TRIPOLI, Libya — Hala Misrati once wrote romance tales about lost love. Now she's the ferocious face of Libya's regime, a star talk-show host on state TV lashing out daily against Moammar Gadhafi's enemies.
She railed against a Libyan woman who claimed to Western journalists she had been raped by Gadhafi militiamen, calling her a "liar" and suggesting she was a "whore." On live TV, Misrati grilled an arrested journalist for an hour with all the doggedness of a secret police interrogator.
"Say the things that you said in your recordings!" she barked at the journalist, Rana al-Aqbani, apparently referring to taped recordings of al-Aqbani's phone calls, as she tried to make her acknowledge that she sought Gadhafi's ouster. Al-Aqbani, a Tripoli-based journalist, has since disappeared.
With her attack-dog demeanor, Misrati stands out even in the field of presenters of state-run news channels throughout Arab countries, whose autopilot response has been to denounce protesters in the anti-government uprisings around the Middle East.
"She's clearly a very strong mouthpiece for the pro-Gadhafi forces," said Dina Eltahawy, a researcher for Amnesty International, which has issued an urgent alert to try find al-Aqbani.
Misrati appears daily on her hour-long call-in show, "Libya on This Day" on the state-run satellite channel, Al-Jamahiriya 2.
In her 30s, with long dark hair, heavy makeup and often decked out in gaudy outfits, she often gives long monologues crusading against Libya's rebels, the NATO-led alliance bombing Gadhafi troops from the air and anyone perceived of sympathizing with them or fueling the campaign against Gadhafi. That includes Western media and, particularly, the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, which she refers to as "the pig channel" in a rhyming play on words — the Arabic word for pig is "khanzeera."
Libya's crisis has made her a star — beloved by Gadhafi supporters and viewed with a mix of loathing and bemused fascination by the opposition.
Miriam al-Amani, a 23-year-old student in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in eastern Libya, called Misrati "a clown."
She said Misrati was not well known before, but her new incarnation since the uprising made her famous. "Now she's well known. Everyone in Libya knows who she is," al-Amani said with a laugh. "She lies so badly that nobody believes what she says," added al-Amani, who studies medicine at Benghazi's Garyounis University.
In contrast, an upper-class woman having tea with friends at a five-star hotel in the capital Tripoli was full of praise for Misrati.
"Libya runs through her veins," said the woman, a Gadhafi supporter. "She is bold. She has been able to show the truth in Benghazi and tell us what it's really like over there, no one else was brave enough to tell it how it is." The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because her husband holds a job in the state.
In one show, Misrati blasted Libya's U.N. ambassador, Mohamed Shalgham, who turned against Gadhafi, calling him "ignorant" and "an idiot" and saying "he is good for nothing but barking like a dog."
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In another, she said the prominent Qatar-based Muslim cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi was "the devil" after he criticized Misrati. "Al-Qaradawi is too stupid to judge me or (Libya's) press," she coolly said.
Her fiercest diatribe came against Iman al-Obeidi, a Libyan woman who last month burst into a Tripoli hotel where Western journalists are staying and told them she had been gang-raped by troops before security officials dragged her out.
"Iman, in the end, is a liar," Misrati said in a 10-minute rant, accusing al-Obeidi of pulling a media stunt. She dismissed her claims, saying no Arab woman would bring shame on her family by publicly admitting to rape. She told viewers that it was rebels who were raping women in the eastern territories they control. Misrati urged al-Obeidi to come clean with the truth because her claims were fueling the "bombardment" of Libya.
"Even sometimes a whore has nationalism toward her homeland, when she knows her homeland is in danger!" Misrati sneered. "Even a whore!"
Misrati has since vowed to "uncover" al-Obeidi's real life.
She aired footage of a later attempt to interview al-Obeidi. Misrati's film crew taunts the woman, who is seen curled up on the ground and refuses to be interviewed. It ends suddenly with Misrati screaming at al-Obeidi, "You and your kind have frittered away this country!"
Days later, Misrati conducted an interrogation on live television of al-Aqbani, a Syrian-Libyan journalist who the rights group Amnesty International said was snatched from her Tripoli home along with her brother by plainclothes gunmen on March 28.
Misrati accused her of helping prompt the international air campaign with her reports. As the defiant al-Aqbani tried to explain herself, Misrati interjected, "Sometimes a person lives in a fantasy ... But when you take fantasy outside (your head), without realizing, you pass on rumors and mistakes, and we pay the price of those mistakes under shelling."
Misrati later reassured her viewers that al-Aqbani wont be put to death. "She and her friends are not the head of the snake. Maybe the tail."
Eltahawy of Amnesty International said the whereabouts of al-Aqbani and her brother remains unknown.
Opponents relish in posting YouTube videos of her bloopers. In one famous misstep, she insisted that Muslims could not accept the U.N.'s move to "adopt" the resolution authorizing airstrikes over Libya, because Islam bans adoption — of children.
Misrati's launch as a fierce defender of Gadhafi's regime is all the more striking considering her past. In 2009, she was pulled off air during a live interview and interrogated by security officers, according to a report on the incident by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli released on the WikiLeaks site.
Misrati was interviewing Mustafa Zaidi, a senior member of the Revolutionary committees, a quasi-pro-Gadhafi paramilitary group. Although Misrati "downplayed" the incident, she "criticized the strictures placed on journalists in Libya by reactionary regime figures," according to the embassy report.
She began on TV only three years ago, according to her Internet resume.
Before that, she was an aspiring writer. She published a collection of short stories in 2007, "The Moon Has Another Face." A review by an Internet magazine Middle-East-Online praises the collection for Misrati's "humane honesty" and describes the woman who "is angry like a child about the lies of others."
Her lengthy blog — untouched since December — is a mix of personal reflections, essays about the Internet (with a law degree, she is a self-professed expert on cyber law) and short stories on lost love.
"I watched the movement of the clouds, with the sun hiding ominously behind them, annihilating the heavy rain," one of her stories begins, before tumbling into a tale of a woman disappointed in marriage.
The title of a series of entries on her blog even holds a bit of philosophy about how changeable life can be — like her surprising leap from writer to regime celebrity.
"Between today and tomorrow is chaos," it reads.
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