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Why Qaddafi can no longer terrorize Libyans

While Qaddafi is trying to retake cities held by the opposition, the stunning shift in mood in 'liberated' Libya has unleashed a new sense of freedom – and the courage to defend it.

By Staff writer / March 1, 2011

A convoy of 18 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid bound for Benghazi, travels past a Libyan army tank and a mural adulating Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in the Tripoli suburb of Gaser Ben Ghisher on March 1.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

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Benghazi, Libya

Libya’s revolution is far from finished, with Muammar Qaddafi holed up in Tripoli and seemingly unassailable, surrounded by well-trained paramilitary brigades that answer to his son.

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In the past 24 hours he’s made forays – so far unsuccessful – to bring rebellious towns near the capital under control and, in at least one instance, dispatched MIG-23s to the eastern town of Ajdabiya, belying previous assertions of Air Force officers that deserted him that Qaddafi had almost no air power left under his control.

But even as military analysts warn that the longer Qaddafi hangs on in Tripoli, the greater his chances of ultimate survival, in liberated towns in the east there’s a stunning shift in mood. From ubiquitous graffiti mocking Qaddafi to middle-aged volunteers blaring a banned patriotic song as they drive through Benghazi, a new sense of freedom indicates that it will be hard for Libya's leader, who has terrorized his opponents for 41 years, to cow the populace ever again.

A younger generation has risen up not just here in Libya, but across the Arab world, shedding their own fears and then helping parents and older relatives to shed theirs. No ideology – not Islamism, or socialism, or any other "ism" – has yet to emerge as a driving force.

The theme that emerges here again and again is a desire for basic freedoms, a restoration of personal dignity, and never allowing a boot to be pressed on their throats again.

A steely student's new resolve

Take Saleh Darbak, a 20-year-old engineering student, who says he was protesting peacefully outside the Benghazi barracks when Libyan soldiers opened fire on Feb. 19.

Young men around him fell as he and hundreds of others scattered, pursued by regular Army forces still loyal to Qaddafi. He hid behind the Burka police station, but was soon caught. What followed was three days of detention, beatings, and threats against his family until Benghazi fell. A group of protesters soon released him.

He tells the tale in a nervous whisper, still clearly disturbed. But he says he’s a found a steel in himself he didn’t know was there before. “I’m going to keep volunteering for the revolution, even if that means marching on Tripoli,” he says. “If I don’t go, our hopes might be extinguished.”

As he sits on a couch in a downtown hotel, two balding, middle-aged Libyans pause and toss lapel pins of the independence flag – that has replaced Qaddafi’s flag, here – to Darbak and a young friend. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore,” says one of them. “Speak, speak freely.”

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