Libya was in an uproar. It was 10 February, 2011, 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 Gaddafi regime had called for a day of protest on 17 February, 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. The 34-year-old had come to political consciousness during the mid-2000s. Her parents had divorced when she was young; in Libya, 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 regime, particularly on women's issues, and over time she won a modest online following. As 17 February approached, she blogged that if Libyans failed to turn out for the demonstrations she would set fire to herself just as Mohammed Bouazizi had done two months earlier on the streets of Tunisia. Gaddafi 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. Gaddafi could be a legendary charmer, a man deeply at ease with ordinary Libyans. He seemed sympathetic to Tawati's request for more openness in Libya. Finally she worked up the courage to ask him why the government had blocked YouTube several months earlier.
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 was posted underneath her photo. More bewildering, though, was the invasion of privacy: somehow, emails of hers had been leaked on to the internet, even displayed on state television. She had been accused of working with foreign agents. Her reputation as a woman had been smeared, she told Gaddafi.