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.

Chris Helgren/Reuters
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.

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.

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.”

In the lobby later, one of the older men explains the pins. “The youth showed us something was possible that we only dreamed about,” he says. “This is their revolution.”

Cartoon consigns Qaddafi to dustbin of history

Across Benghazi, the changes – that began with peaceful protests against Qaddafi, but escalated into a full-scale armed rebellion – are stunning. The town shrine to Qaddafi’s hated “green book,” which underscored his one-man rule, is a burned out hulk.

Qaddafi’s ubiquitous picture has been pulled down everywhere, and carpets with his likeness have been placed outside some buildings to be trampled on.

At the central courthouse that’s serving as revolutionary headquarters here, there’s a poster-board cartoon of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife, Laila, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak Hosni Mubarak trying to get into a garbage can marked "history." A manic-haired Qaddafi lurks in the background saying, “Wait for me!”

This a city now covered in anti-Qaddafi graffiti and cartoons. There is the ever-popular “game over” from youths raised on video games; cartoons equating Qaddafi to the state of Israel and Hitler (both symbols of repression to Libyans); and drawings of him as a vampire and as a Krusty the Clown-type buffoon.

All that would have earned jail, or worse, just a few short weeks ago. On a ride across town with a group of middle-aged revolutionary volunteers, the previously banned song “We will stay here” comes on the radio. It’s immediately cranked all the way up, the whole car singing along and flashing V signs to the other cars, who are likewise tuned to the “Voice of Free Libya,” the first uncensored radio station here in decades.

It was written in 2002 by Adel el-Mushaidi, a medical student who spent three years in jail in the 1990s for speaking out against Qaddafi. The patriotic song was soon banned from the airwaves, and is now a favorite among protesters downtown waiting for the fall of Tripoli.

“It’s all about love of country and identifying with the people’s suffering,” says Najla Elmangoush. “It doesn’t mention Qaddafi at all, and he hated this. He wanted to be the symbol of all good things in Libya. That kind of patriotism was threatening to him.”

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