x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Whereabouts of Libya's Qaddafi remain a mystery

Despite Libyan leader's vow to remain with his supporters until the end, rumours circulate that Qaddafi may have left Tripoli, or even Libya.

TATAOUINE, TUNISIA // Six months ago yesterday Muammer Qaddafi vowed in a speech in Tripoli to hunt down his opponents "inch by inch, room by room, house by house and "zenga zenga"- "alley by alley" in colloquial Libyan Arabic.

Yesterday Col Qaddafi had become the hunted as rebel forces laid siege to Bab Al Aziziya, his fortified command centre and residence near the heart of the Libyan capital.

While Col Qaddafi's whereabouts remained a mystery yesterday, last weekend's rebel advance into Tripoli all but ensured that the man who once aspired to lead the Arabs - and later, Africa - will never again wield power.

The rebel leadership in Benghazi, meanwhile, has drafted a proposed new constitution for Libya, while the International Criminal Court is after Col Qaddafi and his son, Saif al Islam, both accused of crimes against humanity.

Rebel leaders said they arrested Saif al Islam Qaddafi, as well as his brothers Mohammed and Saadi.

Col Qaddafi has not been seen in public since appearing on television in June with a Russian chess champion, and his recent telephone addresses have been delivered via increasingly scratchy lines.

Rumours circulated over the weekend that Col Qaddafi might have slipped out of Tripoli or even fled abroad, prompting countries including Tunisia and South Africa to deny plans to grant him refuge.

In a Sunday night broadcast, delivered as rebel forces pushed deeper into Tripoli, Col Qaddafi told Libyans that he was still in the city and promised to stay "with you until the end".

Col Qaddafi was born in 1942 to a livestock trader in the Fezzan, Libya's desert interior, and grew up in the coastal city of Sirte.

Libya was ruled then by the pro-western king, Idris, installed by victorious Allied powers after the Second World War ended three decades of Italian colonialism.

In his spare time, young Col Qaddafi scoured cloth merchants for banner-making materials and led student demonstrations for the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose Arab nationalism he idolised.

In 1961, two years after the discovery of oil brought foreign oil firms to Libya, the young Qaddafi joined the military academy.

In 1969, he led the military coup that toppled King Idris. The officers behind the coup issued a statement that declared their aims as "unity, freedom and socialism" and warned that any attempt to stop them would "crushed ruthlessly and decisively" - a theme repeated in later speeches by Col Qaddafi.

Once in power, he banned political parties and built an authoritarian system with himself as "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution".

For years, Libyans have taken Col Qaddafi at his word. Until this year, few had openly criticised either him or his four-decade rule. February's "Zenga Zenga" speech, however, may have marked a turning point.

As Libya erupted in revolt, the song became an anti-regime anthem of sorts after Israeli journalist, musician and internet enthusiast Noy Alooshe transformed it into a YouTube hit with a touch of editing and backing trance music.

"Zenga Zenga" soon went viral, with nearly 500,000 hits within its first week online, according to The New York Times.

The song became a regional favourite, played often by radio stations in neighbouring Tunisia, whose January revolution helped inspire the uprising against Col Qaddafi.

When rebel forces stormed into Tripoli, some fighters observed by the Associated Press reportedly jeered at Col Qaddafi as "frizz-head" after his mop of squiggly black hair.

It is also possible that Libyans will fulfil a prediction that Mr Alooshe, cited by The New York Times, said he received in an online message: that if Col Qaddafi should fall, "We will dance to Zenga Zenga in the square."

jthorne@thenational.ae