Small signs suggest waning support for Gadhafi

May 28, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — 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 Moammar Gadhafi.

The shaking cacophony of bangs and bullets one recent evening all served to camouflage the thin turnout at a pro-Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi’s four-decade-long rule is on the wane.

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

Authorities violently quelled protests in Tripoli against Gadhafi’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-Gadhafi 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 this month 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.

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