The shopkeeper in Tripoli’s old city spoke softly, gesturing towards his window display to suggest to anyone watching that he was merely serving another customer.
He cast a wary eye at a man stood just outside with his back to the doorway, who may have been a passer-by – or else an eavesdropper for Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s near-42-year-old Libyan regime. “Nobody here can speak the truth,” the merchant said, adding evenly: “I think you are being followed.”
His words, which would have been corny in a Hollywood spy film, carried a real chill in a city filled with civil war tension borne of both the colonel’s ruthless suppression of opposition and fear over how Libya’s conflict of more than five months will be resolved.
Faced with an oppressive regime and a rebel group whose pedigree for government is increasingly open to question, some Tripoli residents seem to be withdrawing deeper into themselves to await the end of a crisis they feel they have little power to direct.
As one woman put it, when asked how she thought the situation would play out: “You know the truth. I want to live.”
While low-profile meetings over the Libyan crisis take place between the Gaddafi regime, the rebels and western powers, those Tripoli residents who are not vociferous supporters of the colonel suggest a range of opinion about what should happen now.
Yet those who want tear down the Gaddafi fiefdom, those who want neither him nor the rebels, and those who simply want the war to end all share an intensifying problem: making their presence felt at this critical time for determining the country’s future.
The organised opposition to Col Gaddafi in Tripoli remains an unquantifiable, dislocated and largely underground presence. It is a consequence of the mass arrests by the security forces as they tried to shore up their control of much of the west of the country in the early days of the crisis.
One Tripoli-based dissident said it was too dangerous to make more than symbolic protests, adding that regime agents had become more cunning: wearing plain clothes and driving saloon cars rather than ostentatious Toyota four-by-fours. He said: “There are more of them [agents] now and we can’t tell who is who. They wander around the streets, the mosques and the coffee shops – and they are not as obvious as they were in their uniforms.”
Another Gaddafi opponent suggested in frustration that foreign journalists, corralled in the Swiss Inn al Nasr hotel with government minders, should not bother coming to Tripoli, as they were prevented from experiencing the “apprehension and fear” as “zero hour” approached.
Elsewhere in the capital, away from the pro-Gaddafi demonstrations that have been growing in size, there are anecdotal signs of other residents contemplating a Libya without the colonel in charge.
A man named Tarek, packing up after a late-night picnic with his family, told of his wish for an end to the war. As supporters of the colonel assembled a giant portrait of him in the regime stronghold of Green Square a few hundred metres away, Tarek – whose wife is from the rebel-held east – suggested Col Gaddafi could pass power to his eldest son Mohammed. “Mohammed is a good businessman,” he said. “Get the two sides to the table and talking, and things will be sorted out.”
The following day, two youths walking away from Green Square lambasted Nato but said they would be prepared to see the colonel succeeded by his second son Seif, who was seen internationally as a reformer until his bellicose approach to the rebels earlier in the conflict.
As Libya’s war deepens and the deaths mount, the fragmented Tripoli conversations highlight a dangerous doubt surrounding what is the majority opinion outside rebel-held areas on both Col Gaddafi and what, if anything, should replace him.
The many people who now speak only obliquely and with an overwhelming sense of suspicion seem to indicate a desire for change, while leaving the what and when unnervingly – if understandably – obscure. As the old city shopkeeper said in his final words on these dangerous matters: “Be careful. Don’t trust anyone.”
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