Why Is Qaddafi Still a Colonel?

Why Libya’s leader hasn’t changed his stripes.

One of those leftover colonels at the bottom of the bag

Last week Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi announced that his country would disclose and destroy its chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons programs. That leaves Libya with one remaining mystery: Why is Qaddafi still just a colonel?

Because, Qaddafi insists, in Libya’s utopian society, the people rule, so he needs no grandiose title.

Of course, it was Capt. Qaddafi who took power in 1969 via a coup, at the impressively young age of 27. He immediately upped his rank to colonel. But he also ordered the creation of a revolutionary state in which the people would rule themselves and neither executive nor legislative branches would be needed. Presenting what he called “the final solution to the problem of the instrument of governing,” Qaddafi explained the idea in his “Green Book” manifesto: “Parliaments have been a legal barrier between the peoples and the exercise of authority. This is an obsolete theory and an outdated experience.” As an alternative, Qaddafi offered up his “happy discovery of the way to direct democracy”; Libyan citizens would rule via a series of popular congresses and committees.


Today, the State Department’s human rights report on Libya describes the country as an exceedingly hierarchical “dictatorship” with a “multilayered, pervasive surveillance system that monitored and controlled the activities of individuals.” But in keeping with his original people-power rhetoric, Qaddafi has never claimed a title—not president, general, or prime minister.

While the media have kept referring to Qaddafi as a colonel—either out of habit or for want of a better option—Libya stopped doing so years ago. Instead, he’s referred to as the humble “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.” (See the Brother Leader’s official Web Site.)

Qaddafi isn’t the only midlevel militarist who never upped his rank after violently seizing power. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qaddafi’s intellectual godfather, became president but never rose above the rank of colonel. And longtime Ghanaian strongman Jerry Rawlings, who ruled for nearly 20 years, never took a higher military title than flight lieutenant. *

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Explainer thanks Lisa Anderson of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Leonard Binder of UCLA.

Correction, Dec. 24, 2003: This article originally listed Jerry Rawlings’ military title as first lieutenant. He was a flight lieutenant. Return to the corrected sentence.