Earlier this month, workers modify a civilian pickup into a military vehicle,… (Giulio Petrocco / Associated…)
Reporting from Zintan, Libya — They are crossing the word "Jamahiriya" from their license plates, erasing a dictator's farcical vision of a "republic ruled by the masses." They are covering their green passport covers with the red, black and green flag of Libya before a young colonel named Moammar Kadafi came to power more than four decades ago.
And in the process, they are getting back their pride.
After being defined for decades by one eccentric man, Libyans may be on the verge of throwing off their leader, like their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia to the east and west did before them.
Photos: Libyan rebellion
"In the beginning, in Tunisia and Egypt they would joke about us," said Sanad Azabi, a Libyan consultant making his way through the Nafusa Mountains in Libya's west Monday. "They would say Libyan men bow down so the true men of Tunisia and Egypt can see one another."
As Kadafi's regime crumbles and rebels stream from the opposition-controlled mountains into the vital northwestern coastal cities now being contested by rebel fighters and Kadafi's loyalists, no one will joke anymore about Libyans' grit.
In a way, what they are doing is even more extraordinary than what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, relatively quick revolutions in which large constituencies turned against ruling families and brought down governments in weeks.
The battle for Libya may be far from over. Early Tuesday, an ambulance full of war-wounded rebels rushed toward the Tunisian border near Rojban, a town in the western mountains. Tracer fire was visible on the coastal plain as loyalists defended against a NATO bombardment.
But over six months, Libyans overcame their internal tribal and ethnic differences to present a relatively united front to the outside world, solicit international backing and build a ragtag citizen army that would take on and, seemingly, bring Kadafi to his knees.
Along the checkpoints leading from the Tunisian border into Libya, armed rebel fighters who only weeks ago nervously staffed checkpoints and grilled drivers now beam with joy as they wave cars along.
After lives spent under a man who ironically came to power claiming to restore Libyans' pride after decades of colonial rule and subservience to the West, they are now being spoken of as an inspiration for the rest of the Arab world.
"When has Libya ever been an inspiration for anything?" said Mohammad Zeira, a Libyan oil engineer in his 30s who fought against Kadafi in eastern Libya.
What makes Libyans' victories particularly impressive has been the shaking off of a cult of personality more extensive than any of the longtime rulers of the Arab world.
Kadafi's images, words, mythologies and idiosyncrasies shaped every aspect of Libya. Even the catchy pop songs on the radio are odes to the Brother Leader.
Whether or not Kadafi is caught and his sons stand trial on war crimes charges, whether or not the war for Tripoli ends this week or next year, Libyans are counting themselves victorious.
"He tried to destroy Libyan people, and wanted people to believe his rule would last forever," Azabi said. "He thought he would frighten us with several hundred killed at the beginning. But during the conflict against Italian colonization, we had thousands dead. He forgot his history."
Photos: Libyan rebellion