Twenty-four hours a day, loyalists of Col. Muammar Qaddafi are in Tripoli’s Green Square, chanting their love for their leader. At some traffic circles around the capital, devotees have erected tents from which to wave flags and challenge allied airstrikes with their voices and pumping fists.
And on the most important platform of all, state-run Libyan TV, there is an endless loop of speeches by Colonel Qaddafi, street rallies rich with unquestioned support, and now video footage that purports to show hospital scenes of civilians wounded by Western attacks.
There is no doubt that the chest thumping of many Qaddafi loyalists is authentic, and is not limited to only a handful of Libyans.
But the evidence of recent widespread rebellion against four decades of Qaddafi’s rule is also plain to see – and very easy to hear – in Tripoli. Revolutionary Committee offices that were ransacked and burned in the first heady days of unrest in mid-February remain wrecked and blackened hulks.
Not far beneath the official veneer of true love, in fact, are many Libyans who are not afraid to say that they side with the rebels against the “Brother Leader,” and can’t wait for regime change.
The anger seeps out at gas stations, where long lines stretch for blocks in the capital.
“This is a disgrace,” says one man in a black car, who asked not to be named. He says he “absolutely does not” blame the US and NATO airstrikes for the fuel lines or other hardships faced by his family.
“I blame our Col. Qaddafi, and 90 percent of the people think this way,” asserts the businessman, who says his work has stopped because of the six weeks of rebel uprising, government crackdown, and now civil war.
“People can’t really do anything about [Qaddafi]. We try to in Tripoli, but there are guns all over our head … and he is shooting people here,” says the man, as he inches forward in the fuel line with other exhausted Libyans.
One thing is certain, he says: “It is going to end beautifully, after 42 years. There is one end: for him to leave.”
Qaddafi retains supporters
Indeed, not everyone in Tripoli has a screaming, ear-grating speech by Qaddafi as the ring tone on their mobile phone, like some true believers. Nor does every taxi driver race through the capital with Qaddafi posters stuck to his windows, exuberantly kissing the colonel’s Green Book and holding it to his forehead like a Quran (as did the intoxicated driver whom this reporter hailed on Monday night).
Qaddafi still has strong support in some places, though its scale is impossible to gauge. Qaddafi “will never go,” says one young man, a college student called Mohammed, several places further down the line of cars from the businessman at the gas station.
“He is our father; the only solution is victory,” says Mohammed of the leader who has ruled his country for twice as long as he has been alive. He claims that 98 percent of Libyans support Qaddafi; the rest are Al Qaeda militants and “stupid people who think money is everything in this world.”
But even in this repressive society, where rebels are dismissed by Qaddafi as “rats” and “terrorists” who have to be rooted out of every closet in every house, Libyans seem increasingly willing to share anti-regime views – in private, at least.
“Believe me, people are not afraid of food shortages or lack of water – they are afraid of what Qaddafi will do if the rebels arrive in Tripoli,” says one Libyan professional who could not be named. “Will he send in his mercenaries to attack? These people are waiting.”
Tripoli on edge
Many loyalists have been given guns by the government, part of a plan announced by Qaddafi to arm “all the people” – whom he says “love me all” – against a foreign onslaught.
“We are not frightened of them because they are Libyans and we know they will throw down their guns,” says the professional. “Libyans do not like violence, it is not their natural inclination. What frightens Libyans are the people from outside.”
That fear was manifest on one downtown breadline, where the government minders officially escorting journalists could not hear every conversation.
One man said he was afraid for his safety if he were seen speaking in English to journalists. Another man, an art teacher with grey hair, drew a face with tears spilling down in a notebook, and said: “This is the face of war.”
Another man spoke in code beside the empty bread racks, waiting for some loaves.
“We don’t think about the future,” he said, except that he hopes it will be “good for all Libyans.”
Elsewhere in the city, an educated Libyan who could not give his name says that while Qaddafi is "a warrior" who won't give up easily, the endgame for the regime will be quick – contrary to a common belief that a months-long stalemate might ensue.
Counting on Qaddafi staying in power are the regime cheerleaders who accompany foreign journalists to visits of bombsites and funerals. They come swathed in green headscarves and carrying posters of Qaddafi, and exude total devotion.
During a long drive to the outskirts of the rebel-held enclave of Misratah on Monday, one woman sitting at the front of the journalists’ bus had the job of clapping often to the kind of festive Arab music usually heard at weddings.
But is she part of only a minority who loves Qaddafi? One that is doing little more than clinging with their leader to a final few days of influence and power?
If so, the answer may soon be known. But during another Tripoli taxi ride, the driver played songs that praised Libya and its beauty. Yet he also had an eye on the news that rebel forces were advancing on Sirte, the hometown of Qaddafi that he has virtually made Libya’s second capital.
Rebels at the gates of Tripoli? “Welcome! Welcome!” the man cheered.