BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Cowed for four decades by Muammar Gaddafi’s oppressive rule, eastern Libya is now awash with cartoons and jokes about him, helping people shake off his personality cult and deep fear of his security apparatus.
In Benghazi, Libya’s second city, one cartoon on the wall of a state building portrays the Libyan leader as “Super Thief” in a superman costume with a dollar sign instead of an “S” on his chest; another shows him in a dustbin labeled “history.”
After 41 years of absolute power, Gaddafi has seen control of eastern Libya wrested from him by a wave of protests, despite defiant television appearances last week including one interview given while leaning out of a van holding a large umbrella.
It is because fear of his government and security forces was so great and opposition almost non-existent that the mockery in eastern Libya has been so exuberant and cathartic, people said.
Gaddafi’s quirky, eccentric style, his penchant for flowing robes, Ruritanian military uniforms and flamboyant women bodyguards, has given cartoonists and others a rich seam of material for mockery.
On Benghazi’s seafront promenade, a youth dressed in a scraggly Gaddafi wig, aviator sunglasses and holding an umbrella paraded in an open truck, bringing traffic to a near standstill to hoots of laughter and blaring of car horns.
“We’re letting off steam, expressing ourselves. He didn’t just commit military crimes, but crimes against our minds, thought crimes,” said teacher Fatima al-Shaksy, 42.
Gaddafi, now clinging to power in western Libya in the face of mounting protests, encouraged a personality cult through the obligatory teaching in schools of his thoughts and philosophies, laid out in a tome known as the “Green Book.”
He has called himself the “king of kings,” and in an echo of the “dear leader” term of adulation used for North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Gaddafi refers to himself as the “brotherly leader.”
Libyans said neighbors, husbands and wives, parents and children, hid negative feelings about Gaddafi from each other, in case they were denounced to the state security apparatus.
“He’s insane. He’s brainwashed some people from a young age. It’s unbelievable — we’re Muslims and you’re no prophet; you’re a murderer,” said banker Haitham Alangush, 31.
With his pencil-thin mustache and penchant for sleeping in tents, Gaddafi may at times have been a figure of fun on the world stage, but his rule has also been brutal, brooking no opposition.
Protesters have in the past week paraded with a Gaddafi stuffed monkey toy holding an umbrella, and a Gaddafi rat in a cage — Gaddafi has labeled his protester opponents vermin.
In a burned-out Benghazi government building, anti-Gaddafi activists produce one cartoon after another before pasting them up on the walls. Graffiti in Benghazi’s courthouse urged Gaddafi to “have shame” and surrender himself to the “national council of hairdressers.”
Writing by Mohammed Abbas, editing by Peter Millership, Tim Pearce