"In need, freedom is latent."

This slogan is one of the most prominently displayed in the Libyan capital these days, but nobody, including ordinary Libyans, seems to know quite what it means.

It is just one of the many conundrums of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's topsy-turvy revolution, which was jolted further to the left by an attempt last May to unseat him.

Just what Qaddafi's revolution is really all about is not easy to fathom in a short visit, but the American and French leftist slogan of the late 1960s -- "Power to the people" -- seems to have been implanted out of context into an unsuspecting Arab bedouin society.

One senses immediately a wide gap between the theory and practice of Qaddafi's "direct democracy." But one also has the sense that here, in what is probably the most conservative Arab society in all of North Africa, a theory of radical revolution has actually been applied on the ground for all its confusion.

Qaddafi has put a lot of time and effort into shaking his society to its roots, breaking down the old traditions and trying to get his people involved in politics. His most radical step has been to try to force a change in the status of Libyan women, even getting them accepted as military officers and drivers of armored personnel carriers.

In fact, Qaddafi, at 42, is probably the Arab world's last real revolutionary out of a generation of leaders who came to power in the late 1960s brandishing one "ism" or another -- Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, Baathism.

While the rest of the Arab world succumbed to the oil boom of the 1970s, concentrating on making money and giving up on ideologies, Qaddafi stuck it out and even created his own homespun ideology known as "the third universal theory."

A mishmash of anti-Marxist and anticapitalist thinking aimed at producing "direct democracy" by the people, Qaddafi's "theory" seems a prescription for modern-day anarchy. A Marxist might call it a parody on Karl Marx's notion of the "withering away of the state" once the stage of communism is reached.

The central theme is that people should run their own affairs directly, without the intervention of any higher authority, by setting up congresses and electing committees in all the towns, cities, ministries, companies and factories of the country and even in embassies abroad.

Throughout the capital are slogans saying "Congresses and committees in all places" -- and so there are. Over 1,700 local congresses were represented at the special session of the nationwide "general people's congress" called in September to approve Libya's merger with Morocco.

There are no cabinet ministers, no embassies abroad and Qaddafi has no official title, other than qaid, or leader. The form of government is known as a jamahiriya -- "state of the masses" -- and administrative bodies at all levels are called "people's bureaus" and "people's committees."

But how does it work in reality behind all this revolutionary nomenclature?

Even in a brief visit made up of fleeting soundings and impressions, the signs are that "the people" do not decide much. When they do make known their will these days it is as likely to be against as for what Qaddafi wants.

The vote on the Libyan-Moroccan merger was one case in point. In theory, the general people's congress voted "unanimously" for it. In fact, western reporters in the congress hall were able to talk to several delegates who had brought from their local "basic people's congresses" objections, reservations and proposals for amendments to the unity charter.

They were never heard from.

A day-long trip to Garian, 50 miles south of Tripoli, was equally revealing. Power at the local level is in the hands of the town's 14-man "people's committee," elected by a congress every three years.

The committee runs day-to-day affairs like a town council, while the congress meets only three times a year to discuss general local and foreign policy.

The chairman of the committee is Mohammed Moussa, an engaging, English-speaking engineer. The other committee members are all engineers, doctors, and professional people.

"They try to select someone who is a specialist," remarked Moussa.

A factory and state farm that reporters were taken to visit were run by the same kind of people. It was clear that the technocrats are taking over at the grass roots.

Whether these technocrats are for or against Qaddafi's revolution is hard to tell. But the "masses" Qaddafi extolls in his speeches and writings are clearly having their difficulties with it.

Last February, the local congresses vetoed four proposals put to them by Qaddafi dealing with delicate social issues such as military training for women, setting up primary schools at home, and giving women equal rights in divorce matters.

Qaddafi, furious at "reactionary elements" he said were at work at the local level, found a way to bypass "the people's voice" at least on the issue of military training for women by getting the general people's congress to approve it.

Now, he is enlarging that congress by appointing delegates he can count upon to support his revolution.

Increasingly, the Libyan experience in direct democracy seems to be backfiring on its author -- a risk western leaders know well and run all the time.

But for the Arab world, where rulers often are strongmen accustomed to imposing their own will, both the experiment in Libya and the people's reaction to it are rare phenomena little noted in the international hubbub over Qaddafi's foreign endeavors.

Cleverly, Qaddafi, in his "third universal theory," has left himself a way out of possible entrapment in his own ideas.

After describing the beauty of his "new democracy" in which "the authority of the people" finally reigns supreme, his final, seemingly cynical, words are:

"Theoretically, this is the genuine democracy. But realistically, the strong always rule."