How absolute is Qaddafi's power? 4 key questions.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has long elicited chuckles abroad with his outlandish attire and over-the-top rhetoric, but his brutal crackdown this week is no laughing matter. This backgrounder offers a look at how the eccentric dictator came to power – and how he's held on to it for 41 years.

How absolute is his power?

Libyan State Television/Reuters
Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi speaks on national television from Tripoli in this Feb. 22 still image taken from video.

Mr. Qaddafi rose to power largely through the ranks of the military, becoming a colonel. But after taking charge in a 1969 bloodless coup, he abolished all military ranks above his own.

Since then, he has maintained his rule by crushing any dissent. He has staffed most of the key government and military posts, as well as his personal security forces, with family and loyal members of his tribe. His recent speeches have made it clear that he calls the shots in the country.

Qaddafi speech: More Saddam Hussein than Mubarak

But his power is significantly weaker in the eastern part of the country, which was the center of power prior to Qaddafi’s takeover and where protests began. Qaddafi made little effort to cultivate loyalty there, instead making Tripoli the new capital, shifting power to the west, and leaving the east to stagnate.

Eyewitness reports say that there now appears to be no government control in the East.

Libya was ruled as three autonomous states prior to Qaddafi’s takeover, and he is credited with forcing the three entities into one state. Without Qaddafi at the helm, Libya could break apart again, some experts say.

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