NEW YORK - If Tunisia kicked down the door of the Arab imagination by showing it was possible to topple a dictator, Egypt drew a blueprint of non-violence for the house of revolution that detailed how to demolish a stubbornly entrenched dictator; and now in Libya a mad man is trying to burn down the entire house rather than face eviction.
For 42 years, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's antics have blinded too many to a brutality they finally see on full display as he desperately tries to quash the most serious uprising against his rule. If too many chose to not see, Libyans have known all too well.
Half the struggle for Libyans has surely been getting the world to move beyond Gadhafi the Clown, a role he seems to have uninhibitedly embraced. Who hasn't been distracted by the eclectic wardrobe, the Kalashnikov-armed female bodyguards, and the tents he would pitch at home and abroad for talks with officials.
A source of embarrassment for Libyans, Gadhafi has never been a joke: disappearances, a police state, zero freedom of expression and poverty for at least a third of the population of country tremendously wealthy thanks to oil.
For years, Gadhafi squandered that wealth on causes and radical violence abroad that he chose because they epitomized the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" school of diplomacy. In 2003, just as the U.S. became mired in Iraq and its non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Gadhafi realized no one was scared of him anymore and voluntarily gave up his weapons of mass destruction programs.
When the world has paid attention to his crimes it has invariably been to those against non-Libyans such as the mid-air bombings of a French airliner over Niger and of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Once he compensated families who lost relatives in those attacks, Gadhafi became persona grata and money and business deals came in, along with high-level dignitaries.
Gadhafi was a guest of the leaders of Italy and France, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- with businessmen in tow of course -- visited Libya soon after Gadhafi's rehabilitation.
Oil, business and arms deals have always trumped the rights of the Libyan people who long suffered his crimes yet rarely if ever saw compensation, let alone the same attention and condemnation as that of the crimes that kept Libya a "pariah" state for so long (until Gadhafi learned to bribe the world's conscience into forgetting).
I visited Libya in September 1996 for the 27th anniversary of the "revolution" -- a military coup that a 27-year-old Gadhafi led to topple the monarchy and since which he has ruled. Some were optimistic that Gadhafi's "revolution" could herald a new Libya but it didn't take long for his brutality to stamp out any such hopes.
During the 1970s, police and security forces arrested hundreds of Libyans who opposed Gadhafi or those the authorities feared could oppose his rule: violent suppression of student demonstrations, imprisonment and disappearances of every political and social group you can imagine from academics to journalists, Trotskyists to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, all labeled "enemies of the revolution." In case anyone questioned Gadhafi's bloodlust, there were even a number of televised public hangings and mutilations of political opponents, rights groups say.
In the 1980s authorities introduced a policy of extrajudicial executions of political opponents abroad, termed "stray dogs."
What is believed to be the bloodiest act of internal repression under Gadhafi's rule occurred just a few months before I arrived in Tripoli with a group of journalist from Cairo. Very few, if any of us, knew though: More than 1,000 prisoners were shot dead by security forces on June 28 and 29, 1996 in Abu Salim prison, Tripoli. It wasn't until 2004 that Gadhafi publicly admitted to the Abu Salim killings. Relatives of the murdered men have refused compensation in place of judicial process.
One of Gadhafi's crimes that I was aware of during my visit was the disappearance of former Libyan foreign minister turned dissident Mansour Kikhia. Egyptian agents abducted Kikhia during a visit to Cairo in Dec. 1993 while attending a meeting of an Arab human rights organization he had helped found. Kikhia had asked for Egyptian security protection while in Cairo but agents of now toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak's regime handed Kikhia over to agents of Gadhafi's regime, who spirited the dissident to Libya, where he is believed to have executed and buried in the Libyan desert.
I interviewed his wife Baha Omary Kikhia in 1994 as she visited the region trying to find out what had happened to her husband. I think of her now as I hear many Libyans I know whose relatives have been disappeared in Libya wonder if they're still alive, hoping for the best as they hear of Gadhafi's all-out attempt to quash the uprising.
And so I watch in awe at the breathtaking courage of Libyans, rising up again -- it is an insult to think this is the first time for they long have resisted Gadhafi's tyranny and bloody crackdowns on dissent.
The Tunisian revolution left every Arab dictator in fear, Egypt's toppling of Mubarak left them terrified -- even one of the U.S.' best allies in the region could fall. And here they watch a psychopathic dictator unleash his full horror on pro-freedom demonstrators and still fail to terrify them into submission. The Italian foreign minister has said reports that 1,000 people have been killed in 7 days of uprising are credible.
The price of toppling Gadhafi will be steep. But Libyans will topple him and in doing so they will bring down with him the castles of fear our dictators thought they had fortified.
The writer is an Egyptian-born award-winning columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @monaeltahawy