Whether they called him Ghedaffi, Kadafi, or Kazzafi, our newspapers were optimistic when the Libyan dictator's regime began in 1969.
As the world witnessed via video yesterday, the life of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi came to a brutal, bloody end. The graphic manner in which his 42-year regime met its demise was a 180-degree turn from its beginning via the bloodless overthrow of an elderly monarch. But don’t go looking for immediate coverage of Gadhafi in the archives of Toronto’s newspapers following the Revolutionary Command Council’s speedy takeover of the Libyan government on September 1, 1969: nearly three weeks passed before his name appeared in print.
On its September 2, 1969, front page, the Globe and Mail provided a sober account of the coup that ousted King Idris, who had ruled Libya since the country gained its independence in 1951. Libya was seen as one of the most stable, friendly nations in the Middle East, having welcomed foreign investment following the discovery of oil there in the late 1950s. Idris was receiving treatment in Turkey for rheumatism when the coup occurred. Though he vowed to come back (but never did), his heir went on national radio to abdicate any claims to the throne as a Libyan Arab Republic was declared. There was a sense of relief in the Globe’s coverage that the coup was a clean one, given that experts believed any transition from Idris’s government would be bloody. The paper suspected that, contrary to the free hand Idris gave powers like the United States in establishing military bases, “if the new rulers pursue a radical course, Libya’s great oil wealth will enable them to finance anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism easily.”
In front page stories in the city’s other papers, though, the day’s action ramped up. Though it bore a passive headline (“West’s oil safe—Libya junta”), the Telegram reported that brief bursts of gunfire were heard in Tripoli and, in the face of some resistance within the army, the RCC urged pro-coup officers to seize helicopters. The Star added in touches of intrigue, positioning the coup amid the backdrop of a squabble between Israel and Syria over a hijacked plane and Idris’s salting away of $20 million in Turkish hotel safes.
Differing opinions on the situation appeared in the city’s editorial pages on September 3. The Telegram portrayed Idris as having been the most enlightened monarch in Africa due to his use of oil royalties for public infrastructure and hoped that if the new regime’s socialistic goals were honest, “they can only continue the old king’s program. Libya’s future as a progressive Islamic state depends on their wisdom as rulers.” The Star had fainter praise for the deposed king, depicting him as a once-able ruler who grew too infirm to cope with new social problems. Portraying the coup alongside consolidation of military power in Brazil and South Vietnam that week, the Star pessimistically noted that “democratic, constitutional government is still a dream of the future in Libya.”
Looking for mentions of Gadhafi by this point? Keep waiting, as apart from a handful of public spokesmen, members of the RCC preferred anonymity. One leader, Colonel Saad Bushweirib, denied that he headed the coup, noting that “the real boss wishes to remain nameless, like all officers.” In a September 5 article, the Star speculated that the leadership preferred a cloak of mystery to avoid enraging residents in the eastern region of Cyrenaica (where Idris was raised) when they discovered that the RCC’s leadership was mostly from western Tripolitania. The paper feared such a revelation could lead to a civil war along the lines of the Biafran conflict in Nigeria. In the long run, Cyrenaica saw occasional anti-Gadhafi activity, which culminated when it became the early stronghold of this year’s Libyan rebellion.
Far more hopeful was the Star’s analysis of the new government on September 20: “The Libyan revolution, at age two weeks, looks like the coolest, neatest transformation in the Arab world since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his colonels kicked out King Farouk and his playmates.” Though the government favoured the Palestinian cause, readers were assured that Israelis could breathe slightly easier due to the regime’s refusal to be Egyptian president Nasser’s puppet and a promise to protect Jews within Libya. Business leaders were relieved that nominal Prime Minister Mahmud Al-Maghribi was not a raging Marxist—“No cabinet headed by a prime minister with a doctorate in petroleum law from George Washington University can be all bad.” In the paper’s eyes, an immediate doubling of the minimum wage to three dollars per day cast him in a good light. As a counterpoint, Idris was depicted as a feeble ruler who could be bribed all too easily.
Halfway through the article is the first mention we found in any Toronto newspaper of the RCC’s president of council, “Lt. Col. Moummar Ghedaffi,” a 27-year-old communications expert with a military history degree. As a Bedouin from the east, Gadhafi was seen as a balancing figure against the Tripolitanians. History proved that Gadhafi would not live up to the article’s famous last words: “The Libyan captains are not looking for an ideologue or a patriarch.”
By Christmas, things looked bad for outsiders in Libya as the regime asserted itself. Reports throughout December 1969 noted how Westerners dealt with soldiers entering hotels to destroy any items adorned with non-Arabic script. A prohibition against alcohol led to complaints that the strongest drink available was Coca-Cola. The regime promoted Arab unity over issues like Israel. Mentions of Gadhafi slowly grew, though throughout his reign nobody settled on a consistent Westernized spelling of his name. The Globe and Mail stuck by “Moammer Kazzafi,” while the Star either couldn’t make up its mind or didn’t check wire copy too closely—on December 26 he was “Muammar Gaddafi,” the next day “Muammar Kadafi.”
However you spelled his name, Gadhafi proved within the next few years that any optimism Toronto’s newspapers had about a trustworthy or democratic government taking hold in Libya was unfounded. Little wonder their current editorial counterparts are cautious about what the future holds for the country.
Additional material from the following newspapers: the September 2, 1969, and December 25, 1969, editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 2, 1969, September 3, 1969, September 5, 1969, September 20, 1969, December 8, 1969, December 26, 1969, and December 27, 1969, editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 2, 1969, and September 3, 1969, editions of the Telegram.