TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A chorus of white-clad girls, halos fixed to their heads and battery-powered candles clutched in their hands, sways in unison, then breaks into an off-key accompaniment of the 1980s anthem “We are the World.”
Hours before the performance outside Muammar Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound, broadcast live on state television, a Tripoli resident renders a different verdict on the fate of the capital after ten weeks of Western bombing.
“We are finished,” says a man who identifies himself as Hamid, previously a driver for a Turkish construction firm. One of the firm’s expatriate employees — now evacuated from Libya — said he believed Hamid was an informant for Libyan intelligence.
“The letter is sent. It comes from the skies. We just don’t know the date,” said Hamid.
As a NATO-led air campaign pounds Tripoli under the rubric of crippling Gaddafi’s war against rebels who have seized Libya’s east and hold pockets near the capital, his opponents and some supporters are beginning to count aloud the Libyan leader’s remaining days in power.
Sporadic bursts of nighttime small-arms fire outside the hotel where the Libyan government houses foreign media have drawn out into lengthy exchanges, at times capped by the thud of a heavier weapon.
Libyan officials who in previous weeks called those episodes displays of pro-Gaddafi jubilance now decline to discuss them.
In a district that rose against Gaddafi in February, residents say protesters ventured out again this week, drawing gunfire from security forces. Activists have circulated a video appearing to show protesters denouncing Gaddafi in that area.
The accounts of overt dissent remain scattered, and displays of loyalty to the leader — not least during state-sponsored events organized for the attention of foreign press — are incessant.
Wariness of foreign media, whom government minders follow, remains high.
“We have no scoop,” said the proprietor of an ice-cream shop, when asked for a cone by a foreign reporter who had spoken English to a colleague in his presence.
When reminded of the one lying on the counter before him, he replied: “Ah. That one doesn’t work.”
That reticence, however, fades more often and quickly than it once did.
Queues for petrol — priced officially at 0.15 Libyan dinar ($0.125) per liter, but selling for 30 times that on the black market — see frustration boil over into denunciation of the ruling elite, in the presence of security forces deployed warily at fuel stations.
“Who the hell are you?” screamed one motorist who leapt from his battered sedan when a sleek BMW attempted to nose into the middle of a petrol queue stretching for blocks not far from Libya’s central bank.
“Why are you yelling at him?” shouted another. “It’s the pimp who sent him to fill up for him, he owns everything.”
“Remember the 500 dinars?” that motorist asked, referring to a hardship payment Libya’s government announced in February when uprisings against Gaddafi erupted, but which few people say they have received since an initial payment.
“When you get it, come back and spend it.”
Resignation emerges in less heated circumstances.
On a recent Friday, with streets abnormally empty before Muslim prayers, a merchant near Tripoli’s port bitterly denounced the rebels.
“They’re traitors, prostitutes, thieves. They are getting their wish from NATO,” he said of the Benghazi-based rebels, led by defectors and now recognized by a handful of states as the country’s rightful government.
“We will suffer more, soon. We will have chaos here, and we will starve. Already I can’t restock some things,” he said, pointing to a cardboard crate holding a few cans of artichokes.
Asked why he had opened with so few people on the streets, he replied: “It’s better. I have to.”
Another merchant in the neighborhood echoed his skepticism of the men who would inherit Libya, but blamed the leader and his family for sowing the seeds of an uprising.
“You cannot do this to people. You cannot pour all of the wealth into your pockets,” he said, referring to Libya’s oil revenue and the private sector business ventures that family members have controlled during abortive economic liberalization.
Invoking Gaddafi’s call for Libyans to hunt down protesters — whom he compared to vermin — when demonstrations against his rule erupted in February, he said: “He saw the population as rats, so he thinks he can kill them. It is bringing the end for him and everyone else.”
Near the city’s traditional quarter, where streets lined with vaulted arches lead to a square dominated by an Ottoman-era clock tower, a retired mathematics teacher placed Tripoli’s present at the end of a century marked by blood.
“I am old enough to remember the king well, and I had relatives who were in the camps,” said Rashed, who declined to use his full name, referring to Italy’s colonial rule of Libya, which commenced in 1911 after the invasion of the formerly Ottoman territory.
Libyans recount the death of as much as half of the population in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Italian colonial governors resorted to mass imprisonment in a bid to crush armed resistance to their rule.
Gaddafi invoked that experience after deposing the monarch who followed Italy’s doomed colonial experiment, and while proclaiming a state of its people, subject to no one.
The leader of the anti-Italian resistance, Omar al-Mukhtar, figures prominently in the iconography of Gaddafi’s besieged system of rule.
“He had support for putting an end to what Libya what suffered,” said Rashed. “And now what he has made people suffer will be his end. I hope what happens will be for the best.”
(Editing by Jon Hemming)
$1=1.198 Libyan Dinar