How a daring band of anti-Qaddafi activists helped turn the tide in Tripoli
Special report: The small anti-Qaddafi Free Generation Movement took huge risks to raise rebel flag and post video of flash protests. The insights they gained in challenging the regime may help shape a new Libya.
The few anti-Qaddafi activists working secretly in Tripoli during the war knew they were racing against time – and to stay ahead of the intelligence agents hunting them.Skip to next paragraph
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They were the enemy within, the "rats" Col. Muammar Qaddafi wanted pursued down every alley and inside every closet.
They didn't win the war: The rebel military assaults instead came from the east and then the west. But in Tripoli they took grave risks to raise the rebel flag, spread leaflets, and burned pictures of Qaddafi. Perhaps most important, they filmed and broadcast their actions – heartening fellow Libyans and letting the world know that opposition could exist, even here.
This handful of bold revolutionaries – just 20 in all, most of them family or longtime friends – had a leader, whose nickname is Niz, unafraid to speak out. He was quoted by journalists, used Twitter, and posted to Facebook. His very presence inside the citadel of Tripoli undermined Qaddafi's claim that "all my people love me."
Qaddafi's 42-year rule ended ignominiously Oct. 20 when he was caught begging for mercy in a sewer pipe, then killed, in his hometown of Sirte – the last loyalist holdout after eight months of war backed by NATO airstrikes.
Those events ended an era for a generation that has known only Qaddafi's repressive, idiosyncratic authoritarianism. But for Niz and the Free Generation Movement (FGM) – who fought largely alone, unable to fully trust other small opposition cells, given ubiquitous informers in the city – the story is just beginning.
Their experience gave them uncommon insight into the capabilities and weaknesses of Qaddafi's extensive intelligence networks. But their role in challenging the regime in its bastion – using only nonviolent means – today informs their commitment to build civil society in the new Libya. "We were naive at first, but we evolved, as did the revolution," recalls Nizar Mhani – Niz – with a laugh. "This is my first uprising."
Stealing a government satellite dish
"We knew what we wanted to do, to get in touch with the media to get the real story of Tripoli out. We wanted to demonstrate an opposition presence in Tripoli ... to raise morale in the city," says Dr. Mhani, a 30-year-old surgeon who was working in Wales. He has spent half his life abroad, but for the past eight months he's been hiding in Tripoli, relying on his wits and comrades to keep safe.
"Some of [our] activities were small, physically, but they had a great effect on morale ... on the media, and it just kept the story momentum going," says Mhani.
The group's efforts took place against the backdrop of NATO bombardments and the presence of fervently pro-Qaddafi True Believers at regime rallies and funerals. Adding to the sense of crisis in Tripoli, armed opposition forces controlled eastern Libya, and later the western mountains.