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.
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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.”
It is hard to know what combination of fear, opportunism and sincere adoration drives supporters to attend the Qaddafi rallies that have erupted across Tripoli this week — the manic crowds chanting “God and Muammar and Libya, enough.” But the cult of Qaddafi began to take shape in 1975, just six years after the bloodless coup that brought him to power, when he published the Green Book, a grandiose and quasi-coherent work of a Stalin who aspired to become a Marx.
Government institutes were set up for its exegesis. A generation of Libyans grew up studying it as a great work of social and political theory. Tabletlike statues of its three volumes were erected in seemingly every town.
And in keeping with its precepts, Colonel Qaddafi eventually gave up any official title in the Libyan government, giving rise to one of the prime examples of Libyan doublespeak. While everyone in Libya regards Colonel Qaddafi as the all-powerful ruler behind every decision of state, he often answers critics calling on him to surrender power by saying it is too late — he already has.
After he led the revolution, he said in a speech last week, “I went back to my tent.”
Behind his aloof and flamboyant public image, though, Colonel Qaddafi has remained not only in charge but intimately involved in even minor details of the Libyan government. Cables from the United States Embassy in Tripoli that were published by WikiLeaks reported that he personally managed the cases of high-profile political prisoners, and even dictated the response to a specific travel request from the embassy.
He personally vets every Libyan government contract worth more than $200 million and examines many of much less value as well, the cables said. He doles out “plum contracts” to loyalists who can extract various fees for themselves, in part to buy their support, the cables said. He also displayed a mastery of details involved in complicated transactions, like an attempt to revive an aborted 1970s deal to buy C-130 cargo planes from the United States.
“Al-Qadhafi’s mastery of tactical maneuvering has kept him in power for nearly 40 years; however, the unholy alliance of corruption and cult-of-personality politics on which the system has been based is ultimately limiting,” Ambassador Gene Cretz wrote in one cable, adding, “The reality is that no potential successor currently enjoys sufficient credibility in his own right to maintain that delicate equilibrium.”
What’s more, Colonel Qaddafi maintains a strong interest in American books about public affairs. In one cable, the embassy reported that Colonel Qaddafi assigned trusted aides to prepare Arabic summaries of Fareed Zakaria’s “The Post-American World,” Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat 3.0,” George Soros’s “The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror” and President Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope.” Another of Zakaria’s books, “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad,” was said to be a Qaddafi favorite.
At least until his brutal efforts to crush the Libyan uprising drew reprimands from Washington, Colonel Qaddafi seemed to be a big Obama fan. The Libyan leader repeatedly sought to meet with the new American president, the embassy reported, and wrote him a gushing note “on behalf of all Africa” and “in the name of all Arab leaders as I am their dean.”
“The black man is not less competent than the white man,” Colonel Qaddafi told Mr. Obama. “I salute the American people who have chosen you in these historical elections for such a high position, so that you may lead the change that you have promised them.”
Since the uprising began Feb. 16, Colonel Qaddafi has repeated a series of wildly false assertions. In a speech to the Libyan General People’s Congress, for example, he declared there had been no demonstrations against him and that he was beloved by all the Libyan people.
He blamed the protests on drugs distributed by Osama bin Laden, and he has insisted that a radical Islamist emir had taken over a city in the east, imposed Islamic law and begun daily executions of those who violated it.
But in the same speech, he demonstrated the peculiar bond he maintains with his most fervent supporters. At several points during the three-hour address, he paused to ask the audience for help with his memory — the name of a certain newspaper, for example, or a reminder to return to the subject of the drugs. His audience readily obliged.
His canniness is hard to gauge, but certainly some of his predictions have proved to be farsighted. In his first response to the uprising, long before the rebels had armed themselves, he declared the unrest was sure to become a civil war. And he warned that such strife would invite Western interference; he can now point to American warships off the coast, reports of British Special Forces in eastern Libya and a debate about Western airstrikes to enforce a no-flight zone.
At other times he has appeared to put perhaps too much trust in his own propaganda. His government invited some 130 foreign journalists to Tripoli last week and promptly bused them to areas where anti-Qaddafi protesters have burned buildings or taken over towns. Perhaps Libyan officials expected the reporters to corroborate the government’s view that the insurgents were violent Islamic extremists.
But there was no evidence of an Islamist connection, and the rebels described far greater violence from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. By Friday, the government appeared to be struggling to ride herd on the journalists.
What started the gunfire in Tripoli early Sunday could not be determined. Protesters suggested that there had been a fight between members of his security forces, since they are the only ones with guns in the capital. But the heavy celebratory gunfire that continued for four hours — and occurred again sporadically throughout the day — was an effective show of force to anyone who might have thought to challenge Colonel Qaddafi.
At the hotel housing the visiting journalists, government employees and hotel staff members could be seen hugging and even crying over the state media’s news of the government victories. And near twilight at Green Square, many in the crowd of several hundred were pushing forward to tell journalists how happy they were. “The cities that were in control of the gangs — they were set free!” said Souad Monsour, a 19-year-old student. “People from everywhere are here to celebrate.”
Muhammad Said, 38, interrupted. “All the bloodshed in Libya has been because of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya,” he said, echoing Colonel Qaddafi. “These bad channels are confusing people and turning them into trouble.”
Discerning friends from enemies can be difficult in a police state. One young man at the Qaddafi rally had been seen at an antigovernment protest the day before. His true allegiance was unclear.
Several of those at the rally insisted, as Colonel Qaddafi has, that the rebels were organized by Al Qaeda. One supporter, Adle el-Ageli, wanted to talk about the Libyan leader: “Muammar is a hawk. He is unique. There is no alternative to him.”
And if the state media reports of great victories prove false on Monday? Ms. Said would not answer directly: “I have a big trust in Muammar Qaddafi.”
Moises Saman contributed reporting.