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updated 3/8/2011 5:38:16 PM ET 2011-03-08T22:38:16

The 30-year-old car dealer had always admired Moammar Gadhafi. He marched in rallies in Tripoli's main Green Square, chanted "Long live Gadhafi" and waved the green flag that symbolized the utopian "rule of the masses" created by the Libyan leader.

But for the dealer and many other Libyans, that sense of reverence for the man who was Libya's only law for more than four decades has been shattered by the fearsome crackdown his regime unleashed against protesters in the capital.

"For me, he was the leader who defied the whole world," the car dealer said, speaking on condition of anonymity — like other Tripoli residents — to avoid retaliation against himself or his family.

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He is now in hiding among fellow protesters, after shaving off his long hair to avoid identification, and feels angry that Gadhafi manipulated everyone all those years. In his eyes, Gadhafi's glory now looks more like megalomania.

Gadhafi "lived his life as if he is a prophet or the king of the world, bribing even the Europeans and Americans," he said.

Since 1969, Gadhafi has been more than just Libya's leader. Some may have admired him, many may have hated him, all have feared him. But no one questioned that he was everything in Libya, towering so high that he didn't even need a title — just "Brother Leader."

"The law was absent all those years. There was no law but him," said a Libyan writer in his 70s. "He is the law and much more. Whatever he says is converted into law. ... Often we feel even his dreams become laws. Nobody can dream about the future except him. He is the one making the future and the present. We just have to obey and chant, 'Yes, yes, you are the one we believe in and you lead us to paradise.'

"I am not exaggerating," he said. "There was nothing except him."

Whatever happens next in Libya's 3-week-old upheaval — Gadhafi's ouster, his endurance in power or even a drawn-out civil war — his image among his people as unquestioned leader has been wrecked, likely forever. A mask has been torn away and a sense of invulnerability lifted. That's a heavy blow to a rule ultimately based on fear and mystique.

Part of Gadhafi's status grew from his system of "Jamahiriya," an Arabic word he created meaning roughly "state of the masses." It's supposed to be a kind of direct democracy as outlined in his Green Book manifesto, which is commemorated in monuments around the country. The entire population meets in people's committees, feeding into higher committees and ultimately to the People's Congress. The people as a whole were to decide everything from foreign affairs to distribution of oil revenues.

But having everyone in charge ultimately meant no one in charge — except Gadhafi himself. His word would overrule anything, and leaked U.S. diplomatic cables describe how he took a direct hand in deciding on minute details — particularly on lucrative business contracts that he directed to supporters. At the same time, security services and militias were set up to spot and eliminate any dissidents.

Then came the family. Eight Gadhafi children carved out fiefdoms, including a security apparatus led by Moatassem, an elite military brigade and militia led by Khamis, sports by al-Saadi, telecommunications and mail service by Mohammed, and even a charity by daughter Aisha.

The masses and their representatives in their committees and congress turned out to be mere numbers — a facade.

"No names were given to members of the People's Congress, just numbers because the only name that should be mentioned is Gadhafi and his sons," says another protester, a 37-year-old graphics designer.

For the car dealer, the last straw came the Friday before last when he was at prayers at a mosque in his upscale Ben Ashour district of Tripoli. After bloody shootings and killings of protesters in the neighborhood, the cleric delivering the sermon, he said, was clearly afraid of even referring to those who had died as "martyrs."

"I stood up and yelled at the cleric, 'Your beard is fake. You are a hypocrite. A true Muslim should fear nothing but God,'" he said.

"I found the rest of the worshippers joining me and suddenly we were marching out of the mosque into the streets chanting, 'The people want to oust the regime," he said.

Now he is hiding with a new-found friend, the graphic designer, in a district near Ben Ashour.

The designer said he was aware of the ugly side of Gadhafi's regime from a young age. He remembers when he was 5 watching on television the execution of an opposition figure, who was hanged in Tripoli's Souq al-Jomaa Square, a district known for its well educated and well-off residents. Executions of opposition figures often were carried out in their home neighborhoods to make an example of them.

