Col. Muammar Qaddafi's militant revolutionary committees have cast a spell of fear on Libyan society that has paralyzed important sectors of government and commerce, shaken up his own Army officer corps, and even worried the Libyan leader about their propensity to usurp authority.
Qaddafi's concern about the excesses of the revolutionary vanguard he created to "agitate" among the masses is such that he has taken to delivering rare cautionary words of moderation.
"This process of agitation should be reasonable," said Qaddafi in his rambling speech on the 11th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power. "No one is allowed to take individual or limited initiatives except in extreme situations where defense of the revolution and the people's authority is called for."
Such words of restraint by Libya's mystical leader underlined the point that the revolutionary committees, like the Red Guards of Mao Tse-tung's China, whose style they so obviously ape, are becoming a law unto themselves.
Although officially vested with no authority, the revolutionary committees have become an ominous force. The members are mostly young and often thuggish. Armed with "The Green Book" of Qaddafi's thoughts on revolution and society, the revolutionary committees are inspiring fear among many they are supposed to inspire.
The power of the committees is such that a spring congress of their members in Benghazi could singlemindedly launch a campaign of terrorism and assassination against "enemies of the revolution" in exile in Western Europe.
Before Qaddafi called off the campaign in mid-June amid an outcry from European governments, close to a dozen Libyans in Britain, West Germany, Italy and Greece had been killed or wounded by what were generally believed to be committee-dispatched hit squads.
At home, the revolutionary committees have been the force behind the widespread "anticorruption" purge that has scarred every institution in the country, from private business to government ministries.
Not even the armed forces, the pillar of Qaddafi's rule, have been spared. Of about 2,000 people who have been arrested since the purge began early this year, at least a quarter are believed to be "suspect" members of the Libyan armed forces.
Not only have the revolutionary committees taken over the role of denouncing and arresting alleged enemies of the revolutions -- either for suspected economic corruption or political dissidence -- they also have acted as prosecutors in the revolutionary tribunals, that, until six weeks ago, were the nightly fare of national television.
Only Qaddafi's propaganda buildup to the anniversary celebrations, at which he announced his plan to merge with Syria, is believed to have taken the trials off prime time. Western diplomats expect the trials to resume later this fall.
Although the committees "were supposed to be only propagandists for the revolution, they have become something much more powerful," says a foreign diplomat in Tripoli. "They have in fact become inquisitional. They are the regime's political police."
The fact that the committees are under the personal supervision of Maj. Abdul Salam Jalloud, Qaddafi's most trusted -- and, some say, ruthless -- fellow revolutionary officer, testifies to their importance.
A crippling fear of denunciation or arrest by the revolutionary committees has accompanied their creation in almost every factory, cooperative, organization, business, government office or military unit.
Parts of the economy have been paralyzed because of Libyan's unwillingness to make a decision, negotiate a contract, or sign an invoice that could be turned against them by second-guessing committee members in their midst.
Foreign businessmen here say that because of this fear, few contracts have been signed since last spring.
At Tripoli's Al Fateh university, the largest in this nation of 3 million people, professors complain that education has all but ground to a halt because of political agitation among the students. Professors talk of the committees having virtually taken over the university. As one Indian professor said glumly: "There is no longer anyone in charge here."
Foreign residents have found many of their Libyan acquaintances afraid to continue any but the most official contacts. "People who would speak to me six months ago now avoid me," a European businessman said. "They are afraid to even return my telephone calls."
The committees also have begun to dictate who should be hired and fired. The Revolutionary Committee in the Foreign Liaison Bureau here -- itself a parallel foreign ministry -- now determines who is assigned to the people's bureaus abroad that are replacing the traditional embassies.
And following Qaddafi's recent call for the revolutionary committees to take over the news media, a high official of the Libyan news agency, JANA, acknowledged that in the future the Revolutionary Committee would decide who works there.
Officials insist that technical proficiency must remain a key element in selecting personnel. However, they acknowledge that revolutionary zeal is another factor.
Clearly aware of the disruptive potential of this situation in a country with only a thin layer of trained technicians, the government has kept the committees out of the oil industry on which the economy depends.
Although in July the government announced that "the petroleum sector was handed over to the people, who are now the sole responsible authority for its administration," only the basic popular committees of the industry's technicians and workers have been introduced. The militant revolutionary committees, which normally follow, so far have been barred.
"To allow revolutionary committees to take over the oil industry, would be disastrous," said a foreign oil company official here. "Not even Qaddafi is crazy enough to tamper with the goose that lays his golden eggs."
Libyan officials insist that despite the appearances to the contrary, the revolutionary committees have no authority. When queried on their exact role, they describe it as being "agitators" to inspire the popular committees, which are supposed to be the basic, sovereign unit of the people's "direct democracy." Qaddafi postulated as much in "The Green Book" that his militants now wave overhead in demonstrations -- just as the Red Guards in China in the 1960s waved the little red book of chairman Mao's thoughts.
While the popular committees are elected by the people -- in villages, factories or cooperative farms -- as the basic representational unit of decision-making and administration, the revolutionary committees are handpicked under Jolloud's watchful eye from among the students, workers and soldiers who most demonstrate their revolutionary zeal.
"The only function of the revolutionary committees is to agitate people to take revolutionary decisions in the people's committees," said Abdullah Maghri, the director general for foreign information. "You could call them the watchdogs of the revolution."
"The revolutionary committees are not permanent," Maghri said. "They will disappear once the revolution takes hold."
Karl Marx, of course, prophesied that under the ideal communist workers' society, the state itself would wither away.
A more likely scenario that worries many foreigners here is that like Mao's Red Guards, who also were charged with shaking up the apparatus of state, the revolutionary committees will become even more emboldened by their easy power. This could lead to confrontation with the Army, as it did in China. As one diplomat here put it: "If that happens, we might see a Libyan 'Gang of Four' here one day."
Qaddafi's admonitions to moderation suggest that he may have begun to see danger in the force he has let loose in the streets.