LONDON (Reuters) - With his penchant for bedouin tents and heavily armed female bodyguards, along with a readiness to execute his opponents, Muammar Gaddafi has cut a disturbing figure as Libya’s leader for more than 40 years.
For most of that time he held a prominent position in the West’s international rogues’ gallery, while maintaining tight control at home by eliminating dissidents and refusing to annoint a successor.
As his oil-producing nation feels the wind of change gusting across the Arab world, his security forces have responded with the deadly force that human rights groups say has characterized the Gaddafi era.
Protesters have been gunned down in their hundreds in Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities in the past few days. Even those attending funerals have not been spared.
One of the world’s longest serving national leader, Gaddafi has no official government function and is known as the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution.”
Visionary or dictator, Gaddafi’s quirky style is unique.
His love of grand gestures is most on display on foreign visits when he sleeps in a bedouin tent guarded by dozens of female bodyguards.
During a visit to Italy in August last year, Gaddafi’s invitation to hundreds of young women to convert to Islam overshadowed the two-day trip, which was intended to cement the growing ties between Tripoli and Rome.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website have shed further light on the Libyan leader’s tastes.
One cable posted by The New York Times describes Gaddafi’s insistence on staying on the first floor when he visited New York for a 2009 meeting at the United Nations and his reported refusal or inability to climb more than 35 steps.
Gaddafi is also said to rely heavily on his staff of four Ukrainian nurses, including one woman described as a “voluptuous blonde.” The cable speculated about a romantic relationship.
Gaddafi was born in 1942, the son of a bedouin herdsman, in a tent near Sirte on the Mediterranean coast. He abandoned a geography course at university for a military career that included a short spell at a British army signals school.
Gaddafi took power in a bloodless military coup in 1969 when he toppled King Idriss, and in the 1970s he formulated his “Third Universal Theory,” a middle road between communism and capitalism.
Gaddafi oversaw the rapid development of his poverty-stricken country, previously known for little more than oil wells and deserts where huge tank battles took place in World War Two.
One of his first tasks was to build up the armed forces, but he also spent billions of dollars of oil income on improving living standards, making him popular with the low-paid.
Gaddafi has poured money into giant projects such as a steel plant in the town of Misrata and the Great Man-Made River, a scheme to pipe water from desert wells to coastal communities.
He has used tough tactics against dissidents, who include Islamists, and has used “purification committees” of army and police officers, joined by loyal students, to keep control.
But he also won the respect of many Libyans. He is a charismatic figure with the popular touch and has exploited the medium of television unlike other Arab leaders.
Gaddafi embraced the pan-Arabism of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and tried without success to merge Libya, Egypt and Syria into a federation. A similar attempt to join Libya and Tunisia ended in acrimony.
In 1977 he changed the country’s name to the Great Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah (State of the Masses) and allowed people to air their views at people’s congresses.
However, he was shunned by the West for much of his rule which accused him of links to terrorism and revolutionary movements. U.S. President Ronald Reagan called him a “mad dog” and sent war planes to bomb Libya in 1986. One of the 60 people killed was Gaddafi’s adopted daughter.
He was particularly reviled after the 1988 Pan Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan agents in which 270 people were killed.
U.N. sanctions imposed in 1992 to pressure Tripoli to hand over two Libyan suspects, crippled the economy, dampened Gaddafi’s revolutionary spirit and took the sting out of his anti-capitalist, anti-Western rhetoric.
Gaddafi abandoned his program of prohibited weapons in 2003 to return Libya into international mainstream politics.
In September 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush formally ended a U.S. trade embargo as a result of Gaddafi’s scrapping of the arms program and taking responsibility for Lockerbie.
The return to Libya last year of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, released from a Scottish jail on health grounds, angered Washington.
Last month Gaddafi said he feared the change of power in neighboring Tunisia was being exploited by foreign intervention.
Gaddafi said he was “pained” by the violent events in Tunisia and that people there had been too hasty in pushing out President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Last night, with the death toll in Libya’s revolution rising, Gaddafi made a characteristically eccentric television appearance, sheltering under an umbrella and denouncing rumors that he had fled to Venezuela.
Additional reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; Editing by Louise Ireland