If Muammar al-Qaddafi falls, as seems increasingly likely, he will land with the rending crash of an immense, rigid object, like the statue of Saddam Hussein pulled down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. This is not because, despite his own delusions, Qaddafi mattered to the world remotely as much as Saddam did. Rather, it’s because the Jamahiriya, or stateless society, he fostered in Libya constitutes the last of the revolutionary fantasies with which Arab leaders have mesmerized their citizens and justified their ruthless acts of repression since the establishment of the modern Arab world in the years after World War II.
Qaddafi and the other junior officers who overthrew Libya’s King Idris in a bloodless coup in 1969 were inspired by the revolt of the Free Officers in Egypt, who had similarly deposed an unpopular, pro-Western monarch in 1952. The Free Officers under Gamal Abdel Nasser declared a new socialist regime, confiscating the properties and eliminating the privileges of the old elite. Especially after the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations in 1955, Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, which would dissolve colonial borders in order to establish an Arab superstate, became the default ideology of a generation of young thinkers and activists in the Middle East.