"For days, I kept dreaming of it," he says.

He graduated from journalism school, but chose never to enter the profession, which he said in Libya was meant only to serve Gadhafi.

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"What you are allowed to say in the papers is only that Libya is a great country with a great leader. Otherwise you will be punished or vanish," he said.

At one point, he worked as a graphics designer in a sports paper, but even there "any picture that could carry a meaning that might upset the regime, you get punished."

Now with the uprising, he has returned to journalism in a new form. With a fake name, he set up a Facebook page updated with latest news of the protests, video clips and pictures of the deadly clashes. He speaks to TV networks outside Libya, spreading the word as much as possible among friends.

"If I speak to five of my friends, then they speak to five others, we end up with 10 in one neighborhood. This is how it rolls," he said.

But he acknowledged the difficulty of breaking Gadhafi's grip in Tripoli. Loyalist militiamen have clamped down on the city of 2 million, and every day dozens of regime supporters have demonstrated in Green Square.

"Gadhafi knows how to bribe the people. ... He knows how to buy their conscience," he said. "The loyalists are actually security guards in plain clothes, or employees bused into Green Square to chant for Gadhafi and wave the green flag. Their intellect is deformed."

Over the decades, Gadhafi has crushed numerous coup attempts and uprisings by small cliques, each one usually ending with execution scenes similar to the one the graphic designer saw as a child. But now, he says, things are different and the fear is gone.

"I have been saying that the Libyans will never rise up against Gadhafi. It was a desperate situation," he said. "But this is over."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Moammar Gadhafi

