Small Signs Suggest Waning Support for Qaddafi

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Young men waved their assault rifles in the air, spraying celebratory gunfire. Others let off fireworks. Drivers honked and leaned out of their cars waving green flags and chanting in support of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

The shaking cacophony of bangs and bullets one recent evening all served to camouflage the thin turnout at a pro-Qaddafi demonstration in his stronghold, the capital of Tripoli. Only several hundred showed up, and many seemed more interested in having fun than in showing solidarity with the regime.

Gauging the views of Tripoli's 1 million residents is difficult because of restrictions placed on journalists. But small signs, such as dwindling attendance at pro-regime demonstrations, suggest that support in the capital for Qaddafi's four-decade-long rule is on the wane.

Fewer appear willing to be human shields to protect Qaddafi's compound from NATO strikes. Brief gunbattles break out in some neighborhoods. There are whispers of dissent.

Authorities violently quelled protests in Tripoli against Qaddafi's rule early in the three-month-old rebellion. Soldiers, police and other armed men shot and killed demonstrators. They detained suspected protesters, and intelligence agents continue to keep a close watch on residents.

Rebels have had more success so far elsewhere in the country. They have seized swaths of eastern Libya, setting up a de facto capital in Benghazi. In western Libya, the rebels have a toehold in the port city of Misrata and cling to towns along a mountain range.

Tripoli has remained fairly quiet since the initial protests were crushed. Most residents seem focused on surviving through the rebellion, rather than taking sides.

If Tripoli ultimately falls, the cause of the regime's collapse may have less to do with advancing rebel armies than with NATO bombing raids and popular anger over rising food prices and long lines at the pump.

Since the uprising began in mid-February, food prices have soared. Vegetable oil rose from less than one Libyan dinar to four dinars. Pasta, a Libyan staple has risen from half a dinar to 2 dinars.

Oil production at Libya's major refineries is down to a trickle because of the fighting.

Outside gas stations in the capital, drivers wait two or three days on lines stretching for miles.

"Protest? People are too busy trying to get fuel," said a taxi driver of pro-Qaddafi demonstrations.

In some cases that anger is bubbling over.

In the coastal town of Zawiya, an hour's drive from Tripoli, crowds waiting for days for fuel attacked a minibus carrying journalists on a state-supervised trip to the Tunisian border.

A knife-wielding attacker pushed and slapped a government official in an attempt to board the minibus. The journalists were unharmed, but violence against a government official would have once been unimaginable in Libya.

In the first few weeks of the Libyan crisis, state television filmed thousands of demonstrators, and highways clogged with beeping cars in support of the leader.

Nowadays, far fewer show up at pro-regime gatherings.

In last week's demonstration in the center of Tripoli, car owners waiting in a miles-long line for gas at 3 a.m. barely paid attention to the drivers of a few dozen cars beeping and waving their green flags.

The scenes of maniacal devotion at the rally seemed to be a result of young men wanting to have fun rather a deeply felt commitment to the regime. They rushed wherever they saw bright television camera lights, wildly belly dancing, chanting and pumping their fists.

Another group of young men strutted past.

"Tell the truth!" one of them yelled at reporters, then adjusted his baseball cap.

"Hey!" he yelled at his buddies, "lets go chant against Al-Jazeera!"

They giggled and ran away.

There were similar scenes after NATO bombs struck two buildings on a residential Tripoli street last week.

Some two-dozen men chanted, clapped and danced in support of Qaddafi around the burning buildings. Close by, hundreds of residents stood and stared at the damage, ignoring the loud demonstrators.

Text messages sent to Libyan mobile phones last week informed residents that a funeral would be held for seven Muslim clerics who were slain in a "barbarian crusader attack" -- a NATO airstrike -- on a guest house in the oil port town of Brega.

Only a few hundred people, many of them soldiers, attended.

In the early days of the uprising, hundreds flooded to defend Qaddafi's compound, where human shields live in tents.

Night after night, state television broadcasts live from the compound, known as Bab al-Aziziya, showing people singing and dancing in a main square. But they rarely appear to number more than a few dozen.

Elsewhere, small signs of defiance are emerging.

Some Libyans, all on condition of anonymity, speak out against Qaddafi when government officials are out of sight.

"The regime is like a palm tree that has grown crooked," said an elderly Tripoli merchant, referring to a Libyan proverb. "All its dates have landed elsewhere," the merchant said. That was a reference to the country's wealth, which many here complain hasn't been distributed fairly.

One man pointed to his one-dinar note, sporting Qaddafi's face.

"No good," he said before quickly tucking the bill away.

On an outing for journalists last week, the owner or manager of a cafe quietly switched his television from blaring Al-Arabiya -- a Saudi-owned news channel despised by the regime -- to Libyan state TV when he saw the reporters approaching.

Presumably he thought government minders weren't far away.

Few pro-government Libyans cite adoration of Qaddafi to explain their stance. Instead, they say they worry about the country's stability.

A pharmacist said she lived well and thought the rebels were tearing the country apart. She was angry at NATO for the bombing raids that crash and boom almost every night in Tripoli. Speaking at the recent demonstration, a 28-year-old computer engineer who only gave his first name, Sufian, said he wanted security.

Another man, Riad Mansour, 35, said he feared Libya would "turn into another Palestine" -- wrecked by occupation and internal instability.

But it seems many others in the capital hope Qaddafi will go, even as they sit on the sidelines.

"We have not seen the wealth of our land," said the elderly merchant. "We are poor and we should be wealthy. And it's his fault."