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The deep roots of Libya's psychology of violence

For more than four decades, Libya's self-declared 'Brother Leader,' Muammar Qaddafi, has waged a brutal form of psychological warfare against his own people, analysts say. Rebel forces have also been shaped by that violent history.

Libyan soldiers and militiamen loyal to Muammar Qadaffi showed they had control of part of Tripoli Street in the rebel-held city of Misratah, Libya late last month.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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The video clip ran late at night on Libya’s state-run TV with a warning: not suitable for children.

It was a gruesome scene that appeared to show an antigovernment mob beating the dead body of a Col. Muammar Qaddafi loyalist in the rebel bastion of Benghazi.

Such visceral imagery has long defined political discourse in Libya. The roots of extreme violence stretch back to the colonial period under Italian rule. But from the earliest years of his reign, Colonel Qaddafi has employed violence – from assassinating dissidents abroad to killing opponents at home – to sow fear among Libyans and warn against dissent.

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For more than four decades, the self-declared “Brother Leader” has waged a form of psychological warfare against his own people, analysts say. And taking what he believes to be the lessons from the recent dictator-toppling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Qaddafi today continues to use brutal images to undermine the rebellion, which he consider a personal affront to his near-perfect rule that must be tackled with “no mercy.”

The rebel forces, shaped likewise by that violent history, know the power of persuasion achieved with propaganda gore, and spread their own version.

“Our country is different from others in the world,” says a Libyan professional in Tripoli who could not to be named for security reasons. “Here [people] are welcoming. But if you touch them [aggressively] even a little bit, they will pound you in response.”

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