African business, politics and lifestyle
Who are Gaddafi’s on-screen supporters?
Of course Reuters has reporters on both sides of the front line, but from Tunis I have been keeping an eye on Libyan television too – partly because it has scrolling headlines in English about the latest crusader, colonial and al Qaeda atrocities which might carry some news but also, I have to admit, from a fascination with the procession of people voicing their support for the Brother Leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Not being an Arabic speaker, I can only gather a few words, but the raised voices make clear the emotion, often from Gaddafi’s Bab al Aziziyah compound itself.
Who are these Libyans and what do they really feel? Who are the people who bring young children on their shoulders to this repeatedly bombed compound, dressing them in bright green patriotic suits like little elves and hoisting them high while they thrust fists in the air?
Through the day the voices change – at one point a talk show host with improbably red hair discusses with participants sat in armchairs in the sunshine of the Mediterranean spring.
A succession of people take the microphone to voice their opinion – pretty much the same opinion. Sometimes they are teenagers, sometimes workers, sometimes in uniform, sometimes old men in sunglasses – always speaking quickly, loudly and angrily.
Do people get paid for their appearances or is it worth it for the few minutes of fame? Do they volunteer? Are they forced to do this?
Then the crowds build, waving pictures of Gaddafi from various eras – the young colonel in the years after he seized power more than four decades ago, the guide in the dress of a desert nomad, the leader in ‘King of Pop’-style uniforms covered in braid. Fists are thrust skyward again.
Sometimes there are gunshots of celebration in the air. Once, some spectators appeared on horseback. Another day, a group seemed to burst spontaneously into the streets around the compound, sweeping their green flags in joy as though taking an early day off from school.
At night the lights might come out for a pop concert, the crowd swaying to the rhythm and patriotic lyrics.
Is attendance obligatory or is it the best entertainment on offer in Tripoli? Once you are there, do you get overtaken by the mood of solidarity and patriotism? When you go home to do you feel energised? Do you feel relieved to have escaped unscathed? Uneasy at your part in what even the most charitable would have to call propaganda? Is it all just in a day’s work?
Even being in Tripoli wouldn’t necessarily help to answer these questions. As my colleague Lin Noueihed wrote from there, the fear is palpable and getting an honest opinion from anyone is almost impossible.
It would seem insulting to brand all the people appearing on television as mere sycophants. Tripoli has been bombed repeatedly. The very compound has been targeted – according to Libyan officials killing several members of Gaddafi’s family plus security guards and office workers. There is reason to be angry, but also plenty of reason to be afraid.
Unfortunately, while we don’t know those people have the freedom to say what they believe, we also have to question whether we can believe anything they say. One day, I hope to find out.