TRIPOLI (Reuters) - From Benghazi to Tripoli the message sprayed across the walls is the same: “Every tyrant has his end.”
Yet Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s end was as unpredictable as his flamboyant character.
The seismic change that swept Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of the year has now reached the shores of Tripoli, turning the political landscape upside down. Libyans, from villages and towns, from all tribes and classes, Islamists and secularists, have rallied behind the rebel movement.
The implosion of Gaddafi’s authority last Sunday after 41 years of capriciously brutal rule brought tears as well as joy to Ali Salem al-Ghiryani.
“I am 50 years old now. This is the first time I feel such happiness in my life. ”I had hoped not to die before seeing this day (Gaddafi toppled).
“He suppressed us with bullets and an iron fist. We lived in fear. Nobody dared protest or utter a critical word but we were encouraged by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.”
It was hard to imagine only six months ago that Libyans, who endured arrest, torture and exile at the hands of Gaddafi’s security services and forces, would rise up and eventually win.
“We lived in terror and fear. We used to turn down the volume when we watched al-Jazeera or Libyan opposition channels,” said Kheiri Abdulsalam, 22, a law student.
“Our phones were bugged. We spoke in coded messages if we wanted to say something that was not in favour of the government. We had informants planted among us in neighbourhoods,” he added.
The rebels, who seized Benghazi and other cities early after the uprising began on February 17, made their final push into Tripoli on Saturday, overrunning Gaddafi’s stronghold with little resistance and forcing him into hiding.
Yet the hunt for Gaddafi is not yet over with rebel special forces engaged in daily missions and clashes with Gaddafi’s fighters who still control some pockets of resistance in areas south of Tripoli and in Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace.
Rebels, waving freedom flags and brandishing rifles and rocket launchers are still exhilarated by their victory, roaming the city shouting: “ Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest): Libya is free.”
The people who used to express support for Gaddafi have disappeared or gone silent.
Even more astonishing was the wide popular support that greeted the rebels as they rolled into Tripoli, given the fear that had prevailed among the population and the oppressive nature of the government.
Televised scenes of rebels smashing a statute of Gaddafi at his Bab al-Aziziya compound, trampling on his pictures, going into his bedroom to seize his personal belongings and into his garages to commandeer his cars will have stunned Libyans.
Residents are still in awe and disbelief.
“It is as if this is a dream or a movie, not real. I cannot believe what I am seeing. I keep reminding myself that is real,” said Sauad Abdel Salam, a mother of seven, 48.
Like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali before him, not many mourned Gaddafi’s fall.
“He has done nothing good for people to like him. When he appeared on TV people used to curse him,” said Ali Abdel Salam.
“I feel on top of the world. We’re very happy but when we hunt him down we will be even happier,” said Ayman Kroudi, 23, accountancy student and rebel.
“Gaddafi ruled us by the sword, by iron and fire. I hope that the rebels will be able to catch him and try him,” said Nihad Tarek, 32 and unemployed.
The Libya the rebels inherit is a potentially wealthy oil-producing country which suffers from poverty, unemployment, a high birth rate, lack of opportunity and rickety infrastructure outside pockets of affluence such as Tripoli.
The desert road to Tripoli from the border town of Nalut is an unrelieved sequence of dirt-poor towns and villages with half-finished breeze-block buildings that in no way reflects the potential wealth of Libya.
Most of all, Gaddafi’s rule destroyed all institutional life and prevented the emergence of all alternative centres of power. Like the two other Arab leaders overthrown before him Libya’s wealth was concentrated among a tiny minority related to him by blood or tribe.
“This was a totalitarian regime that deprived us of the simplest thing. It even banned us from learning foreign languages. It was a backward regime that promoted ignorance,” said Asma, a 19-year-old student.
Repression, lack of opportunity and hope drove many young men to emigrate for in search of a better life.
Many Libyans will not only be relieved that the Gaddafi era is drawing to a close but that their country now has the chance to develop a reputation for something other than terrorism.
Over the years Gaddafi’s support for a range of terrorism and liberation movement and involvement in notorious attacks such as the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, made Libya synonymous with terrorism.
“In the west people saw Libyans through the prism of Gaddafi. Whenever I travelled to London or Italy and said I was from Libya people automatically associated our country with the Lockerbie bombing,” he said.
Now many Libyans are proud that an alliance with NATO that helped the rebels into power shows they can be embraced by the international community. One slogan on the walls of liberated towns read: “Thanks NATO, you have saved our lives.”
After the euphoric celebrations, the streets of Tripoli were tense, echoing to the rattle of machine gun fire and clashes between pockets of Gaddafi forces and rebels.
Saad Djebbar, a Libyan expert and lawyer, said the rebel leadership should now create a modern Libyan state, democratic and inclusive, by appointing a caretaker government and drafting a constitution.
The final phase of the revolution has a special meaning for Libyans as it is taking place as they celebrate Ramadan, and the Eid al-Fitr which follows the fasting month.
“This is the best Ramadan we have had, no one felt any thirst, any hunger and they are all fasting,” said Kroudi, the accountant.
But ordinary Libyans are also voicing concern at the sight of gung-ho rebels controlling the streets. They want Gaddafi out but they also want security and stability.
“The future will be better but the guns should be collected from the hands of people,” said Souad Abdel Salam, a housewife.
Editing by Giles Elgood