Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Tuesday, 1 September 2009 00:18 UK

Libya leader's lesson in longevity

A poster of Col Gaddafi near Tripoli, Libya, on 1 September 2009

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Tripoli

It is a rule of thumb in any Middle Eastern country that the more pictures of the leader you see, the less political freedom there is.

In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi is everywhere. He stares down from every traffic roundabout and every official building.

Ever flamboyant, sometimes he is in colourful African robes, sometimes in Bedouin head-dress (and usually with his own idiosyncratic interpretation of these styles).

Col Gaddafi in Green Square, Tripoli
Col Gaddafi has no official government role - in practice, he holds sway

Occasionally he sports the large mirrored sun-glasses favoured by comic-strip dictators and 1970s porn stars.

Here and there, you catch a glimpse of a much younger Muammar Gaddafi, a reminder that he came to power 40 years ago in a military coup aged just 27, when his rank was a mere captain.

He promoted himself to colonel. Others might have given themselves the rank of field marshal, or at least general.

But Col Gaddafi said Libya was a true people's democracy. Even today, he has no official government position but is referred to as "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution".

Rare dissent

Libya is, though, not a democracy as that term is understood in Europe or America.

One measure of that is how difficult it was to find anyone inside the country prepared to make even the slightest criticism of the regime.

It is disaster for Libya to have this regime for 40 years, the UK, France, Italy, I don't know why they support this dictatorship
Jamal al-Haggi
Libyan dissident

With the help of the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch, one dissident was prepared to say what many Libyans may be thinking but are too fearful to express.

Thanks to Western pressure, Jamal al-Haggi was freed earlier this year after serving two years of a 12-year sentence. He was only too well aware that meeting foreign journalists was extremely risky.

A small, neat man and an accountant by profession, Mr Haggi said he had been unable to work since leaving prison.

He said he was prepared to go to jail again, but did not want to get anyone else into trouble.

So we conducted the interview in the back of a car driving around Tripoli, rather than go to his home or someone's office.

Embarrassing questions

"Yes it is dangerous, I am not safe," he said, acknowledging that "insulting public officials" or "opposing the ideology of the revolution" are criminal offences that could result in a 25-year jail sentence.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,
Western leaders stayed away, but Hugo Chavez was happy to be seen

But he went on: "I am not afraid. There is nothing else to lose."

A brave statement, but one in defiance of the facts in a country where the death penalty remains on the books for joining or forming any independent political party opposed to the Libyan revolution.

"People didn't vote for it [the Gadaffi regime], it came by force," he said.

"So this is not a celebration for everyone; just for a few people who are doing well out of the system."

He added: "It is disaster for Libya to have this regime for 40 years. There is no freedom here; there is no democracy. The UK, France, Italy, I don't know why they support this dictatorship - but we will never forget."

Western leaders did not attend Col Gaddafi's big party in Tripoli.

British ministerial attendance would only have raised embarrassing Lockerbie questions, of course.

The West may be desperate to win lucrative trade deals from the Libyan leader, but governments are still wary of his regime.

While Libya's relations with the West have been transformed, internal reform is slow and small.

That may not change as long as Col Gadaffi remains - and four decades on, his grip on power seems as sure and as strong as ever.

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