Adversaries of Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli are getting ready to launch a new uprising, as they lose their fear of the embattled regime’s weakened security forces.
Col Gaddafi still has some supporters, but in Tripoli self-assurance is growing among his foes
The first sign that the street was anti-Gaddafi was a surprising whisper from the males in T-shirts and jeans who were loitering in shop doorways.
“David Cameron, very good,” they said with a wink – coded approval for Nato’s bombing campaign against Gaddafi.
Soon a young man called Abdul approached, desirous to tell the outside world that Tripoli’s youths haven’t much lost their zeal for fighting the regime.
“We’re expecting the moment,” he said. “Bit by bit the government is shedding its control. There are no security forces in Tripoli anymore – they are all at the front.
“Whenever we tried to provide an uprising in February there initially were tanks everywhere in the capital also it was crushed. But they are not here at this point. We are ready again and as soon as the opportunity comes it’ll be quick and we will force Gaddafi out and about.”
He said thousands like him were waiting for rebel forces to approach nearer the capital, when they would take to the roadways again. A few weeks ago most people in Tripoli were too terrified to speak to a foreign journalist; the readiness of young men like him to talk marks a growing self-assurance among Gaddafi opponents.
The changing mood comes despite repeated claims by the Libyan government – including, on Friday night, by the prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmudi – that it is in clandestine talks with the rebels. “Ask the Egyptians, French, Norwegians and Tunisians for information. They will tell you the truth,” he said. “We are absolutely clear on our meetings and everything has been recorded.” Which claim was denied from the rebels’ leader, Mahmud Jibril, and also by French officials.
The regime hopes that it can tough it out for long enough for Nato to lose heart and energy; the alliance desires that the regime will give in to the gradual stranglehold in which it continues to be caught. Yesterday Nato hailed what it called “positive signs” that civilians were rallying against the regime.
Abdul guided The Sunday Telegraph across the old city’s maze of alleys and souks for almost two hours, greeting friends who denounced the person officially known as the Brother Leader. These folks were working-class men in their twenties, aggravated by the regime’s stifling rule and eager for revenge after their friends were murdered and they were beaten during February’s uprising.
Most of them lived in squalid, ramshackle slums which overlooked the oil wealth Gaddafi lavished on Libya’s elite; but even in residential areas in southern Tripoli, places regarded solidly Gaddafi-supporting, young men with middle-class parents were effortlessly found who would speak out against the Libyan leader.
“I hate him now, after the killing in February. He needs to go,” one man in a confectionary shop reported in fluent English, within hearing of bystanders.
They appeared to have little formal organisation without clear leadership, but are in contact with each other on the web and by word of mouth. The lack of organisation will make it harder for a crackdown by security forces, who’re keenly informed that Gaddafi’s rule in Benghazi and also the east was overthrown by similar informal networks of friends angry with the regime.
Discontent continues to be fuelled by crippling economic problems. Prices have increased sharply in recent weeks, petrol, some kinds of food and cigarettes are no longer affordable for regular Libyans, and personnel have gone without payment for weeks or simply lost their jobs.
Teams of protesters have meanwhile embarked on a low-level urban guerrilla warfare against security forces, establishing hit-and-run attacks in areas a few miles east of the city centre which are hotbeds of opposition to Gaddafi. Some working-class districts of Tripoli are becoming virtual no-go areas for Gaddafi’s forces, which set up random checkpoints on Thursday to search vehicles for weapons.
The previous day, shoppers sprinted for cover when gunfire erupted in a street just south of Green Square, the spiritual home of Gaddafi’s revolution in the centre of the city, and in the evening unexplained fire fights now are commonplace across Tripoli. Competitors of the regime are also being smuggled east to join rebel forces in the embattled city of Zlintan.
However it is the return of street protests that the overstretched regime worries most. On Thursday there had been reports of leaflets being distributed in Tajoura, eight miles east of Tripoli, urging young men to begin demonstrations again. The suburb was the site of pitched battles between protesters and security forces earlier in the rebellion.
Abdul mentioned that the prospect of the battle ahead was frightening for the city’s populace. Gaddafi has distributed weapons to thousands of his supporters, who can be seen traveling around with Kalashnikovs in their cars or shooting them wildly in the air at official presentations.
“Everybody is worried about just what exactly will happen,” Abdul said. “We want to be rid of him but we don’t know what the cost will be in blood.” There was clearly also evidence of torn loyalties and the stress that the civil war is putting on Libyan society. Abdul said four of his friends, all aged 26 who had matured together, had ended up recruited to fight for Gaddafi’s army but did not return.
“I begged them not to go,” he said. “They didn’t even have faith in Gaddafi, they just needed the money and thought they would be performing safe things like dealing with ammunition and baking. There are so many young men who are unemployed in Libya. Now for the sake of 200 dinars (£102) they are expended.” Friction is growing between Arabs and black Libyans, a lot of whom have stayed loyal to Gaddafi, he included.
One reason behind the growing boldness of opponents is that Gaddafi’s security forces are simply not very visible any more, although some men said there were still secret police and informers around. “You don’t discover any police. But that is the point,” said a man wearing wraparound sunglasses, standing outside a gold dealer’s shop. “You’re not supposed to see them.”
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