02.20.11

Libyan Protesters Rise Up in Capital

Libyans are starting to fill the streets of Tripoli, where events will determine whether the uprising will end the decades-long regime of Muammar Gaddafi, writes Mike Giglio.

Protests that began in Eastern Libya have finally reached the capital, Tripoli. Al Jazeera says thousands of people from the city and nearby towns turned out overnight Sunday. They marched to Tripoli’s central square before clashing with security and pro-government forces. Protesters also burned several government buildings, including state TV, the main courthouse, a large bank, an intelligence-agency building, and at least two police stations. On Sunday night, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, warned the government would “fight until the last bullet.” More than 230 people have died in Libya—the most violent protests in the Arab world so far.

Mike Giglio reports on the changing mood in the streets that drove the protesters into the capital.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, on Sunday, confronting soldiers and mercenaries who killed and injured scores of people, reportedly firing into demonstrations. Protesters there set about gaining the upper hand in the face of brutal government crackdowns, and the unrest spread to other cities as well. But most eyes were trained toward Tripoli, where the number of Libyans rising up against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi had suddenly multiplied, amid reports of gunfire, throngs marching in the streets, and burning buildings.

The protests, inspired by recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, began in Benghazi on February 17 and have quickly spiraled into a looming fiasco for Gaddafi, who has ruled the country ruthlessly since seizing power in a 1969 military coup. The dictator’s son, Saif El Islam Gaddafi, even took to state-run TV to claim the protests are being greatly exaggerated, supposedly pushed by unions and Islamic groups, and that only 14 people have died so far. But Human Rights Watch has set the death toll at more than 200. And the march toward the Gaddafis’ doorstep appears to gather steam daily.

By Sunday afternoon, the throngs seemed to be controlling the streets of Benghazi, but the seaside capital of Tripoli is the place that will determine whether a burgeoning uprising will topple the Gaddafis.

Belgassem, who didn’t provide a last name, said in a phone interview that he’d seen the soldiers and mercenaries in Benghazi shooting on protesters, and visited hospitals full of victims and empty of supplies. The protesters remained optimistic, despite the regime’s harsh tactics. “They are facing the army. They are facing the soldiers,” said Belgassem, his voice hoarse. “We are not going to stop. Maybe Tripoli will be next,” he said. “We hope the people will go out to the street.”

Within hours, as reports streamed out of Benghazi that it had been “liberated,” Belgassem appeared to get his wish. Celebratory car horns and what sounded like gunshots could be heard as a businessman, speaking by phone and asking to remain anonymous, made his way to Tripoli’s main square. “People are everywhere,” he said. “I feel I am liberated.… Military forces, a few hours ago, they were in the streets. They were controlling everything. But now there is nothing.”

“If I die tonight, I’m happy. We gained our freedom,” said one protester. “Tripoli is the last city left. And it’s here. It started tonight. I can confirm that it’s started tonight.”

Fadel Lamen: Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in CrisisBenghazi had long been a home to anti-Gaddafi rumblings, and was isolated from the country’s oil wealth. But Tripoli, with its concentration of oil money and multinational corporations, is the base of Gaddafi’s power, and the city’s standard of living is relatively high. Rihab Elhaj, a Libyan-American who has been in constant touch with family and friends in the city, said in an interview today: “In a sense he’s keeping bellies full and roofs over their heads. Which is the worst kind of tyranny, you know?”

Even worse was what Elhaj described as the “fantastic fear tactics” employed by the regime in Tripoli: Soldiers—and, reportedly, mercenaries flown in from African nations—patrolled the streets, and helicopters were even dispatched into the air. Internet, television, and phone service flicked in and out. “They’re really scared right now. Nobody’s thinking about going out in masses,” she said.

But something has changed. Mohamed Buisier, an engineer and longtime political activist, went to downtown Tripoli in the morning—to find pro-government supporters occupying central Green Square, as they had for days. There was no sign that the regime was losing its grip. He went to the bank. “And I found people withdrawing money like hell,” he said in a phone interview.

Soon the atmosphere in the streets changed, from fear and suppression to one that seemed like a festival. People began to fill the streets. Billboards of Gaddafi had been set on fire. For Buisier, who spent a year in jail for his activism in the 1970s—and said he’d seen friends hanged for the same reason—it was an unbelievable sight. “If I die tonight, I’m happy. We gained our freedom,” he said, having just returned home from the surreal scene. “Tripoli is the last city left. And it’s here. It started tonight. I can confirm that it’s started tonight.” Then he left for the square.

Ghazi Ramadan, 40, woke up in Tripoli Sunday morning feeling anxious and looking for news about the protests. The last few days had been frightening, he said in a phone interview, with bands of pro-government forces roaming the streets to preemptively disperse any demonstrations. Every time the Internet flashed back on, he rushed to Twitter for updates, but they were slow to come. So he took to keeping his ear glued to the front door, listening for gunshots and other sounds that might bring news of what was happening in the streets. It was after 8 p.m. when Ramadan began to hear anti-government chants. He walked outside to see people, mostly young men, rushing to a nearby square. He decided to join them. “I sensed the opportunity for change,” he said. “I don’t mind being dead. We’ve been dead for 42 years.”

The group, numbering about 200, Ramadan recalled, marched to a building that serves as a center for the regime’s hated Revolutionary Guard. It was closed for the night, but protesters broke in. Ramadan spread papers around the building, while someone followed him, lighting them on fire. The building, Ramadan said, was burned to the ground. “It was like a dream come true,” he said. “It feels good. We could not say a word to these guys for years.”

The group kept marching, swelling in number, and eventually joined forces with a crowd from another part of the city. People decided to head for the square. But Ramadan headed home, spent, and expecting a big fight to come. He arrived in time to hear Gaddafi's son, Saif, give an address on Libyan television that warned that the regime would “fight to the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”

“I’m not sure if they’re still in control,” Ramadan said, adding that, if the regime did still hold power, a brutal response may be in store. “Expect anything.”

As the night wore on, unconfirmed reports swirled of attacks on demonstrators. It was unclear if people in Tripoli were celebrating or still battling—or perhaps a mixture of both. But with Tripoli finally plunged into the revolt, something in the country had irrevocably changed. “We’ve been waiting for this moment all our lives,” Ramadan said.

Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.