Crowds of school boys leaned over fences festooned with banners praising Lybian leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
They dawdled in streets decorated with the country's green flag and pictures of the "Brother Leader," as Colonel Qaddafi calls himself, to gawk at the best show in town – foreigners and their government minders brought to this desert town in southwest Libya to observe celebrations marking 30 years of The Green Book.
Qaddafi laid out his hybrid socialist and Islamic political system here 30 years ago Friday. And while access to Libya has been limited to Western journalists, now its leaders are eager to show off to the world the longevity of its "great revolution" as this country returns from international isolation.
Quotes from Qaddafi's manual for "direct democracy" are posted along roadsides and on buildings. They extol the virtues of his self-professed partyless, leaderless system in which people govern themselves through a "direct democracy" of committees and conferences.
Signs in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish read: "Partners not wage workers; no democracy without popular congresses and committees everywhere; party's abort democracy; representation is a falsification of democracy."
But the celebration of the anniversary and endurance of Qaddafi's political system and his revolution's ideals this week comes at a time when Libya is seeking to improve its image with the West.
The state was once bombed by the US in retaliation for an attack on a Berlin disco. It sought weapons of mass destruction and was labeled a sponsor of terrorism. It was sanctioned by the US and UN until it allowed two Libyans to be tried for their role in the downing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988. And now, it is finding a receptive ear in the United States.
That said, it still faces international pressure on a number of issues. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death last December after being found guilty of deliberately injecting more than 400 children with HIV. Leading international scientists found that the charges were groundless, and that the infections began before the medics arrived.
Qaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, told a Bulgarian newspaper recently that Libya would not carry out the death sentences.
On Feb. 26, the nurses pleaded not guilty to new charges of slandering security officers, a result of statements they made that they were tortured during police interrogations.
Even as Libya's relations with the West improve, the sting from years of isolation was readily apparent when Qaddafi addressed a conference whose title left little doubt as to his view of his place in the world: "The Sixth World Symposium on the Thought of Muammar al-Qaddafi."
"Why was Libya subject to an embargo? Why was Libya subject to international pressure...? We promoted a system where power is with the people. Why are you trying to criticize this? Why are you trying to bring it down? Because Libya has [rich] resources, wealth like oil and you want it for yourself," he said in a quiet, even tone to the audience of several hundred.
He also sought to position himself, as he has since he first took power, as a champion of weak nations.
"The [UN] Security Council is the worst tool ever put in place to implement laws. Has the Security Council ever been able to make resolutions against the five [permanent members]? It only happens against the small countries... when the Security Council meets, people of the small [countries] are afraid the power will be against them."
After Qaddafi finished his 45-minute speech, a man stood up to a microphone to deliver an ode to the aging dictator, saying he spoke for all of Egypt.
"Muammar you have been the symbol! Muammar you are the imam of the revolution and we hope you will continue to bring enlightenment," he shouted, reading from a paper.
Such displays of affection internally can be read two ways. Either as a sign of deep and abiding love for the flamboyant Qaddafi, or as a confirmation of the cult of personality that he has carefully cultivated for 30 years.
Streets names, squares, and even the building in Sebha that hosted the symposium commemorate moments in Qaddafi's career.
Indeed, at the symposium that journalists were shuttled to by the government, Green Book scholars – educated in the wisdom of the Colonel with Libyan government grants throughout the years – heaped praise on Qaddafi's famous book.
"The Green Book ... is a source for wisdom and [a] source of solutions to social and economic problems ... the Green Book [solves] the problems with modern democracy," said one fan who came all the way from Serbia.