By William Maclean
LONDON (Reuters) - Planted joyously atop a gold-colored bust of Muammar Gaddafi, a succession of dusty rebel boots on Tuesday symbolized not only the capture of his Tripoli headquarters but also the humiliating collapse of his power in Libya.
With the fall of his Bab al-Aziziyah military compound televised around the world, the spell of his authority at home and his influence abroad -- especially in Africa -- will have been definitively fractured.
For all Libyans know, the man who often bamboozled them with political speeches and hunted his opponents with death squads remains alive and perhaps holed up in his hometown of Sirte. Although on the run, he may have surprises yet in store.
But the breaching of Bab al-Aziziyah and the looting of the kitsch memorabilia of his rule crystallizes for Libyans as few other actions could the end of a once-terrifying police state and what many will remember as a dark period in their history.
"If Gaddafi didn't have many places to hide before, he has even fewer now," said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's.
Dictators try to create an aura of invincibility, a sense of awe to attract followers and facilitate their indefinite grip on power.
A MASTER OF DIVIDE AND RULE
In this, analysts say, Gaddafi has been a master for much of his rule, seeing off periodic coup attempts as he led Libyans through years of international isolation and sanctions for what the West called his support of terrorism.
Variously known as the Guide, the Brother Leader, the King of Kings, Gaddafi's vainglorious titles over the years have raise smiles among outsiders, but this mercurial Bedouin has been one of the world's canniest political survivors.
He used wealth drawn from Africa's biggest reserves of crude oil to divide and rule his six million people.
Perhaps under pressure from the unprecedented revolt he has faced since February, that skill has now deserted him. So too, some will argue, has his dignity.
Evidently, Gaddafi has chosen not to fight to the end in Tripoli, as he and his sons had pledged to do both in public and in their private communications with foreign governments.
Many will compare his fall to that of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But even if Gaddafi's days end, like Saddam's, with a hangman's noose, the parallels are inexact.
Saddam's fall followed a decisive ground invasion by powerful Western nations. Gaddafi's own ousting may have been facilitated by NATO air power, but the fighting on the ground, and the dying, has been done by Libyans themselves, giving them ownership of their revolution.
GRIP ON POPULAR IMAGINATION
Gaddafi always saw Saddam's fall as instructive, and as a result he pragmatically bowed to the prevailing climate in Western capitals and gave up his weapons of mass destruction programs.
"Those who threaten you with military power or with the (U.N.) Security Council are the people who are controlling the world and if you go against the tide you might be destroyed," he told an audience in 2007.
But when the challenge came from his own people, Gaddafi took less heed. That proved to be a mistake.
Although apparently gone from the political scene, his hold on the Libyan imagination, and the authoritarian habits of mind his rule gave rise to, may live on for some time.
Some Libyans say he has ruled for so long, and his grip has been so tight, that he has marked the Libyan personality in ways they don't yet fully understand.
Time will tell. Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, for one, says that may be a struggle for the future.
"We've defeated Gaddafi in the battlefield, now we must defeat him in our imagination. We mustn't allow his legacy to corrupt our dream," he said in a Twitter message.
"This is not about a country removing a dictator, but a people trying to find their voice."
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps; Editing by Mark Heinrich)