TRIPOLI, LIBYA —Moammar Gaddafi’s glamorous daughter, Aisha, showed a different public face Friday morning, delivering a defiant and venomous speech to an adoring crowd from the ruins of a building in her father’s Tripoli compound, 25 years to the day after it was hit by U.S. warplanes.
“When I was a child, when I was 9 years old, in this house, a rain of missiles and bombs came down. They tried to kill me,” she said, speaking from a second-floor balcony pockmarked by shrapnel. “After 25 years, the same missiles, the same bombs are raining on our children’s heads.”
Shortly after that raid on April 15, 1986, the young Aisha was photographed holding her fist in the air. Since then, the woman known as “Libya’s Claudia Schiffer” for her supermodel looks has trained as a lawyer, served as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and courted controversy by joining Saddam Hussein’s defense team and speaking out in support of the Irish Republican Army.
On Friday, she appeared in her element, decrying Italy for killing her grandfather when it invaded Libya 100 years ago and the West for wanting to kill her father. “God damn their hands,” she said.
As the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy with cries of “The people want Moammar Gaddafi,” and “Allah, Moammar, Libya, that’s all we need,” Aisha, 34, paused for effect every few minutes, adjusting her green-and-black head scarf, pumping her fist or motioning to the crowd to chant louder.
“We are asking the West . . . these civilians you are protecting, are you talking about the people who are holding machine guns, RPGs and bombs?” she said. “Are these civilians, the ones who are killing people and eating dead people’s hearts?” she asked, echoing government statements about al-Qaeda operatives supposedly running the Libyan rebellion.
Since NATO airstrikes began March 19, thousands of Libyans have assembled each night in the fields of the compound, Bab al-Aziziyah, or Splendid Gate, offering themselves as human shields to protect the man who styles himself Libya’s “Brother Leader.”
“He is my father. He is the father of all of us,” said Fatma al-Alem, 34, who said she has slept in the compound every night since mid-March with her husband and three sons. “He solved all our problems. He is protecting the country,” she said, adding that she was willing to die for Gaddafi. “I am not scared. We will die only once.”
In front of the ruined building, there is a sculpture of a huge golden fist crushing a warplane. Singers and a keyboard player lead the crowd nightly in new revolutionary songs, declaring their devotion to Gaddafi and their defiance of the West. The songs and chants denounce al-Jazeera television network reporters as “weasels” and “pigs” for supposedly championing pro-democracy protesters, or mock President Obama as needing a dress “from Rashid,” a down-market shopping street in Tripoli frequented by African immigrants.
There are few better ways than the nightly party at Bab al-Aziziyah to see Libya’s wounded nationalism and the personality cult surrounding its leader in full force.
Men shout, bounce and sway to the music, then break into a chant like a British soccer crowd. Women, in a segregated area at the side of the stage, scream at the top of their voices, brandishing posters of Gaddafi dressed in military and Arabic costumes. Some wear face veils, but many are made up for a night on the town, with lipstick, mascara and nail polish.
In a sense, the party is an escape from a country partitioned by war, attacked from the air and strangled by sanctions.
On Friday, Gaddafi’s government rained more than 100 rockets into the besieged rebel-held port city of Misurata, in what Western allies denounced as a “medieval siege.” In Tripoli, soldiers surrounded mosques after Friday noon prayers to prevent any outburst of dissent, while traffic entering the city was brought to a virtual standstill as soldiers checked papers and combed cars for weapons. Sporadic gunfire erupted in the late afternoon, but foreign journalists were not permitted to investigate.
Inside Bab al-Aziziyah on Thursday night and Friday morning, the atmosphere was a cross between a political rally and a rock concert, the mood a mixture of bravado and menace.
“When my father said, ‘If my people do not want me, I do not deserve life,’ the Libyan people answered him: ‘Anyone who doesn’t want you, he doesn’t deserve life,’ ” Aisha Gaddafi said. “Because you are the life. You are the father. It is you who gave us our glory and our dignity. You raised us high in the sky.”
NATO should leave Libya’s skies with its tail between its legs, she said, before repeating her father’s infamous invocation, for the Libyan people to “clean our country, house by house, room by room, alley by alley, person by person.”