Cecil B. De Mille and a Hollywood cast of thousands could not have done better. We were standing in the desert, about 200 miles south of the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya. Suddenly there were hootings and strange, macabre wailing sounds from the Arab women. A convoy of jeeps, flanked by Bedouin tribespeople on horseback, snaked across the horizon. Dust clouds swirled against the setting sun.
Col. Muammar Qaddafi, b^ete noir of Ronald Reagan and leader of this revolutionary Arab nation of just under 4 million people, had arrived. Dressed in a grey jump suit and combat boots, the Libyan leader was immediately immersed in the frenzied, chanting crowd.
Part of the Qaddafi style is to do the unexpected, at times the outrageous. Following the United States bombing raid on Libya in April, he dropped out of sight. There was speculation about his health. He was said to be in a state of psychological shock as a consequence of the bombing. Two of his children had been killed and his house -- now turned into a national shrine -- in the heavily fortified Army barracks in the center of Tripoli had been destroyed.
Yet here was the colonel appearing at a number of carefully stage-managed rallies, as confident and full of bluster as ever. At his first public appearance in Tripoli since the US bombing, he spared no language in condemning President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Later, at a surprise appearance at the ``nonaligned'' nations' summit in Zimbabwe, Colonel Qaddafi threatened to form his own international army to ``spread fire under the feet of America.''
Following the colonel at various orchestrated rallies and parades, however, it was hard to overlook the feeling that something had changed.
At close quarters, the Libyan leader looks dazed and distracted. While very conscious of the foreign media's presence -- at one stage he delayed the start of a military parade for the arrival of a US film crew -- he refused to talk or answer questions, something he had been only too willing to do in the past. His smile seemed wooden, his fist waving mechanical and lacking enthusiasm.
Once, between gatherings in the countryside, the colonel sat slumped in the back of his open-topped green Cadillac. He looked tired and dejected, a khaki Army hat perched atop his bushy hair.
Since April, Qaddafi has moved restlessly around the country, rarely spending more than a night in any one place. He spends most of his time in the vast desert areas in the south, among the Bedouin, his own people.
``Even here in his own country, he acts like a guerrilla leader,'' one resident commented.
Reporting on the elusive, enigmatic colonel is not easy.
Chaos surrounds him and -- as his young guards butt and shove with their Kalashnikov rifles -- there is danger as well. An Italian cameraman had his arm broken; another was trampled on by an overly excited horse. A very striking female bodyguard, constantly at the colonel's side, made life difficult for an American camera woman.
Gauging popular support for Qaddafi is not easy. But Libyans, generally a warm and relaxed people, do not as a whole seem overly enthusiastic about their leader's revolutionary ideas.
Qaddafi draws much of his support from the young. A large proportion of Libya's population is under 15 years old, and has known no other system than Qaddafi's -- a system that has brought many benefits, including free medical care and education. These youngsters have also been thoroughly immersed in the ideals of the Libyan revolution.
But there is opposition to Qaddafi. This comes mainly from within the armed forces and among the technocrats, sources say. Qaddafi has made no secret of his resentment of the military, accusing officers of luxurious, unrevolutionary living. There are plans, according to some sources, to abolish the entire military structure and replace it with a people's militia.
Promotions and many rankings in the military have already been abolished. Professional soldiers -- many of whom have spent training periods abroad -- are not keen on the changes.
Some apparently feel that Libya's military capabilities will be weakened by such revolutionary moves, particularly if there is no professional military corps left to handle the considerable amounts of sophisticated hardware that Libya has reportedly lately acquired.
There are also doubts about how the fervor of a 2-million strong militia would be maintained.
``Qaddafi's revolution is not an Iran-style Islamic revolution,'' said one Libyan dissident now living overseas.``So much depends on him and his ideas alone.'
In the last few months, the entire command of the armed forces, including the Navy, has been moved well away from the urban centers on the coast to Hun, about 280 miles south of Tripoli.
There, in the blistering desert heat, a new headquarters is being built, most of it reportedly by Soviet technicians and workers. Military commanders, accustomed to the more pleasant clime of the Mediterranean coast, are unlikely to be happy in such austere surroundings.
The technocrats have been hurt by the downturn in the Libyan economy. As prices for Libya's oil output -- at present running an estimated 1.1 million barrels per day -- soared in the 1970s, a number of large ambitious development projects were undertaken. The latest technology was imported, while increasing numbers of Libyan students were sent overseas. Oil still accounts for more than 95 percent of Libya's foreign exchange earnings. However, as revenues are decreasing, projects are being scaled down or cancelled.
As Libya has become more isolated in international diplomatic circles, many students have been forced to return home. Not all are reportedly happy with what they find.
But Qaddafi and a small group of longtime loyalists still retain overall control, observeres say.
The Libyan leader's No. 2 man has emerged in the person of Maj. Abdul Salam Jalloud, who is seen as an immensely able and canny politician, a sound economist, and the person responsible for a more moderate line in some areas of Libyan policy.
Military discontent is meanwhile kept in check by two other Qaddafi loyalists, the chief of staff of the armed forces, Abu Bakr Younis Jaber, and the inspector general of the military, Mustafa Kharroubi.
The question some analysts are asking is how long Qaddafi and his close associates can keep things in check.
Ironically for Washington, the US bombing seemed to temporarily, at least, increase Qaddafi's stature both within Libya and the Arab world.
Qaddafi has always liked drawing similarities between himself and the acknowledged leader of the Arab world in the 1960s, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. More recently, he has taken to comparing himself with the Latin American revolutionary leader, Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara. However, as he becomes more radical and unpredictable, so does he becomes more isolated -- both internally and from the outside world.
There is no doubt, however, that he retains a flair and style all his own. On this day at least, Colonel Qaddafi deserved an Oscar.