103 Pan American Flight 103 Flight 103[Flight one o three] and Union des Transports Aériens (UTA) Flight 772. UTA Flight 772 Flight 772[flight seven seventy two] In retaliation, the United States bombed several locations in Libya in 1989 and the United Nations imposed several sanctions against Libya for failing to cooperate in the investigation of the airliner bombings.

In a dramatic turn of events, Qaddafi in 2003 began to make policy changes toward the West. Libya dismantled its illegal weapons program and paid almost $3 billion in compensation to the families of those killed in the terrorist bombings of Pan Am Flight 103 and UTA Flight 772.


The September, 1969, military takeover in Libya marked a critical point in the surge of revolutionary ideas that spread through much of the Arab world as the clutches of colonialism were being released amid the fervor of nationalism. The impetus for Arab nationalism exemplified by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to rekindle Arab pride and unity by renouncing Western colonialism. Arab antagonism and anger toward the West became crystallized around the most pernicious of all “intolerables,” the assault on the Arab religion, Islam.

In due course, the pan-Arab movement in most fledging Arab nations would come to define every confrontation with Western powers as a religious offensive that all the faithful must defend. To make matters worse, the Western nations’ unapologetic support for Israel became a lightning rod for the fundamentalist passions that were seething throughout Arab lands. Libyan coup of 1969 Revolutions and coups;Libya Anticolonial movements;Libya

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrels, Anne. Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A comprehensive overview of the Middle East. Topics treated include Islamism, Christianity, nation studies, wars, and the birth of Israel in the postwar Middle East.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair. New York: Public Affairs, 2005. The coverage spans the entire continent, treating the major upheavals more or less chronologically—from the promising era of independence in the 1960’s to the most recent spate of infamies occurring in Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Qaddafi, Muammar, with Edmond Jouve. My Vision. Translated by Angela Parfitt. London: John Blake, 2005. Qaddafi’s life story is revealed through interviews and research of Jouve, an expert in Third World Africa who first met Qaddafi in 1979. The account is given from Qaddafi’s point of view and portrays him as a leader of conviction committed to improving the lives of Libyans while resisting the threat of the Zionists and the Western influence in the Middle East.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Geoffrey Leslie. Libya: The Struggle for Survival. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. The author goes to great lengths to produce an investigative essay on Libyan involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Also includes a descriptive sketch of modern Libya and an analytical survey of Libyan foreign policy, especially with the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanik, Joseph. El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi. Examines the origins of the 1980’s U.S. attacks on targets in Libya within the context of fighting terrorism.

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Categories: History