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  1. Col. Moammar Gadhafi is seen in Tripoli on Sept. 27, 1969, after leading a military coup that toppled King Idris. Gadhafi has maintained his rule over Libya for more than four decades since the coup. Gadhafi was killed in Sirte on Oct. 20 as revolutionary forces took the last bastion of his supporters. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Gadhafi, left, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, right, arrive in Rabat, Morocco, in December 1969 for the Arab Summit Conference. (Benghabit / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Col. Gadhafi, left, jokes with a group of British hippies in Tripoli in July 1973. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gadhafi was purportedly a major financier of the Black September movement, a band of Palestinian militants. Its members perpetrated the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. One of the Black September guerrillas who broke into the Olympic Village is seen in this picture. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gadhafi during the summit of the Organization of African Unity on Aug. 4, 1975, in Kampala, Uganda. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Flowers are laid at the memorial to Yvonne Fletcher, a British police constable who was shot dead by terrorists in April 1984 while on duty during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London. Fletcher's death led to an 11-day police siege of the embassy and a breakdown of diplomatic relations between Libya and the United Kingdom. (Fox Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Gadhafi and his second wife Safiya wave to the crowd upon their arrival in Dakar, Senegal, for a three-day official visit on Dec. 3, 1985. Gadhafi has eight biological children, six by Safiya. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Richard Burt, fourth from left, and West Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, fifth from left, inspect the damage following an April 5, 1986, bombing at a Berlin discotheque frequented by American serveicemen. Libya was blamed for the blast, which killed three and injured more than 200. Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan retaliated by ordering airstrikes against the Libyan capital of Tripoli and city of Benghazi. (Wolfgang Mrotzkowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. French policemen and army soldiers unload crates of arms and ammunition seized aboard the Panamian merchant ship Eksund on Nov. 3, 1987 at Brest military port in France. A huge supply of arms and explosives purportedly supplied by Libya and destined for the Irish Republican Army was found aboard the vessel. (Andre Durand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. This Dec. 22, 1988, photo shows the wreckage of the Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people - most of them Americans. Gadhafi has accepted Libya's responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families. Libya's ex-justice minister was recently quoted as telling a Swedish newspaper that Gadhafi personally ordered the bombing. (Letkey / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, right, welcomes Gadhafi upon his arrival at Tunis airport on Jan. 10, 1990. (Frederic Neema / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is escorted by security officers in Tripoli on Feb. 18, 1992. Al-Megrahi was granted a compassionate release from a Scottish prison in August 2009 on the grounds that he was suffering from prostate cancer and would die soon. (Manoocher Deghati / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, accompanies Gadhafi on a tour at the pyramids of Giza on Jan. 19, 1993. (Aladin Abdel Naby / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian border policeman counts passports belonging to Palestinians waiting at the post in Salloum for transit to the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12, 1995. Families were stranded at the border with Libya after Gadhafi decided to expel 30.000 Palestinians, reportedly in order to call attention to the political situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. (Amr Nabil / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Libyan women bodyguards provide security for VIPs during a military parade in Green Square on Sept. 1, 2003, to mark the 34th anniversary of Gadhafi's acension to power. (Mike Nelson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Family members of people killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, read documents on Sept. 12, 2003, as the U.N. Security Council votes to lift sanctions against Libya for the 1988 bombing. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, flew to Libya in 2004 to hold talks with Gadhafi inside a Bedouin tent. Here, Blair and and Gadhafi stroll to a separate tent in Tripoli for lunch during a break in their talks. Blair's role was particularly vital in Gadhafi's international rehabilitation. He praised the leader for ending Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons program and stressed the need for new security alliances in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (Stefan Rousseau / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. U.S. President George W. Bush looks at material and equipment surrendered by Libya, during a tour of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee on July 12, 2004. Bush officially lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Libya on Sept. 20, 2004. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. View of the remains of Gadhafi's bombed-out headquarters, now turned into a living memento, inside his compound in Tripoli on Oct. 15, 2004. The sculpture in the center represents a golden fist grabbing a U.S. jet fighter. U.S. jets bombed Tripoli, killing Gadhafi's adopted 4-year-old daughter, in April 1986 in retaliation for the Berlin discotheque bombing. (John Macdougall / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is welcomed by Gadhafi in Tripoli on July 25, 2007. Sarkozy arrived for a meeting with the Libyan leader a day after the release of six foreign medics from a Libyan prison. (Patrick Kovarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Gadhafi's son Saif, center, attends a ceremony in the southern Libyan city of Ghiryan on Aug. 18, 2007, to mark the arrival of water from the Great Manmade River, a project to pipe water from desert wells to coastal communities. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gadhafi looks at a Russian-language edition of his book "The Green Book" during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 17, 2008, in Tripoli. Putin was in Libya for a two-day visit to rebuild Russian-Libyan relations. (Artyom Korotayev / Epsilon via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Gadhafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pose for a picture after signing an agreement in the eastern city of Benghazi on Libya's Mediterranean coast on Aug. 30, 2008. Berlusconi apologized to Libya for damage inflicted by Italy during the colonial era and signed a $5 billion investment deal by way of compensation. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gadhafi poses with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prior to a meeting in Tripoli on Sept. 5, 2008. Rice arrived in Libya on the first such visit in more than half a century, marking a new chapter in Washington's reconciliation with the former enemy state. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gadhafi attends the closing session of the Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar, on March 30, 2009. (Marwan Naamani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Gadhafi waves after delivering a speech during a meeting with 700 women from the business, political and cultural spheres on June 12, 2009, in Rome. The Libyan strongman drew cheers and jeers when he criticized Islam's treatment of women but then suggested it should be up to male relatives to decide if a woman can drive. (Christophe Simon / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. U.S .President Barack Obama shakes hands with Gadhafi during the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on July 9, 2009. (Michael Gottschalk / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, top left, is accompanied by Seif al-Islam el-Gadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, upon his arrival at the airport in Tripoli on Aug. 20, 2009. Scotland freed the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds, allowing him to die at home in Libya despite American protests that he should be shown no mercy. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The president of the U.N. General Assembly, Ali Abdussalam Treki, top center, listens in apparent misery as Gadhafi speaks on Sept. 23, 2009, at U.N. headquarters in New York. It was Gadhafi's first appearance before the U.N., and he emptied out much of the chamber with an exhaustive 95-minute speech in which he criticized the decision-making structure of the world body and called for investigations of all the wars and assassinations that have taken place since the U.N.'s founding. (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Gadhafi greets Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the plenary session at the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island on Sept. 27, 2009. Chavez and Gadhafi urged African and South American leaders to strive for a new world order countering Western economic dominance. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Gadhafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a group picture of Arab and African leaders ahead of the opening of the second Arab-African summit in the coastal town of Sirte, Libya, on Oct. 10, 2010. Ben Ali and Mubarak were driven out of power by popular revolts in 2011. (Sabri Elmehedwi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Gadhafi is followed by members of the press in Tripoli before making a speech hoping to defuse tensions on March 2. Gadhafi blamed al-Qaida for creating turmoil and told applauding supporters there was a conspiracy to control Libya and its oil. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyan rebels step on a picture of Gadhafi at a checkpoint in Tripoli's Qarqarsh district on Aug. 22. Libyan government tanks and snipers put up a scattered, last-ditch effort in Tripoli on Monday after rebels swept into the heart of the capital, cheered on by crowds hailing the end of Gadhafi's 42 years in power. (Bob Strong / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A man in Tripoli holds a photo said to be of Moammar Gadhafi after the announcement of the former leader's death, Oct. 20, 2011. Gadhafi was killed when revolutionary forces overwhelmed his hometown, Sirte, the last major bastion of resistance two months after the regime fell. (Abdel Magid Al-fergany / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: TO GO WITH AFP PACKAGE ON THE 40TH ANNIV
    AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (34) Moammar Gadhafi through the years
  2. Image: A photo said to show people gathering during recent days' unrest in Benghazi, Libya. The content, date and location of the image could not be independently verified.
    AP
    Slideshow (81) Conflict in Libya

