1 Mar 2011

Libya crisis: the unreal bubble of Tripoli

Jonathan Rugman encounters a bubble of unreality in Tripoli, Libya, where the revolution has and yet has not taken hold, and misinformation is the order of the day.

After three days in Tripoli, I feel as if I am living in a parallel universe; a world so odd that I have to kick myself to prove that yes, I really am here – and no, I am not imagining what I just heard.

While Messrs Obama and Cameron are telling Colonel Gaddafi to relinquish power and suggesting they will support those Libyans seeking to overthrow him, much of Libya’s capital feels as if it is in a bubble of unreality, almost entirely disconnected from the regime’s collapse elsewhere.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the statements of Musa Ibrahim, the Libyan government spokesman, who gave his first ever live television interview to Channel 4 News last night.

Musa is charming, and a great fan of our programme from his days when he lived in the UK. He has also given us an unexpected degree of freedom in letting us see what is going on for ourselves, even if it is with Government minders in tow.

But then he comes up with comments like: “The Islamists love chaos and want their Mediterranean Afghanistan in Libya” to explain the loss of huge swathes of Libyan territory, and I am left wondering how am I supposed to believe that a popular uprising inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt has become an al Qaeda plot.

What is more, a plot in which al Qaeda is engaged in a rare partnership with the west, which wants Libya’s oil.

“They were hiding those with the obvious al Qaeda look,” Musa explained to us when we pointed out to him that we had spotted no Islamist rebels in the town of Zawiyah on Sunday. Does Musa really believe this al Qaeda stuff himself? Perhaps he does. Conspiracy theories are rampant in this part of the world. And if Colonel Gaddafi says drug-taking terrorists are responsible for chaos, then it must be true.

“All my people love me, they would die to protect me,” the Colonel told American television on Monday. The bubble of unreality is blown by the man at the very top.

In Tripoli, many of the shops have stayed shut, and outside banks on Monday we saw long queues of Libyans waiting to pick up Government payments of $400 per family – what one man called Gaddafi’s “last throw of the dice”; money with which he hopes he can buoy up his support.

Yet talk to those queuing – not those so frightened of secret police that they dare not speak at all – and they tell you that everyone loves Gaddafi, that his losses in the East (if they are true) are the fault of Egyptian immigrants and foreign interference, that there has been no violence, that life is good.

The same nonsense is parroted all the time on state television which endlessly broadcasts pro-Gaddafi rallies. I saw two such rallies yesterday, which had clearly been organised on our behalf. One Gaddafi “loyalist” admitted to one of my colleagues that he had been paid to attend, but really wanted freedom instead.

I do not doubt that Colonel Gaddafi has a genuine constituency in his capital – after 41 years, people have known no other leader, and a personality cult is just that – a cult. But I can only conclude that when a television camera is switched on, Libyans know in some Pavlovian fashion exactly what they are supposed to say, in what is left of this highly unstable police state.