Qaddafi's corpse dispels the illusions conjured by his rule

Qaddafi was political dead for quite a while. But images of his corpse, gruesome as they are, dispel a mythos that the colonel was more than just a man.

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Libya has been liberated, and Muammar Qaddafi is dead. After weeks of speculation, he surprised everyone by being predictable. He was not hiding in the Libyan desert, or fleeing to a sub-Saharan country, as some had suggested. The tyrant was simply hiding in Sirte, his birthplace, and his last stronghold. Faithful to his theatrical persona, he was killed on the same day his loyalists were defeated.

Politically speaking, he had already been dead for quite a while. But the widely circulated footage of Qaddafi's corpse, bare-chested and covered in blood, bears a special significance. Apart from the legitimate discussion about the circumstances of his death, the killing dispels a mythos, deliberately cultivated, that the colonel was more than just a man.

For 40 years, Qaddafi had boasted that Libya was the only free country in the world. Through an intricate system of popular assemblies, Libyans supposedly ruled themselves directly without political representation. The truth, of course, was that Qaddafi's iron fist prevented them from participating in any sort of political life. "Politics" became a realm so distant as to be almost imaginary and decision-making located exclusively in Qaddafi and his coterie. As a result of this disconnect, the colonel turned into a sort of ghost, a disembodied symbol of power.

Security sleight of hand, layers of bodyguards and fake audiences routinely organised for his speeches, all reinforced the illusion. Qaddafi became untouchable, leaving room for hatred but also for fantasy. Libyans often told me how he was unusually tall; some commented on his peculiarly fair completion; and others created sophisticated theories about his ethnic background. According to a well-known urban legend (often recognised as such), he was in fact an Israeli agent, a foreigner who pretended to be Libyan. It was as if he was an alien with a mysterious agenda.

Through nepotism, corruption and violence, Libyans were constantly reminded that the regime was a very real, all-powerful entity that had concrete power over their everyday lives. Qaddafi had become a capricious and sinister spectre. He had survived so many assassination attempts that many thought there was something unnatural about him. In calling him shaitan, "satan", people were not always speaking metaphorically.

There is a paradox in the fact that the ex-leader of Libya had always used his physical appearance as a propaganda tool. During the 1969 coup against King Idris, his revolutionary officers declared that they wanted to "remove all past hindrances to solving the various social and economic problems of the Libyan nation". The 27-year-old, clean-shaven Qaddafi presented himself as the young guide of an old country: a fresh force whose aim was to create a new Libya.

With his longish hair, plain military outfit and strong features, he adopted the physical archetype of the revolutionary. Later on, when faced with the first serious internal threats to his authority, the colonel felt the need to strengthen his image. Medals and all sorts of military paraphernalia started to appear on his uniform. Sun-glasses of all shapes and forms became his trademark and a baton his companion in many parades.

To portray himself as authentically Libyan, Qaddafi appeared in traditional clothes, and always emphasised his Bedouin roots. He demonstrated a schizophrenic relation with his own society, and often declared tribalism to be a threat to national identity, while at the same time praising the "tribe" as the natural social expression of the Libyan people. With a tendency to exoticise his own culture, he slept in tents, professed the goodness of the Bedouin ethos, and wrote poems on the corruption of urban life.

Then in the late 1990s, there was change once again, when Qaddafi expressed his solidarity with sub-Saharan Africa. Colourful clothes, large African-style tunics and hats became the order, as did his shirts decorated with the emblem of the continent. In the last years of his life, he sported a beard, which had been unusual for him. He kept it trimmed, in an almost juvenile fashion, perhaps in an attempt to show that revolutionaries age, but not quite like everyone else.

By using his physical appearance as a means of communication, Qaddafi had remained a symbol instead of a man, that is until the beginning of the revolution in February. All of a sudden, for the first time in four decades, Libyans felt finally free to publicly ridicule his physical appearance. In the slogans of the anti-regime forces the ghost became bu Shafshoofa, "the one with fuzzy hair".

People started to carry around comic pictures of him, montages portraying Qaddafi dressed up in women's traditional clothes. Ironically, for the first time in his career, he had become, in a sense, approachable and real. He had gained a physical body. The image of the colonel's corpse has been the climax of this bizarre process of incarnation.

In light of the debate about the disposal of Qaddafi's body, his death should be placed in the context of his disembodied career. Doubtless, there are other debates that are of greater importance for the future of the country. Libya is free, Libyans can create a new country for themselves, and focusing only on Qaddafi's death would be unfair, if not myopic. But when trying to understand what happened, it is important to remember that filming and photographing the colonel's battered body was not only an exhilarant act of rage. For many Libyans it was also touching the intangible.

Igor Cherstich is a social anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Libya