But somehow Nizar Mhani, a 30-year-old oral surgeon with no previous experience of underground political activism, lived to tell the tale.
“I didn’t have to do anything spectacular to get in trouble,” he said, finally free to meet a reporter face to face. “In Gaddafi’s Libya, you just have to raise a flag, you just have to say no, just say you want to change.”
Spectacular or not, Mhani’s work was vitally important. As journalists were kept virtual prisoners of the regime in the Rixos hotel and bombarded every day with vicious government propaganda, “Niz,” as he was known to many members of the news media, provided evidence to the outside world that the revolution was still alive in Tripoli, despite Gaddafi’s best efforts to destroy it.
He spoke out against Gaddafi in the center of the capital, unfurled the rebel flag across Tripoli and blasted the old national anthem on street corners. And he helped hack into a government computer system and then stole a satellite dish to share his defiant acts with a global audience.
“I wanted to really annoy the regime by doing something they most hate, and that is telling people what is really going on,” he said. “The fact it annoyed them so much means we must have done something right.”
Rushing home to Libya
When Tripoli erupted in protest on Feb. 20, Mhani had been living and working in the Welsh city of Cardiff for a little over a decade. He hurriedly packed a bag, jumped on a plane and arrived in the Libyan capital to find that the regime was already striking back.
Soon, instead of joining a protest movement, he found himself living in a city ruled by fear, where the revolution seemed in danger of foundering, listening to government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim thunder that the people of Tripoli were all solidly behind their leader.
The flame of protest, he realized, needed to be kept burning, the lies exposed, morale maintained.
In April, he and a dozen friends staged a dawn demonstration in the heart of the capital, reading to a camera a statement denouncing the regime, scarves concealing their faces but not their nervousness.
Mhani was so naive in the beginning that he used a Gmail address under his own name in communicating with a Washington Post correspondent at the Rixos. But he soon tightened things up, assuming an ancient family surname, Ben-Essa, as an alias and, with his cousin and two close friends, founding the Free Generation Movement.
There were others in the capital also working to keep the uprising alive, organizing small-scale demonstrations and sometimes attacking government checkpoints. But Mhani came to symbolize the peaceful resistance movement, both to Libyans who saw his demonstrations on al-Jazeera television and to the world beyond.