Uprising shatters Gadhafi image of absolute power

/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

"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."