Reporting from Cairo — Moammar Kadafi's many vanities led the Libyan leader and his intelligence network into miscalculating the breadth of outrage against him in his own land. Long one of the Arab world's most perplexing personalities, Kadafi has traveled the globe with a tent, warning against foreign intervention while polishing his image at home as the country's "Brotherly Leader."
But the unrest sweeping the tribal nation is a sign that after four decades in power, Kadafi has lost the support of key clans and loyalists, and has steadily relied on repression to stay in power. It is as if he failed to grasp the dynamic of change emanating from Tunisia to his west and Egypt to his east.
"Kadafi's biggest mistake was that he built his whole regime on pure fear," said Omar Amer, a member of the Libyan Youth Movement, a protest group that spreads its message through Facebook. "He totally abandoned civilizing Libya. He neglected education and development projects. He left the majority of his people in the dark ages and built his might on fear through torturing and killing political dissidents in public.
"But the fear that Kadafi built his empire with is gone, and that was his last shelter," Amer added.
Kadafi lost the eastern city of Benghazi to demonstrators, and protesters roamed the streets and set fires in the capital, Tripoli. Fighter jets streaked overhead. Government buildings burned; holes were punched through his portraits. Such scenes, captured on cellphone videos streaming out of his isolated country, revealed the vulnerable edifice of a leader who once seemed unconquerable.
"There had been an idea across the Middle East that the regimes were very strong and they cannot be changed or challenged," said Lahcen Achy, an expert on North Africa with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "With the changes that happened in Tunisia and Egypt, everyone began questioning this idea. Libya is another case. People thought Kadafi could not be challenged."
Kadafi has cast a curious political shadow across North Africa and the Middle East throughout a 41-year rule in which he has veered from terrorist plotter to oil-rich opportunist. But the man with the trademark sunglasses and unchained verbosity has never encountered anything like the protest movement that has flared across his cities, leading several top officials to abandon him and two large tribes to side with demonstrators.
Kadafi was a 27-year-old lieutenant colonel when he led a 1969 coup against Libya's pro-West monarchy. Switching over the decades from flowing desert robes to military regalia and a chest full of medals, he has championed nationalism, pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism and Jamahiriya, or a "republic ruled by the masses." Not known for brevity, Kadafi, now 68, has elaborated his ideologies in circuitous, numbing speeches.
That ponderousness has been backed in recent years by $50 billion in annual oil revenues for a population of only 6 million. But that money has failed to lift many young people out of poverty or provide decent schools, hospitals and other institutions. The man who called himself Brotherly Leader failed to inspire the nation, while his security apparatus crushed any opposition voices.
There have been recent attempts at economic reforms, most notably led by Kadafi's son Seif Islam. Those measures drew many intellectual and business exiles back home with the idea of opening Libya up to the modern world. The moves, however, soon appeared less than genuine.
"There came a point in the past few years when the government put a lot of effort into going out and seeking dissidents who were abroad," said Molly Tarhuni, an independent analyst doing research at the London School of Economics. "That was the face of the reform effort.... Then it got completely shelved, which was a real kick in the teeth."
Libya's links to terrorism over the years, including an attack on a Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers, prompted President Reagan, who called Kadafi the "mad dog of the Middle East," to bomb Libya in 1986. Two years later, Tripoli was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi was convicted in 2001.
Kadafi agreed to pay nearly $3 billion in compensation to families of the airline bombing victims. Megrahi was released from prison in 2009 for medical reasons, drawing criticism in Britain that a deal with Kadafi had been made over protecting European businesses and trade.
"There was a period when he was popular in the Arab world because of his positions against Israel and the U.S.," Achy said. "But at the end of the day, if we look at his vision for the economy or even the foreign policy of Libya, he has no consistency or constructive views on how to develop the country."