March 16, 2011 / 1:17 PM / 9 years ago

FEATURE-Stunned by Gaddafi assault, Libyans give up on change

By Maria Golovnina TRIPOLI, March 16 (Reuters) - All hope for change was crushed for a young Libyan businessman when he saw police kill two protesters outside his shop in central Tripoli.

“This is terrible. This is bad,” he said, looking around nervously in an outdoor cafe overlooking Algeria square, the site of recent clashes between opponents and supporters of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

“Gaddafi is old. Young people use the Internet. They want change,” he said, speaking anonymously for fear of being identified by the authorities.

“I want to make a future for myself. But with Gaddafi, there is no future ... Here, we are angry. But we can’t show it because Gaddafi is here in the city.”

Just two weeks ago, Tripoli was abuzz with talk of imminent change after uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia inspired young people to take to the streets and call for the end of Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

The deaths of protesters elsewhere in the Arab world have only ignited people’s rage. But in Libya, Gaddafi’s blistering military response to the revolt has shocked people into silence.

“I can’t do that (protest),” said the businessman. “I am 25. I don’t want to be shot.”

Flanked by grand buildings dating back to Italy’s 1911-1943 colonial rule, his friends nodded in agreement as they smoked waterpipes quietly on the side of the square.

Many of them were excited to watch Arab uprisings unfold via reports they saw on social networks. It was a remarkable novelty for a generation that has known no leader other than Gaddafi.

But with the Internet now switched off for most ordinary Libyans and the state security apparatus cracking down on any forms of dissent, many just want to get on with their lives.

“I am scared,” said Waleed Jamal, 24, an economics student. He said he wanted to focus on studying and get a good job. “I hope everything will be alright.”

Gaddafi has pledged to fight until the last drop of blood to crush the rebels holed up in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi. He says they are Islamist militants who want to set up a Taliban-style dictatorship in Libya.

The rebels say they are fighting for political change and deny any link to extremist groups. They frequently shout pro-democracy slogans adopted from a wave of protests that has swept through the Arab world this year.

Far from the battlefields of the east, where rebels fight troops with heavy weapons, Tripoli’s tech-savvy professionals feel betrayed by the West. But they also feel their peaceful cause has now disintegrated into an ugly guerrilla conflict.

“Even if Gaddafi is not right, no one will achieve anything by throwing rocks,” said the businessman.


A popular call for change muted gradually into a whisper in Tripoli as Gaddafi’s forces continued to thrust eastwards towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. In Tripoli, Gaddafi’s heavily fortified base, his victory is a forgone conclusion.

The city is awash with talk about reprisals. Residents say plainclothes police appear at night in their neighbourhoods to arrest young people suspected of taking part in earlier demonstrations or contacts with foreign journalists.

Streets are patrolled by Gaddafi’s feared militiamen. Access to neighbourhoods such as Tajoura, where people had earlier tried to stage demonstrations, has been restricted by army checkpoints.

In areas recaptured by state troops, security agents are rounding up people suspected of ties to the rebels, residents said. The Internet has been mostly cut off for ordinary people in Tripoli, and mobile connections are patchy.

Protests have fizzled and anti-Gaddafi graffiti have been painted over. Last Friday, police fired teargas outside a mosque to stamp out a protest before it even started.

Social networking sites are still full of defiant messages, calling for another rally, dubbed Freedom Friday, on March 18. “We definitely will prevail ‘inshallah’ (with God’s help). It’s just a matter of time and patience,” said one Twitter user called Lebeeya.

Businesses shut in the wake of the crisis, but signs of normality have returned slowly to the streets. Weary of weeks of turmoil, people said they wanted to get on with their lives.

“Either Muammar or not, I don’t care as long as I have my shop,” said Mehdi, a pastry maker, as a call to prayer sounded from a mosque converted from an old Italian Catholic cathedral. In an old market in central Tripoli — a maze of twisty passages selling everything from turtles to spices — people said some vendors were still staying away.

“Some of them are a little bit scared to open their shops,” said Murat Salah, 23, who has recently reopened his wedding merchandise store. Nearby, militiamen watched the crowd of shoppers intently from the back of an army truck.

Whether out of fear or genuine belief, most ordinary people echoed Gaddafi’s firebrand rhetoric, blaming all the trouble on an alliance between al Qaeda and the West jointly seeking to destroy Libya and take over its oil.

“I have children ... They don’t want destruction, they want the leader to stay. They don’t want change,” Mohamed Abdallah, a father of seven, as he strolled through the market with his wife.

“Bin Laden and al Qaeda are ... inciting young people to make trouble. They drink whiskey inside mosques. They have guns, women. They turn mosques into discos.”

Ramadan Ali, a Tripoli resident who spends most of his time waving a green flag in Green Square in support of Gaddafi, said: “He gave us freedom and democracy. Everyone has a house, a car, money. We don’t need anyone else.” (Writing by Maria Golovnina, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

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