Libyan Leader at War With Rebels, and Reality
TRIPOLI, Libya — Residents here were awakened before dawn on Sunday by the sound of artillery and gunfire in the streets. When they tuned into state television broadcasts, they heard stunning news: the Libyan military had routed the rebels seeking to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The gunfire, they were told, was in celebration.
“Before I turned on the television I was very worried and very scared,” said Noura al-Said, 17, a student who went to celebrate in Green Square in central Tripoli. “But it was the best news I had ever heard. We had taken the whole country back!”
But Sunday was just another day spent through the looking glass of the oil-financed and omnipresent cult of personality that Colonel Qaddafi has spent 41 years building in Libya. Few of the claims by the Libyan state media lined up with the facts — there was no decisive victory by his forces — and the heavy firing in Tripoli on Sunday morning was never persuasively explained.
But accuracy and logic have never been the tenets of Colonel Qaddafi’s governing philosophy, and their absence is especially conspicuous now, as rebels pose the greatest challenge to his four decades of enigmatic rule.
Not a day passes in Tripoli without some improbable claim by Colonel Qaddafi or the top officials around him: there are no rebels or protesters in Libya; the people who are demonstrating have been drugged by Al Qaeda; no shots have been fired to suppress dissent. In an interview broadcast on Monday with the France 24 , Col. Qaddafi called his country a partner of the West in combating Al Qaeda, insisting that loyalist forces were confronting “small groupings” and “sleeper cells” of terrorists.
He put the death toll on both sides at “some hundreds,” disputing estimates that the tally ran to several thousand.
A segment of the Libyan population appears to admire his defiant promotion of his world view, and confusion and obfuscation help explain how he keeps his rivals off balance.
Foreign news organizations were reporting, based on firsthand observations, that rebel forces were under fire but remained in control of the eastern half of the country, as well as many pockets in the west. The government’s main victory over the weekend appeared to be driving the rebels from the town of Bin Jawwad, which they had taken Saturday night. And both sides continued to prepare for a decisive battle in the Qaddafi stronghold of Surt.
But many Tripoli residents seemed happy to ignore such reports on Sunday and chose to accept Colonel Qaddafi’s narrative — that his loyalists were at the gates of the rebels’ headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi, or were in control of it already, or had captured the rebels’ top leader.
For more than four hours, Qaddafi supporters fired triumphant bursts of machine gun fire into the air from cars and among crowds in the downtown area. As many as 2,000 of them waved bright green flags and bandannas — and, in many cases, guns — as they rallied in Green Square, and several hundred of the pro-Qaddafi demonstrators were still at it at sunset.
Many of the people in Green Square lashed out at the Arabic news channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, calling them liars that had confused and inflamed Libya’s young people. The crowd’s fist-pumping ardor was a testament to the strength of the mythology of epic heroism that Colonel Qaddafi has instilled since he seized power at the age of 27.
He did it in part by making sure that his was virtually the only voice in public life. News reports try not to refer to other top government officials, or even soccer players, by name, ensuring that Colonel Qaddafi is virtually the only public figure in Libya.
Colonel Qaddafi has also built a persona, in particular as a revolutionary still tilting at distant colonial powers, that in some ways resonates with Libyans who remember their bitter experiences under Italian rule. His personal mythology has helped him stay on top of a fractious, tribal and deeply divided society for longer than any other living leader in North Africa or the Middle East.
“He may have been mad,” said Prof. Diederick Vandewalle, of Dartmouth, a Libya specialist. “But there was certainly a method.”