'Raise your head,” reads a graffito as you cross the Libyan border on the desert road coming from Tunisia. “You’re in Libya.” Most of the graffiti along the route leading to Tripoli that refer to the one-time “Brother Leader,” Muammar Qaddafi, aren’t as dignified. But having suffered for over four decades, Libyans can be excused if they’re a bit vulgar regarding the downfall of the Mad Dog, as Ronald Reagan once called him. And so I had to smile at the spray-painted declarations that “Qaddafi is a son of a bitch,” and the caricatures depicting the strongman with snot coming out of his nose, and the other crude denunciations that grace every imaginable surface in free Libya.
Six months after protests erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi, rebel forces fighting under the auspices of the internationally recognized National Transitional Council (NTC) finally appear to have achieved their goal of toppling the Qaddafi regime. When initial reports emerged that rebels had entered Tripoli and made their assault on the dictator’s massive compound, Bab Al Azizia, the momentum of the past half-year made the downfall of Qaddafi all but inevitable.
Reporters have grown used to taking rebel assertions with a grain of salt. Claims that the rebels had liberated whole cities, seized strategic sites, or captured key regime figures (like Qaddafi’s favorite son, the London School of Economics Ph.D. Saif al-Islam) would often be followed by reports to the contrary. But with the free Libyan forces controlling almost all of Tripoli (as evidenced by the slew of checkpoints at practically every other intersection), and with cars driving through streets with the pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag proudly on display, it seems only a matter of time before the last regime loyalists across the country are killed, captured, or simply give up.
That the civil war took so long, and that scattered fighting is still going on in Tripoli and in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, shows just how far the Libyan dictator has been willing to go in defiance of his own people and the world. No Libyan doubted that once protests broke out on February 17, Qaddafi was willing to murder as many of his own people as necessary to remain in power. One would think that a “rational” dictator faced with an armed popular uprising and NATO bombardment, and concerned about self-preservation, would at some point give in to reality and accept an escape clause. But to presume that Qaddafi is rational is to misunderstand the nature of his dictatorship. His mad, grumbling orders last week to “purify” Tripoli of “rats, crusaders, and unbelievers,” the latest in a stream of eliminationist rhetoric, are the words of a man obviously willing to commit wholesale mass murder. It is to the credit of NATO that it decided to demonstrate that the alliance would not tolerate the perpetration of such atrocities.
A spirit of camaraderie is evident in the faces of the Libyan rebel fighters; they are rightly proud of what they have accomplished. Making my way into Libya last week via Dehiba, Tunisia, the only open land border crossing between the two countries, I stopped for a few hours in the western city of Zintan, which has been in rebel hands since April, and then proceeded to Zawiya, a suburb of Tripoli. The only working guesthouse was full of journalists, but the rebels provided me with accommodation in a grungy apartment resembling a crack den.
Later in the evening, I sat with some young rebel fighters, including Mabrouk Zagrouba, one of Zawiya’s local heroes. He is a short man, decked out in a white gown and a “FREE LIBYA” baseball cap. A former military officer, he appeared earlier this year in a widely circulated YouTube video that showed him donning fatigues while lambasting Qaddafi. He was arrested on March 17 and tortured for four days before rebels managed to free him.
The young men admire Zagrouba. The minute he crosses the gate they surround him with cheers, and he responds in kind by showering them with kisses on their cheeks. In one sentence he captures the worst indignity of dictatorship: how it turns ordinary men into monsters. “I never in my dreams imagined that Libyans like us—people from the internal security, military police—can do this to Libyans like me,” he told me.
Zagrouba has a novel idea of revolutionary justice: He wants to see Qaddafi captured, tried, and then every year on February 17 made to sit in a cage in a public square to face the ridicule of the people whom he humiliated and oppressed for 42 years.
The determination of Qaddafi’s hardened loyalists to keep the regime afloat is evidenced in the carnage that they have wrought across the country, particularly in Tripoli, which for a week was transformed into a jungle of urban warfare. It remains a ghost town. Driving in from Zawiya, about an hour west of Tripoli, there was almost no one on the streets, dotted with the hulks of tanks. A massive, metal statue of The Green Book, the vain compilation of Qaddafi’s insane, Islamo-Marxist rants, has fallen from its formerly privileged place overlooking a crossroads.
“Without Qaddafi, everything is going to be okay,” Mohammed al-Bosefi, a 24-year-old medical student, tells me. That simple sentiment encapsulates what practically everyone in Libya thinks—with the exception of those men, many of them mercenaries, still fighting for Qaddafi. “He’s a criminal,” says Isa Abudiyeh, a 70-year-old Libyan whom I met on the Tunisia-Libya border. “He supported crimes against the world, so the [world] helped us because they wanted to stop it. And they stopped it.”
Libya has been brought so low by the degradations of the Qaddafi mafia that the only place to go is up. It is not reassuring to see boys who look no older than 15 walking around hotel lobbies with Kalashnikovs. Integrating them into a functioning, democratic, and stable state will not be easy. But there is a sense here of national unity, of pride in having accomplished something unthinkable, that one hopes will carry over into the rebuilding effort. For too long, the peoples of the Arab world have lived in humiliation, with their heads perpetually bowed to tyrants, kings, and lunatics like Qaddafi. As victory in Tripoli draws near, at least one thing about Libya is sure—its people can indeed raise their heads high.
James Kirchick is writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.