For a man who is supposed to be worth millions, you wouldn’t know it by his boots. He is one of the hardest people to meet in the world. So I expected to be taken to a secret location or perhaps a grand pavilion in the desert. Instead, our rendezvous was a seaside restaurant in downtown Tripoli. The sun was starting to slip over the horizon when I realised all the traffic had suddenly disappeared. Then there was a row of cars, lights flashing as they hurtled along the road. One pulled up and from it emerged Col Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest serving leader. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of gold Cartier sunglasses. His flowing brown robes gave off the light scent of sandalwood. A team of securitymen followed in his wake but there was nothing ceremonial about these guys. The famed female bodyguards were nowhere to be seen. He took his seat and spoke for more than an hour. “I don’t like money,” he said, “I have a tent.” His black leather cowboy boots tended to suggest he was telling the truth. The soles were cracked and pitted. The heels were worn. If he has millions squirrelled away, he’s not spending it on his shoes.
My first impression? He is not crazy. It was Ronald Reagan who famously called him a “mad dog”. After the BBC’s interview was aired, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said he was “delusional”. His long rambling speeches on Libyan state TV have made many people question his sanity. But throughout the meeting he was confident, lucid and robust. But he’s clearly out of touch.
“No one is against me,” he said. “No demonstrations at all in the streets...they love me. All my people are with me, they love me all. They will die to protect me, my people.” He clearly believed every word he was saying. But you only have to drive 20 km outside of the capital city of Tripoli to find people who want him and his family strung up. He’s already lost the eastern side of country. But these people, who the world calls pro-democracy protesters, are, according to the Colonel, the unwitting pawns of Al Qaeda that has provoked them into rebellion by putting “hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, coffee, their Nescafe”.
Libya’s has been the most violent of the revolutions that have swept the Arab nations. It has prompted international outrage and the rather hastily put together UN resolution 1970, which accused Col Gaddafi of bombing civilian targets, a claim that western leaders are now shying away from. What his regime has done is shoot unarmed protesters. But Gaddafi blames most of the deaths on the rebels themselves. “Those people who have weapons, they are young people—youthful—who do not know Al Qaeda. Now they have already started laying down their arms, selling them and returning to their homes. Now they are awakening from the hallucinogenic drugs which were given to them.”
He answered all the questions with little evasion. But he is clearly a man who is not used to being challenged. His feet rocked and tapped in apparent agitation as he listened to the questions and only calmed down when he got his chance to respond. At his most forceful, he switched from Arabic to English. Half way though the interview the sunglasses came off. But when he left, he took the time to shake all our hands and posed for a few photos. He even briefly started to put his arm around my shoulders. And then he was off, his vehicle followed by a convoy of more than 20 cars.
My next audience with him was a much less exclusive affair. March 2 is the anniversary of what Libyan state TV called the 1977 “establishment of the people’s authority”. This is when Col Gaddafi says he handed over all power to the people who were gathering in front of him—the delegates to the National People’s Congress. It’s for this reason that he says he can’t step down, because he does not have any position to step down from. Each year he opens the session with a speech. There, among the 2,000 people waiting patiently for the arrival of ‘The Leader’, was Mariam Ibrahim Gurgi, who was one of the people’s representatives for Tripoli. Sitting resplendent in her sparkling green scarf, she told me why everyone in the hall was excited. “Most or all of the people and their children love Muammar Gaddafi from their hearts, from the bottom of their hearts really. We have no problems. We have our freedoms already. Thanks to God we are living in heaven. Everything is very good.”
And then, to the delight of the crowd, he arrived. To the bemusement of the rest of us, he arrived driving a brand new golf buggy, the front seat draped with a white sheepskin rug. He parked up and then struggled his way through a swarm of media, his hands pumping the air triumphantly. He climbed onto the podium to a rock star reception. His security team linked arms to hold back the media. Some remarkably rotund and persistent female supporters barrelled themselves into the crowd, pushing and shoving with all their might, trampling through a carefully arranged floral decoration set out on the floor in front of him.
He talked for nearly three hours. Occasionally he paused to allow some chants and cheers, and then tapped his microphone when he was ready for them to shut up. And shut up they promptly did. All except one woman who indulged in something my officially provided translator described as “freestyle poetry” in praise of her leader. He’d clearly had enough because someone turned off her mike and led her back to her place so he could continue his unscripted monologue. “We put our fingers in the eyes of those who doubt that Libya is ruled by anyone other than its people,” he said. “We will fight until the last man and last woman to defend Libya from east to west, north to south.”
The government is keen for the media groups allowed in to believe that Gaddafi’s support stretches well beyond his immediate coterie of followers. So we’ve been bussed around to witness a number of supposedly spontaneous demonstrations in his honour. The most incredible was in Tajoura, on the outskirts of Tripoli, where major anti-Gaddafi protests have also taken place. We drove around in a convoy of mini-buses, took the odd wrong turn, then pulled into a car park where a group of young men were standing idly around. Upon our arrival they all leapt up and started chanting and beeping their horns. I suspect it didn’t last a minute beyond our departure.
Track changes Boys atop an army tank in the rebel-held Benghazi. (Photograph by AP)
When we managed to travel to Tajoura without the convoy, it was a much different picture. Then we were discreetly handed, without a word, pen drives from strangers containing mobile phone video showing unarmed protesters being gunned down on the streets during the early stages of the revolt. Still clearly visible was the damage done to government buildings, one of which was completely gutted by fire. And no one had tried to replace the posters of the Colonel ripped down by the protesters. Most shops and businesses had their shutters down. One of the few places still open were the bread shops, clearly identifiable by the long queue of people outside.
The mood in Tripoli is tense. People know this revolution won’t be complete until and unless the capital falls. But at the moment it appears to still be tightly in the regime’s grip, despite the occasional sound of far-off gunfire we sometimes hear at night. In Egypt and Tunisia, the fate of the regime was decided in the capital. But in Libya it’s not been just one revolution but lots of local ones. Perhaps it’s the tribal nature of the society that people are only so far fighting for their own home turf. No one looks ready to march on the capital and the anti-Gaddafi groups here may not have the might to do it on their own.
The last time I saw Gaddafi, he was leaving the conference centre and driving his golf buggy towards a lamp post. He couldn’t see where he was going because he was being mobbed by the world’s press. In the end, his security team managed to clear a path and he headed out onto the main road followed by the usual long convoy of four-wheel drives. Two men from the Libyan version of the secret service jumped on the back of his car and they all raced off into the distance, at least they raced as much as you can when you’re following a golf buggy. It’s clear that Colonel Gaddafi still has the capacity to surprise. I expected to meet a rambling old man barely in control of his faculties, let alone his country. But he’s still in charge, at least in the bits of the country still bending to his will. And he may prove to have a few more tricks up his sleeve before this crisis is over.
(Paul Danahar is the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief)