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Gaddafi bankrolled scores of rebel movements across Africa, particularly in Chad, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and, during the years of apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and the armed wing of the African National Congress. Gaddafi also financed the Black September movement, the Palestinian terrorist group blamed for the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich. In 1986, Libyan agents bombed a Berlin disco popular with U.S. servicemen, killing two sergeants and a Turkish woman. Reagan retaliated by having Tripoli and Benghazi bombed, killing 60, including Gaddafi's adopted daughter. Two years later, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland (in which 270 were killed), was blamed on Libyan agents, and the country was slapped with economic sanctions.
This didn't prevent Libya from exporting oil, however. Nor did it curb Gaddafi's eccentricities: when his efforts to play a bigger role in Arab affairs were rebuffed, he began to push for the unification of African nations into a single political entity. Many African leaders were happy to take his money but indulged his fantasies only so far as to make him president of the African Union for a year. "He was able to buy influence, but there's not many African countries that actively support him," says Adekeye Adebajo, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. "Even though Gaddafi has long portrayed himself as an African, the support was always opportunistic and never that deep."
Opportunism nicely defines Gaddafi in recent years. Beneath the bluster and buffoonery, he has shrewdly assessed where his best interests lie. In mid-2003, Libya finally accepted responsibility for the Pan Am bombing and agreed to pay up to $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the victims. Gaddafi also admitted to having a nuclear-weapons program, which he then dismantled under international supervision. (The Bush Administration claimed he had been spooked by the invasion of Iraq.) In the years that followed, as Western nations including the U.S. normalized relations with Tripoli, foreign investment flooded into the country.
But much of the new bounty was confined to a small circle, which included Gaddafi's children. Most of his seven sons had acquired reputations for high living in Europe's playgrounds for the rich, but two of them stood out as possible successors: Saif al-Islam, the second son, and Mutassim, the fourth. Western-educated Saif courted foreign investors and quickly came to be seen as a force for economic and political reform; Mutassim, who spent millions on lavish birthday parties, became Gaddafi's national-security adviser. It was well known in Tripoli's diplomatic and political circles, however, that the two brothers detested each other. A classified November 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy to the State Department, disclosed by WikiLeaks, reported that Gaddafi had "placed his sons on a succession high wire act, perpetually thrown off balance, in what might be a calculated effort ... to prevent any one of them from authoritatively gaining the prize." (Another brother, Khamis, leads a crack military unit.)
However ambitious and extravagant they may have been, his children were all dwarfed by Gaddafi's outsize personality. His eccentricities grew more pronounced with age: on his foreign travels, he usually lived in a luxury tent he has a phobia about multistory buildings and his bodyguards are all women. Other cables released by WikiLeaks described him as a hypochondriac who insisted on being accompanied everywhere by a buxom Ukrainian nurse.
Yet for all his odd behavior, Gaddafi continued to exercise authority in Libya. He personally supervised major government contracts, distributing favorable deals among his cronies and influential tribal chieftains. One vivid diplomatic cable used a Libyan fable to describe his handling of the country's complex tribal politics. The fable tells "of a race in which participants have to carry a sack of rats a certain distance before they chew through the bag. [Gaddafi] wins because he figures out that by constantly shaking the bag, the rats are too disoriented to make their way out."
After the Brother Leader
Now the Gaddafis want the world to believe that without them, Libya's rats will run free. In his Feb. 20 speech, Saif al-Islam warned that the country would regress into tribal wars and turn into a place where "everyone wants to become a sheik or an emir." Dire prophecies are typical of flailing regimes, but the Gaddafis aren't alone in predicting trouble in their wake. Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Tripoli, says tribalism won't necessarily lead to conflict but notes that the country faces a larger problem: a scarcity of durable institutions. He points out that unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, in Libya the army doesn't enjoy widespread respect. "Maybe these ambassadors who have been resigning can play a role," Miles says. "But you have to make sure that they aren't just rats leaving a sinking ship."
A rosier view comes from Libyans who hold that their nation is more than a confederation of tribes. "We're not the medieval society Saif described," says Abdelnabi Yasin, an exiled writer and political activist based in Athens, Ga. The young people who led protests, he argues, "see themselves as Libyans first. Their tribal identities are not as important as it was to their parents."
Yasin believes that any post-Gaddafi government will include the officials and generals who split with the dictator. Hisham Matar, a Libyan novelist based in London, says new leaders are emerging from the youth movement. Liberated cities like Benghazi are already being run by committees, each with a specific task: sanitation, food delivery and so on. The committees are led by engineers, doctors and other educated people the kind who can form the next government. "The ingredients for the future have to come from the movement itself," Matar says. "And the movement is civil and inclusive and calling for universal human rights and justice."
That accurately describes political-science professor Fathi Baja, who joined the protests in Benghazi with his daughter Hamida. Now he and several other leading activists in Benghazi are preparing a manifesto for the revolution the draft, he says, for a future Libya. "It will clarify the nature of this revolution," he says. "[This] revolution is going towards the creation of modern Libya, freedom and democracy based on a pluralistic society, based on human rights, participation of all parts of Libya in creating their government and their institutions."
If that sounds like the impossibly optimistic vision of youth, consider this: at 58, Fathi Baja is old enough to remember when he joined his first political demonstration. It was on Sept. 1, 1969, when excited crowds poured into the streets of Benghazi to chant their support for the dashing 27-year-old junior officer who had just ousted Libya's King. Muammar Gaddafi has long outstayed that welcome.
with reporting by Vivienne Walt / Paris, Abigail Hauslohner / Tobruk, Eben Harrell / London, Alex Perry / Cape Town and Michael Scherer and Massimo Calabresi / Washington
This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.