Muammar Qaddafi: Five ways Libya's leader has held onto power

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has long elicited chuckles abroad with his outlandish attire and over-the-top rhetoric, but his brutal crackdown this week is no laughing matter. This backgrounder offers a look at how the eccentric dictator came to power – and how he's held on to it for more than 40 years.

How absolute is his power?

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Mr. Qaddafi rose to power largely through the ranks of the military, becoming a colonel. But after taking charge in a 1969 bloodless coup, he abolished all military ranks above his own.

Since then, he has maintained his rule by crushing any dissent. He has staffed most of the key government and military posts, as well as his personal security forces, with family and loyal members of his tribe. His recent speeches have made it clear that he calls the shots in the country.

But his power is significantly weaker in the eastern part of the country, which was the center of power prior to Qaddafi’s takeover and where protests began. Qaddafi made little effort to cultivate loyalty there, instead making Tripoli the new capital, shifting power to the west, and leaving the east to stagnate.

Qaddafi is no longer in control of the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya's second largest metropolis and the starting point of the uprising. He has also lost control of much of the East.

Libya was ruled as three autonomous states prior to Qaddafi’s takeover, and he is credited with forcing the three entities into one state. Without Qaddafi at the helm, Libya could break apart again, some experts say.

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