In Libya, a campaign to confuse

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, with his claims of total popular support and theatrical displays at bombing sites, treads a fine line between rhetoric and reality.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Mourners in Tripoli loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi attend the funeral of 33 Libyans they say were killed in allied air strikes Thursday. More than 160 cruise missiles have been fired at Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, a UN-sanctioned military effort to prevent forces of Col. Gaddafi from making further advances against antigovernment rebels.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi decries Western airstrikes as a “new crusader battle” and calls upon “all Islamic armies” to assist in a momentous fight. On the eve of the air campaign one week ago, the regime issues a statement: If attacked, Libya would “expose all air and maritime traffic” in the Mediterranean Sea to counterattack.

But like much in Mr. Qaddafi’s Libya today – including the declared total popular support of the enigmatic “Brother Leader” himself – the rhetoric often appears disconnected from reality.

From Qaddafi’s certainty that “all my people are with me, they love me all,” to cease-fires declared and ignored, the Libyan leader might appear to be waging a campaign of confusion against his enemies. The seed of such a strategy may be evident in the Green Book, the colonel's 35-year-old guide to political philosophy, which itself embodies – perhaps purposefully – the contradictory and abstruse nature of the long-serving strongman.

In the latest example, on Friday, officials seeking to prove the scale of the damage drove foreign journalists east from Tripoli – passing two smoldering military facilities visible from the road on the way – only to stop at a rural residence where a missile of some type had landed in a front yard.

People who called themselves witnesses told different stories about the event, in which one person – or none – was injured. US-made missile parts littered the area, and there was clear evidence of an impact with shrapnel. But the site may have also been made to look more convincing with what appeared to be gunfire sprayed against some outside walls and white plaster thrown onto interior floors.

Libya's true believers

Despite the elaborate theater going on in Tripoli, there is no shortage of true believers in Qaddafi or his regime here. Even away from the official flag-waving loyalists who attend events set up for foreign eyes, they announce themselves.

Unprompted, one Libyan businessman says: “Tell the world about Muammar Qaddafi: He is our oxygen. We cannot live without him. We cannot breathe without him.”

But signs of discontent have erupted across Libya since mid-February, when protests began and eastern regions rebelled en masse against Qaddafi’s nearly 42-year rule.

There appears to be no lukewarm support for the Qaddafi: only pure devotion or hatred. The confusion and opacity may stem from the top with Qaddafi himself, and his unique style of rule.

It has made Libya a place where being targeted by more than 170 cruise missiles has been greeted in the capital’s main square with a perpetual, official party and frequent celebratory gunfire.

'Borderline personality'

Qaddafi has a “borderline personality” that “often swings from intense anger to euphoria,” says Jerrold Post, a political psychologist at George Washington University, in a recent analysis in the journal Foreign Policy.

“Under his often ‘normal’ facade, he is quite insecure and sensitive to slight. His reality testing is episodically faulty,” writes Dr. Post, who founded a center for analyzing personality and political behavior during a 21-year career at the CIA.

“While most of the time Qaddafi is ‘above the border’ and in touch with reality, when under stress he can dip below it and his perceptions can be distorted and his judgment faulty,” writes Post. “And right now, he is under the most stress he has been under since taking over the leadership of Libya…. He does sincerely cling to the idea that his people all love him.”

Ubiquitous Green Book

Cornerstone to Qaddafi’s ideology, his loyalists say, is the Green Book he penned beginning in 1975. Few things in Libya are as ubiquitous. There are statues erected of it and posters that herald it. School children are required to read it and pristine copies have mysteriously appeared in rubble at bomb sites.

Spanning subjects as diverse as the differences between men and women – “just as all females in the kingdom of plants and animals differ from the male of their species” – to describing day nursery for toddlers as “coercive and tyrannical,” the Green Book is the ultimate guide for Libya’s true believers.

It also promises to yield the secret of true democracy and freedom with a “third universal theory.”

“In the outside world there is a misunderstanding of this book; they didn’t read it, they thought it was a dictatorial case,” says Hisham Arab, a journalist with the monthly People’s Congress magazine, published by the Green Book Center, which he says is devoted to spreading the “values” of Qaddafi’s book “to the world.”

“A lot of outsiders misunderstand Muammar Qaddafi’s character, so they do not accept Muammar Qaddafi’s thoughts,” says Mr. Arab. “Here we know it – we follow it every day in our lives.”

'Mad dog of the Middle East'

Critics deride the Green Book as a rambling and pointless screed from a man whom Ronald Reagan called the “mad dog of the Middle East.” But it is no small feat to keep atop Libya’s tribal society for nearly 42 years, even with a well-documented track record of brutally crushing dissent.

Qaddafi accuses – and his followers say they believe – that rebel forces now in control of eastern Libya and other enclaves are Al Qaeda militants or a small group of wayward Libyans radicalized by drugs and foreigners who covet Libya’s oil.

“Some people say they want Muammar Qaddafi to leave, [and they] took weapons and fought,” says Abdul Jalil, a sports TV host who now works with foreign journalists on behalf of the government. “He said: ‘Me with millions will follow those rebels street by street, room by room,’ until we clean Libya of these rebels.’ ”

“The real meaning is not, ‘We will kill Libyans one by one,’ ” says Mr. Jalil. “But we will clean Libya of these rats."

Yet such retaliation would not seem possible in the world presented by the Green Book, where every citizen has a voice. Or, in fact, it should be inevitable, since Qaddafi wrote that those citizen voices should always target authoritarian rule.

'Direct democracy is the ideal'

“The Green Book guides the masses to an unprecedented system of direct democracy,” Qaddafi wrote. “No two intelligent people can dispute the fact that direct democracy is the ideal…. All that is left before the masses now is the struggle to eliminate all prevailing forms of dictatorial governments… .”

This is precisely what Libya’s antigovernment rebels say they are doing. As well as following another of Qaddafi’s maxims: “Freedom of expression is the right of every natural person, even if a person chooses to behave irrationally to express his or her insanity."

Despite frequent use of the word “democracy” in the Green Book, and Qaddafi’s many tirades against authoritarian rule, there is a Machiavellian truth that concludes the first portion – and bodes ill for Libyans praying for peaceful change.

The “era of the masses … excites the feelings and dazzles the eyes,” wrote Qaddafi. But even though this vision of freedom marks the “happy emancipation” from authoritarianism, he warned also of a “period of chaos and demagoguery.”

Qaddafi concluded: “Theoretically, this is genuine democracy but, realistically … the stronger party in society is the one that [always] rules.”

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