In Tripoli, support for Gaddafi is shallow

Moammar Gaddafi is facing a tougher military challenge than ever, with bombs dropping on Tripoli with increasing frequency and attack helicopters on the way. But his 41-year rule may be just as threatened by opposition in his own capital, where the images of his face that cover many walls appear to paper over a shallow supply of support.

Enthusiastic praise for the man many here call the “Brother Leader” appears largely confined to officials and chanting crowds that pop up at many of the stops journalists make. Lately, even those crowds seem to be dwindling.

There are surely pockets of support for Gaddafi among those who have depended on and profited from stability during his years in power, but severe restrictions on reporters’ movements through Tripoli make it difficult to fully assess their strength.

One bastion remains the country’s black African immigrants. Gaddafi encouraged them to come here for jobs, and many of them worry that if rebels take control, they could be deported or accused of working as mercenaries.

But most English-speaking residents — among the city’s better educated and more Western-oriented — who discuss the situation freely say they want a change, even if they’re not prepared to brave the streets of the militarized city to bring it about themselves.

“I don’t like the guy,” said a young man selling watches just outside Tripoli’s old city, as he gave away to a passerby a broken watch bearing Gaddafi’s image. “People here don’t like Gaddafi, but they’re scared,” he said.

Increasingly, though, some residents of Tripoli are looking past that fear.

Monday saw the biggest protest in the capital in nearly three months, when about 1,000 people gathered for the funeral of two rebel activists killed in a clash with security forces, a dissident said. The events he described were captured on video and confirmed by several local residents.

It was the third peaceful protest in Tripoli in the past week, the dissident said, but the first to be filmed and independently verified.

“The Gaddafi militia came and started firing everywhere,” said one man who lives in the Souk al-Juma neighborhood and declined to give his name for fear of being arrested. “We could not go out at all last night, not even for five minutes.”

The man pointed out bullet holes in cars and walls that he said came from security forces on Monday night. Other residents said no one in the neighborhood supports Gaddafi. “England, good. America, France, Italy — all good,” said one shopkeeper, listing the countries leading the bombing campaign directed against his own country in an attempt to oust Gaddafi.

In recent days, Libya has appeared more isolated on the international scene, after Russia called for Gaddafi to step down and a visit by South African President Jacob Zuma did not produce a breakthrough.

A day after meeting the embattled leader, Zuma said Tuesday that Gaddafi has no intention of leaving Libya, adding that the Libyan leader had appealed for an end to NATO bombings.

Several high-level defections over the weekend suggested that the NATO campaign’s increased pressure on Tripoli is cutting off some of Gaddafi’s support.

Eight Libyan army officers, including five generals, appeared at a news conference in Rome on Monday, saying they were part of a group of 120 military officials and soldiers who had defected and announcing their conviction that Gaddafi’s time is short.

But Mohamed Ali, a rebel official now in Qatar, said the defections are not “backbreaking” for Gaddafi. “We need much more serious defections from the inner circle,” he said by Skype. “These are outer-circle guys.”

Among those who continue to support Gaddafi, there is praise for the stability he has brought to the country during the past 41 years.

The few people willing to vouch for him when government minders weren’t close at hand said the West erred in February when it treated the Libyan opposition as a peaceful protest movement akin to those that seized the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, saying that what was at hand was tantamount to civil war from the outset. They point at the leaders in the rebels’ Transitional National Council, several of whom were government ministers under Gaddafi until the protests, and they question what would be different if the rebels took over the country.

“I like Gaddafi. We’ve had decades of safety and security,” said a man who runs a cellphone shop in the city’s main market. “We can do business in peace.”

Correspondent Simon Denyer in Tripoli contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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