He once was known as al-Jamil—the Handsome One—for his chiseled features and dark curls. But four decades as dictator had considerably dimmed the looks of Moammar Gadhafi. At 68, he now wore a face lined with deep folds, and his lips hung slack, crested with a sparse mustache. When he stepped from the shadows of his presidential palace to greet Ghaida al-Tawati, whom he had summoned that evening by sending one of his hulking female bodyguards to fetch her, it was the first time she had seen him without his trademark sunglasses; his eyes were hooded and rheumy. The dictator was dressed in a white Puma tracksuit and slippers. How tired and thin he looked in person, Tawati thought.
It was February 10, 2011, and Libya was in an uproar. Two months earlier, in neighboring Tunisia, a street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi had set himself on fire after a policewoman beat him and confiscated his wares. It was the beginning of the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings, revolutions, and civil wars that would radically alter the politics of the Middle East. In Libya, opponents of the Gadhafi regime had called for a day of protest on February 17, to mark the anniversary of a 2006 protest in the city of Benghazi, where security forces had killed 11 demonstrators and wounded dozens more.
Tawati was one of the most outspoken dissidents blogging openly from inside Libya. Thirty-four years old, with a gravelly childlike voice and singsong laugh that belied her deep stubbornness, she had come to political consciousness during the mid-2000s, at a time when Gadhafi, seeking reconciliation with the West, had ceased using his most heavy-handed tactics of repression—such as outright massacres—and allowed a modicum of public dissent. During her university days, when the Internet had begun to ease the country’s isolation, Tawati took naturally to the roles of gadfly and outsider. Her parents had divorced when she was young; in Libya’s deeply conservative culture, growing up with a single mother made her a social outcast. The injustice she experienced as a child led her to critique the injustice of the dictatorial regime, particularly on women’s issues—for example, she blogged about a sexual abuse scandal at a home for unwed mothers institutionalized by the Gadhafi government. Over time she won a modest following online. As the planned protests of February 17 approached, Tawati, always prone to impassioned rhetoric, blogged that if Libyans failed to turn out for the demonstrations she would burn herself just as Bouazizi had done. Somehow Gadhafi himself had heard news of this threat and decided he needed to meet her.
Despite the dictator’s haggard appearance, his manner remained confident and effusive. When he wanted to be, Gadhafi was a legendary charmer, a man deeply at ease with ordinary Libyans. He shook Tawati’s hand and patted her shoulder paternally, directing her to sit next to him on the sofa. He asked her about her health, her family, where she was from. He asked her who had taught her to write. She told him about her demands for greater openness and accountability in Libya, taking care not to criticize him directly. He seemed sympathetic, nodding at various points. Finally she worked up the courage to ask him why the government had blocked YouTube several months earlier.
Gadhafi acted oblivious. “Is it switched off?” he asked.
She complained to him about the way that allies of his regime had treated her. Ever since she’d started blogging under her own name in 2007, Tawati had been harassed—and worse. “Ghaida al-Tawati, the goat of the Internet,” read one Facebook page her attackers created; a string of graphic sexual comments were posted underneath her photo. More bewildering, though, was the invasion of privacy: Somehow, emails of hers had been leaked onto the Internet, even displayed on state television, she told Gadhafi. She had been accused of working with foreign agents. Her reputation as a woman had been smeared.
“If you want to get married,” he interjected, “we’ll get you married to the best man.”
“I’m not interested in getting married,” she replied.
“So, have you made an appointment to burn yourself, then?” Gadhafi asked suddenly, a wry smile curling his lips.
Tawati said that she hadn’t—yet.
“What do you really want from me?” he asked with exasperation.
“You already know the reason why people are demonstrating,” she replied.
Gadhafi’s gaze settled on her for a moment. He asked her to come work for him. The two of them would solve these problems together, he said.
It was an odd show of vulnerability, this bid to co-opt her rather than threaten or crush her. This was the moment, Tawati would later say, that she realized the uprising would succeed. The old man didn’t understand just how committed she and other dissidents were to his downfall. In Libya, as in Egypt and elsewhere, the drive toward revolution drew much of its energy from young, educated activists like Tawati, for whom online tools served as an unprecedented means for communicating and rallying support.
But like Tawati, these activists would suffer greatly at the hands of Gadhafi’s spy service, whose own capabilities had been heightened by 21st-century technology. By now, it’s well known that the Arab Spring showed the promise of the Internet as a crucible for democratic activism. But, in the shadows, a second narrative unfolded, one that demonstrated the Internet’s equal potential for government surveillance and repression on a scale unimaginable with the old analog techniques of phone taps and informants. Today, with Gadhafi dead and a provisional government of former rebels in charge, we can begin to uncover the secret, high tech spying machine that helped the dictator and his regime cling to power.