How deep that support runs in a populace that has been governed by fear for decades is impossible to tell. But six days into the allied bombardment of Libyan military targets, it is clear that Gaddafi can count on the fierce loyalties of at least a significant segment of the population in the vast stretches that lie beyond the enclave of rebel-held territory in the east.
“We don’t want anyone except him,” gushed Fatima al-Mishai, 20, who joined the crowds assembled at Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound to offer their services as voluntary human shields against the bombs. “He gave us freedom and everything we need.”
Indeed, the Libyan government has kept average incomes relatively high, while doling out generous social benefits, including health care and education. Even Gaddafi’s opponents, who dare murmur their dissent only out of earshot of regime loyalists, concede that the man who has governed Libya for nearly 42 years does command genuine support.
“Seventy-five percent of the people are against him,” said one dissident, who was in the vanguard of the protest movement that was crushed in Tripoli last month and who agreed to a furtive meeting with journalists in a downtown cafe. “But there are some people who really do love him. They’ve known no one else all their lives. They think he’s in their blood.”
That a man who boasts he lives in a tent and whom Ronald Reagan once dubbed “the mad dog of the Middle East” still commands devotion four decades into his rule is one of the enduring mysteries of this idiosyncratic country.
To enter the world of the Gaddafi believers is to enter an “Alice in Wonderland” realm in which the regime’s supporters are the real revolutionaries, not the rebels seeking to topple the government, because Libya is in a state of perpetual revolution.
The Libyan people can’t overthrow their government because they are the government, in accordance with the country’s definition of itself as the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which loosely translates as “state of the masses.”
Gaddafi can’t be toppled because he holds no formal position; he is the Brother Leader, a guide and a mentor, a patriarch and an uncle who advises his people but does not rule them.
“Brother Leader Moammar Gaddafi and his colleagues are out of the executive completely,” explained Col. Milad Hussein, who is in charge of ideological education for the Libyan military, in a news briefing. “The Libyan people are the ones who do the deciding and the executing . . . because the revolution is the starting point for everything.”
In reality, said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert and associate professor at Dartmouth College, Gaddafi is the state, the wellspring from whom all decisions and policies spring. Gaddafi is backed by a network of police enforcers and so-called Revolutionary Committees, effectively local vigilantes who keep a close watch on citizens’ activities.
“The man on the street has no real conviction, but there are nefarious consequences if you don’t support Gaddafi,” Vandewalle said.
Yet some appear to believe fervently in the government’s pronouncements. In Green Square, small crowds of Gaddafi supporters sustain what is supposed to be a permanent vigil of chanting, dancing and singing in celebration of the so-called perpetual revolution. They are watched over by matronly female guards dressed in camouflage and armed with shiny new AK-47s.
“He made me feel like a free man. If I don’t hurt anyone, I’m free in my own environment,” said Majdi Daba, a 42-year-old dentist who was born the year Gaddafi wrested power from Libya’s monarchy. Majdi said he goes to the square every day. “Gaddafi gives us advice, that’s all, and when he dies, 7 million people will rule themselves.”
The regime’s opponents, he said, are interested only in making more money, while most Libyan people are satisfied that the government adequately supports their needs.
“It’s not complicated,” he said. “This place is different from Egypt. There, a lot of people are poor, a lot of people are hungry, but here there are no poor people, no hungry people.”
Libya’s role as a sparsely populated, oil-rich state may go some way toward explaining why Gaddafi has been able to retain the support he has. Libya is nearly twice as big as Egypt, yet contains less than one-tenth as many people. Per capita incomes are more than double those in Egypt, where a successful revolt last month inspired Libyans to take to the streets.
The government funds generous social welfare programs that include free education and health care, helping keep at bay the poverty that has fueled discontent elsewhere.
“He has done a lot for the country and no one can deny it,” said Mustafa Fetouri, director of the MBA program at the Academy of Graduate Studies in Tripoli. “He’s built hospitals, schools, roads, lots of things.”
Moreover, he said, the powerful tribal structure that forms the backbone of the government has remained behind Gaddafi, despite initial reports in the early days of the uprising that powerful tribal leaders had defected. Gaddafi has apparently been helped in this regard by making good on a pledge to distribute weapons.
“There are two kinds of people: those who believe in the regime itself and just don’t care too much about freedom, and then there is the tribal structure, which is behind him,” he said. “The support of the tribes goes beyond Gaddafi to his tribe, and to their relationship with his tribe, which predates Gaddafi. It’s nothing to do with Gaddafi.”