* Many Libyans shake off flamboyant, repressive leader
* Gaddafi outlined "Third Universal Way" to rule
* Many ordinary Libyans say petrodollars squandered
By Edmund Blair
CAIRO, Feb 25 There were, give or take, 1,000
tanks. They tore up Tripoli's seafront boulevard, literally.
None had rubber pads to protect the road surface from the metal
tracks. The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, looked on.
He was seated on a podium, with a handful of other African
and Arab leaders and officials. It was 1994 and he was
celebrating 25 years of a revolution that swept him to power.
The trip, my first to Libya, gave me a close-up view of
Gaddafi's idiosyncratic system of rule, now teetering as rebels
have taken charge of huge swathes of the country.
I also had a brush -- very briefly -- with the erratic man
himself, who in the space of two days has called the rebels
"cockroaches" and "rats" to be crushed or simply out of control
youths who are high on Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.
But for Libyans rebelling against Gaddafi, the reasons for
their revolt are simpler. They are tired of their flamboyant
leader and his repressive policies that have failed to provide
enough jobs in a country awash with oil wealth.
Back at the parade, I counted the tanks. There was not much
else to do as the endless rows passed, chewing up the tarmac
into dust and grit.
It was a traditional show of strength, though many of the
Russian T-55s and T-72s, outdated even then, sputtered out
clouds of black exhaust. At least one stalled before restarting.
Then I had my first -- fairly close -- encounter with
Gaddafi. I was working for a magazine that covered Middle East
affairs at the time. Photographers were invited to the podium to
snap "the Brother leader", the title Libyan media prefers.
I am not a professional photographer, and not a very good
amateur one either. But I did have my Minolta SLR. So I queued
up with the serious snappers. Officials didn't seem to care. I
had my turn crouched at Gaddafi's feet, clicking away.
He wore a smart white military jacket, with a breast full of
medals, white cap and his trademark dark glasses. He has always
been exuberant in his style -- one day flowing tribal robes,
another military garb and then on others his swish, and I
suspect Italian-made, suits. That day was no exception.
Below him, tanks gave way to trucks loaded with sections of
concrete pipes, several metres in diameter, parts of "the Great
Manmade River", a vast project on which Gaddafi has splurged
billions of petrodollars to pump water from ancient desert
aquifers in the south to coastal farms in the north.
The project, begun in the 1980s, now feeds water to some
areas. But Libya's coastal plains are not the bountiful
farmlands promised. Instead, they are full of youths, often well
educated, trying to find jobs. Many have now finally tired of
waiting for Gaddafi to deliver on his economic commitments.
Those pledges are laid out in Gaddafi's "Green Book"
outlining his "Third Universal Way". It might be described as
Marx meets Malcolm-X, touching on the slavery of wages, the
failure of parliamentary democracy and black power.
"The blacks will prevail in the world," was one of the
slogans from the book plastered in cabins of the ship that in
1994 took me from the island state of Malta to Tripoli.
Libya at that time was under an air embargo, imposed after
Tripoli was accused of bombing a Pan Am jumbo over Scotland.
"A parliament is a misrepresentation of the people and
parliamentary governments are a misleading solution to the
problem of democracy," Gaddafi writes, describing his "happy
discovery of the way to direct democracy" involving people's
congresses and committees around the country.
Those committees and congresses, particularly in eastern
Libya, have collapsed. A new kind of direct rule has emerged, no
longer swearing allegiance to Gaddafi. Cities like Benghazi are
now firmly in the hands of the people.
Back in 1994, any such aspirations were a long way off and
Gaddafi had his international admirers. Next to me at one speech
was a group representing the Sandinista movement of Nicaragua.
As he does now, Gaddafi rambled on, his address lasting more
than a hour. And just as he did on Tuesday, when he addressed
and threatened rebellious Libyans in a televised speech, he
ended with his clenched fists in the air. It was vintage
Shortly after that, I had my closest brush with the leader
himself. It was about midnight when there was knock on the hotel
room door. Other journalists and I were hurried out to attend a
ceremony to award a Gaddafi-backed human rights prize.
That year, it went to an African human rights group. It has
since gone to Hugo Chavez, Louis Farrakhan and Fidel Castro.
Bundled into a minibus, we were whisked off to a tent, a
favoured retreat of the Libyan leader.
Gaddafi arrived. He pushed through the crowd. This was no
typical entrance of an Arab leader, or any other leader for that
matter, where a path is cleared by security beforehand or a
president emerges from a well-guarded rear entrance.
In the melee, I was, for a brief moment, crushed up against
him. This time, he was in a shiny, grey, well-cut
double-breasted jacket. At such close quarters, I could see his
face plastered in heavy make-up. His hair clearly dyed jet
He pushed through what looked for that moment more like a
paparazzi scrum around a film star. His head was held high. Too
close for me to raise my camera, that image is a personal one.
I have travelled back to Libya several times since then to
report for Reuters. Subsequent trips were never quite so
colourful. Instead, I wrote about efforts to revive the economy
and daily frustrations of Libyans tired of their lot.
One of my photos was published by my magazine. It wasn't
very good. I think my editor was humouring me. But the trip gave
me, as a young reporter, a close up view of Gaddafi's style. As
he clings to power now, I doubt I'll get that opportunity again.
(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Caroline Drees)