March 7th, 2011


Body Language

I've been watching Al Jazeera today. It seems that in Tripoli Gaddafi's people have been celebrating recapturing the towns of Az Zawiyah to the west, and Misurata to the East. Al Jazeera spoke to people in both towns, and they both said that while Gaddafi's forces were attacking, they hadn't actually captured either town. So who do you believe?

It reminded me that there've been a couple of fascinating interviews over the past week or two. They were fascinating not just for what was said, but the body language accompanying what was said.

The first was Gaddafi's interview last week by the BBC's Jeremy Bowen and a couple of other journalists. This rather astonished me not just for what Gaddafi had to say - "All my people love me." - but how Jeremy Bowen seemed to be trying to stop himself from bursting out laughing throughout. This was something I noticed from the very beginning, when Bowen is grinning when he shakes hands with Gaddafi, and then walks away with his tongue in his cheek.

You can see the relevant frame below, including Bowen's face while he asks Gaddafi a question. Gaddafi himself manages a smile during the interview, but spends most of his time looking down his nose at Bowen.


It also reminded me of Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught in a face-to-face interview with Saif Gaddafi a couple of days ago. Throughout it, McNaught also seemed to have the faintest trace of a smile on her face, as if she knew something that he didn't. Saif never smiled once, except to bare his teeth in a rictus. He blustered, shook his head, closed his eyes, and gestured frequently, including joining his hands in prayer several times, as if pleading to be heard.

But then, since neither the BBC nor Al Jazeera are pro-Gaddafi, perhaps that's not a surprise. It's a wonder that Saif agreed to talk to Al Jazeera at all, since Gaddafi's people have been telling people not to listen to it. But, in the absence of any sympathetic media outlet to the world, perhaps they had no choice.

It didn't work for Saif. Anita McNaught looks serenely beautiful in this interview. By comparison Saif Gaddafi looks sweaty, and in need of a shave and a new set of clothes. It's Beauty interviewing the Beast.

mcnaught - saif

And yet I came away from those interviews feeling that, despite what seem to be delusions about the cause of the uprising, Gaddafi remained very firmly in charge, and that Saif was right behind him. What do Jeremy Bowen and Anita McNaught know that I don't know, to make them smile so knowingly? Do they believe that there is some sort of "tide of history" that will sweep these people away of its own accord? There is no such tide.

If I were to interview either of these Gaddafi guys, I wouldn't be sniggering at them. They remain very powerful people. Gaddafi is still in control of the Libyan state and military, and of the capital city. The rebels are disorganised, leaderless, and dependent solely on weaponry that they've managed to loot from the army, and upon soldiers who have defected.

Gaddafi still holds most of the cards. And the correct military course of action for him would seem to be to secure his base in Tripoli and its environs, and only then gather his forces and turn east. And this seems to be exactly what he's started doing. If so, he's not behaving like a lunatic at all. And we haven't heard about any riots and demonstrations in Tripoli for several days, or of any more high level defections from around Gaddafi. Furthermore Gaddafi's army is likely to be able to reduce towns such as Az Zawiyah and Misrata that aren't being re-supplied with food and fuel and munitions, if only by laying siege to them, and starving them into surrender. Az Zawiyah, I heard a day or so ago, only has food for 5 days. After that, Gaddafi can turn east, and roll up the towns along the coast one by one, offering amnesties to defecting rebels to accelerate the process.

It could all look very different in a couple of weeks time. And nothing to smirk about.