Video: Gadhafi strikes back

  1. Closed captioning of: Gadhafi strikes back

    >>> good evening. it hasn't been stopped cold, but it has been slowed way down. this rebel uprising in libya that made such progress early on and seemed to be coming after moammar gadhafi is now under attack, and has slowed down. while a lot of libya remains under rebel control. tripoli is holding as gadhafi territory. the military is attacking using real weapons against people, while the whole region may be changing, change may take a long time. and libya 's long time leader has no plans to give up easily. we begin tonight again with nbc news chief foreign correspondent richard engel in tripoli . richard, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. gadhafi is using brute force , killing his own people and trying to control journalists, all in an effort to stop this rebellion. air power and gadhafi 's trained army are driving back, motivated but undisciplined rebels as they struggle to advance. in ras lanouf, rebels fired arou anti-aircraft guns in the air. the reality is, they're losing momentum, crushed by gadhafi 's air strikes . most of the rebels inexperienced new recruits, are dangerously exposed as they cross the desert. so far, gadhafi 's forces have attacked in the open. on the eastern battlefield, gadhafi 's troops warn that could come next.

    >> today ras lanouf, tomorrow everywhere in libya .

    >> reporter: state television showing pro gadhafi rallies and footage of captures nonstop. foreign journalists are restricted to two luxury hotels. teed we were told to wait for a visit by moammar gadhafi . the ground rules were strict for our safety we were fold.

    >> don't do that, don't tell me, please. come on.

    >> reporter: it's been over four hours and we're waiting in the lobby of this hotel. this is all we've been allowed to do today, just sit and wait for a visit that may never happen. seven hours late, gadhafi did arrive. with almost no security. there was pandemonium. gadhafi was here to do interviews with turkish and french television . he said he'll do more interviews in an effort to clarify the situation in libya . but what he said today was the same old argument we heard before, that al qaeda is behind the revolt, he's not taking any responsibility.

    >> richard engel in tripoli tonight, richard thanks.

Timeline: Recent Middle East unrest

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