Amid the echoing rattle of automatic weapons fire, Najih Tneba brandished the rifle he had taken the previous day from Col Muammer Gaddafi’s loyalists and admitted he knew nothing about guns.

Despite his Che Guevara T-shirt, Mr Tneba said he was short on revolutionary experience and was armed mainly to guard his wife, four children and the other relatives gathered with him in a tiny courtyard in Tripoli’s old city.

He said: “Now each young man is protecting his house and his family. No one is going out. Everything is closed. There is not really any security in Tripoli.”

His fear was a sign of the huge task facing Libya’s rebels as they try to convert their incomplete victory over Col Gaddafi into not just total military triumph but also a functioning social life for the country’s people.

After 42 years of capricious dictatorship, six months of war and days of fighting in central Tripoli, the capital’s residents are worried about low supplies of food and other essentials, the capacity of the rebels to govern and the ability of the colonel to strike back one last time.

As one woman, who asked not to be named, put it: “I think he has something planned for us.”

Tripoli seemed at once tense and relieved, the joy many people feel over the arrival of the rebels on Sunday tempered by the continued battles in some parts of the city and the lack of the catharsis that would be brought by Col Gaddafi’s capture or death.

The rebel graffiti now covering the capital speak of freedom and revenge, with one message looking forward to the capture of Seif al-Islam, the colonel’s second son and one time heir apparent, adding: “I am going to beat him and shame him.”

Rebels have set up checkpoints across the city, though many are lightly equipped, with few fighters wearing flak jackets and a number appearing very young.

One youth, part of a group that had laid Gaddafi government green Libyan flags on the road so passing cars would drive over them, said he was just 14.

In the narrow alleys of the old city, where a Roman arch and Ottoman mosques jostle with shabby modern breeze-block architecture, Selha Mokhtar al Halki, a local resident, offered a tragic illustration of the continued sense of insecurity in the capital. Her 19-year old son, Mohammed, had been killed by Gaddafi loyalists two days before, as he went to collect fish from the seafront.

An armed Libyan rebel fighter stands guard
An armed rebel fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in a rebel base in Tripoli

As she spoke, her husband appeared and began shouting denunciations of Col Gaddafi and angry appeals to the city’s new masters to root out the colonel’s remaining armed supporters.

“These are the guys with the guns. Where the rebels? What are they doing?” he yelled, striking his chest with the flat of his hands in grief and frustration.

There were also reminders in the old city that – for all the substantial anti-Gaddafi feeling in the capital – some people are not pro-rebel and may yet resist their attempts to rule.

A woman in a black robe and purple headscarf walked past, pumped her fist and chanted “God, Muammer and Libya – only”, the signature chant of the colonel’s supporters.

She was a Palestinian who had lived in Libya for 25 years and was angry to see westerners attacking the colonel. “Gaddafi was a real man who has protected us,” she said.

A bystander called to her: “If our revolution succeeds, you will be the first to leave.”

“God willing, I will go to fight in Palestine,” the woman retorted, before her friend pulled her away.

Another woman gestured in disgust at two overflowing wheelie bins and scattered rubbish bags, showing the pressure the rebels will face to improve services in a country whose oil riches people feel have been siphoned off by the Gaddafi regime.

She said: “This is the richest country yet – look! – we live in rubbish!”

Elsewhere, the capital already felt a less cultish and more capitalist place, with the numerous Col Gaddafi billboards torn down while the advertising and shopfronts for products from suits to cigarettes remain intact.

There was little evidence of looting or other damage to shops, with chandeliers in one interior decorating store appearing miraculously unscathed even though the front window had been blown out.

The flip-side is the shops are mostly shut while those that are not have little to sell, such as the greengrocer in the Ben Ashour district who had only a few grapes, lemons, peppers, cabbages and melons to offer amid a sea of otherwise empty plastic crates.

Ben Otman, a local businessman who had brought his camcorder out to film his now-liberated area, said he was worried the rebels would struggle to combat the culture of violence and repression built up by the Gaddafi regime and the war.

“He was ruling us with fire and iron”, Mr Otman said. “It will not be easy to move to democracy and behave like modern countries.”

Back in the old city courtyard, Mr Tneba seized back his gun from his five-year old son, Ahmed, who had picked it up and started staggering under its weight.

Mr Tneba’s response seemed to chime with a wider mood of elation tempered by a strong sense of the big short-term and long-term jobs to be done.

“We have to try to stop our children seeing weapons, but what can we do?” Mr Tneba said. “Now they want to play with fire.”

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