Silenced for decades, crowds in 'Liberated Libya' berate Qaddafi

Exuberance fills the streets of eastern Libya, but many can't shake the fear that Col. Muammar Qaddafi will find a way to crush their revolt.

Hussein Malla/AP
Libyan protesters hold signs and shout slogans against Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi during a demonstration, in Tobruk, Libya, on Feb. 23. Heavy gunfire broke out in Tripoli as forces loyal to Qaddafi tightened their grip on the Libyan capital while antigovernment protesters claimed control of many cities elsewhere and top government officials and diplomats turn against the longtime leader.

In the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk – part of what some are calling “Liberated Libya” – a flood of criticism of Muammar Qaddafi, his sons, and the vicious tactics he’s long used on his own people pours out of locals at the slightest prompting. Many are worried that with Col. Qaddafi surrounded by still-loyal troops in Tripoli, their unfinished revolution could still fail.

While there’s happiness – not least of all because they haven't dared speak their minds, even to their closest friends, for decades – there’s also a feeling that they had better get their word in while they still can.

Members of the Libyan Army who defected last week to the side of the protesters in Tobruk are readying for a possible reprisal from pro-Qaddafi forces. They say Qaddafi has at least three brigades of paramilitary loyalists in and around Tripoli, one controlled by his son, Khamis.

Maj. Salma Faraj Issa, a blond woman who offsets her olive green uniform with heavily kohled eyes and perfectly manicured purple fingernails, says the military in Tobruk, working with local youth, is preparing secret weapons depots in case Qaddafi manages to rally his forces.

She’s the main aide to Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud, the military commander in the Tobruk area, and was in the room when he received a call from an official in Tripoli ordering local troops to fire on demonstrators last week. Gen. Mahmoud’s answer? “No."

“This was something impossible for us,” Ms. Issa explains. “We were being asked to fire on our brothers, our sisters, We decided to stand with the people.”

Now Mahmoud has a death sentence on his head. But his decision early in the uprising is one reason Tobruk was liberated at a cost of so few dead – just three young men shot while they stormed the local police headquarters.

Qaddafi: Violence driven by US, Al Qaeda

Elsewhere, there were reports of violence in Libya today, particularly in and around Tripoli, the capital. Al Jazeera carried footage of a group of men – most in uniforms – who were executed with their hands bound behind their backs in a field. Al Jazeera reports, and most of the uprisings supporters believe, that the victims were officers killed for refusing orders to shoot civilians.

Ali, a retired naval officer who asked that his full name not be used, says a general who defected with his men in the town of Zawia has twice tried to bring forces into Tripoli, but was repulsed by heavy weapons fire. An unconfirmed report by a source in Zawia claims there have been dozens of local casualties.

Qaddafi and those loyal to him have been trying to paint the Libyan uprising as being driven by a combination of outside interference and a desire to create an Islamic emirate in Libya. In his threatening Tuesday speech in which he called the protesters “rats” and “cockroaches,” Qaddafi alleged that the Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden is working with the US to overthrow his regime.

Libyan State Television took aim at Zawia this evening. While carrying a Muslim preacher railing against protesters as bringers of civil strife and chaos, it carried a statement in English labeled “urgent” in the bottom third of the screen: “Voice records have been seized in the hands of Al Qaeda members and its members in the city of al-Zawia aiming to carry out sabotage actions.”

In fact, there has been little Islamist sentiment in evidence from members of an uprising started by youth gathering for protests and storming police stations and then fueled by military mutinies.

“No one believes any of this rubbish they play here on the TV,” says Mutaq Saleh, one of the young men who stormed and burned the central police station in Tobruk last week. “Half of the people here don’t even pray. We’ve broken a barrier of fear. Now I don’t care if I die. Anything, but we’re not going back to that.”

'This was truly unimaginable'

The outcome of the stunning revolt remains uncertain. But Tobruk residents' warm welcome of foreign journalists, who were viewed with fear and suspicion here for decades (since talking to one would likely earn a visit from the secret police, if not worse), shows how much Libya has changed in just a week.

Happy residents who want to tell their stories practically accost reporters, eager to tell their stories.

“The spirit here is just enormous,” says Saleh, a promising football player who played in the youth ranks at Barnsley in Britain and a few big clubs in the Gulf before his career was derailed by a knee injury. He was entertaining hopes of reviving his career when he moved back to Tobruk a year ago, but laughs when asked about his plans now.

“Football? I can’t even think about right now,” he says. “I’m here for Libya, and to make a real change.”

Such change was hard to foresee, even for Libya's neighbors.

“For us, the post-Mubarak era started five to six years ago,” says an Egyptian journalist in Tobruk. “Here, this was truly unimaginable.”

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