A handful of pro-regime loyalists waving green flags and kissing portraits of Muammar Qaddafi arrived at Libya’s border with Tunisia Wednesday, marking territory with sirens blaring and fists raised as government forces sought to beat back rebels at points across northern Libya.
The parade of a couple dozen Qaddafi loyalists proclaimed Libya’s pro-democracy uprising to be a myth and that peace prevailed across Libya with “no problems,” despite ample evidence that large portions of the country remain in the hands of antiregime forces.
The Libyans handed out water, juice, and chocolate-covered cakes to hundreds of Bangladeshi workers – the tail end of an exodus of more than 86,000 foreign workers to have escaped the upheavals across this remote border into Tunisia.
The surreal scene was made-for-television propaganda, as journalists stepped through the gate into Libya to talk to the mix of border guards and young Libyan men. But the symbolic value was not lost on a day when Qaddafi appeared to be trying to reverse opposition gains against what he calls an Al Qaeda-driven insurrection by drug addicts.
“I am from free Libya, I am a happy Libyan,” says Ahmed Washifane, who wore close-cropped black hair and a green scarf – the color Qaddafi chose a decade ago for the national flag.
“No Libyans have crossed, no Libyans leave. Libyans are … Qaddafi,” Mr. Washifane says, stopping mid-sentence to kiss the scarf as a burst of emotion overcame him
“No war, no fighting – everything is good now,” says another man who gave the name Ali. “Some people take some tablets and make some problems.”
But not even those few who took part were all convinced of their cause.
“It is a sin,” said one Libyan, who appeared to be an out-of-uniform policeman, privately to a Tunisian near him. “All these people are lying, and Qaddafi is playing his last card.”
The president was defiant Wednesday, speaking to supporters in a Tripoli ballroom in his latest public appearance. “Attacks on me are seen by Libyan people as attacks on their symbol and dignity,” said Qaddafi, who often broke off his address to note the “new” chants of support he said he heard from the audience.
“We put our fingers in the eyes of those who doubt that Libya is ruled by anyone other than its people,” he said. “I have always said that the Libyan people are free [to manage themselves].”
He denied that there were protests in Libya’s second city of Benghazi – which is in the hands of antiregime forces that have declared an interim government – and blamed “sleeper cells from Al Qaeda” for undermining the army and police forces.
This border has witnessed chaotic scenes in recent days, with as many as 18,000 people – mostly Egyptian workers – streaming across Libya’s Western border into Tunisia in a single 24-hour span. Since the Libyan uprising began Feb. 17, more than 78,000 others have also exited east to Egypt.
As the last crowds of Bangladeshis passed through the blue gate Wednesday, the shifting mass of humanity – mostly young men – left behind a thick carpet of detritus. Broken luggage, abandoned blankets, and torn plastic carry cases spread across the holding ground, mixed with single sandals, mashed food and bread.
Some Tunisian soldiers wore surgical face masks as they herded people into lines and asked to see passports. On Wednesday, some 664 Libyans crossed into Tunisia, a “slight trend upwards,” according to European Commission (EC) officials at the gate.
The Egyptian government has taken home thousands via a fleet of chartered aircraft and several ships. China has also evacuated thousands of its nationals. But thousands more Egyptians crowded just over the Tunisian side of the border, exhausted and huddled under blankets stretched out like tents.
European and United Nations relief workers met late Tuesday with Tunisian and Egyptian officials to avert a humanitarian crisis.
“They are crying out for the international community to finance repatriation of people, because that is the key to everything,” says Hugues Burrows, an official with the EC humanitarian arm.
Just on the Libyan side of the border, the group of Qaddafi loyalists put on a show for the cameras, chanting the common refrain of dictatorships across the Arab world that they were ready to sacrifice their blood and their soul for their leader. They accused the media of fanning unrest.
“News from Al Jazeera – nobody believes it. People turn away from it and watch Libyan state radio and TV,” says Washifane.
“You hear in any country that Qaddafi is king of all of them,” he added. Then pointing out each person around him, Libyans and foreigners alike, he added: “He is king for you, for you, and for you.”