And in Green Square, the symbolic heart of the city, government supporters — not anti-regime demonstrators — gather on a daily basis to chant slogans and brandish portraits in a triumphal assertion of Moammar Gaddafi’s continuing grip on power.
With the United States and its allies poised to take military action to protect rebels in the far east of the country, it may be too late to revive the failed uprising in the capital. In Tripoli, Gaddafi’s stronghold, the real battle for Libya appears to have already been fought and won by a regime that was willing to use live ammunition against its opponents.
It was that brutal response by Gaddafi’s forces that probably sealed the fate of the month-old uprising, according to the whispered confidences of residents opposed to the government who spoke only on the condition that they not be identified. There have been just a few scattered demonstrations since Feb. 25, when Gaddafi supporters roamed the streets opening fire on protesters, reportedly killing dozens.
But the rebels may have miscalculated, too. Their revolt rekindled regional rivalries, tainting the uprising with a whiff of separatism. Their calls for Western intervention also summoned the specter of civil war, alienating some who might have supported peaceful protests.
“Any Western military action against the government now will only stimulate more support for the government, because it will show that this battle is being fought on behalf of the West,” said Mustafa Fetouri, director of the business administration program at the Academy of Graduate Studies in Tripoli.
Fetouri, who describes himself as independent, says he initially supported some of the protesters’ demands for greater freedoms and an end to corruption. But he says the rebels made a mistake by taking up arms and appealing for outside help, as well as by adopting as their symbol the flag of King Idris, an easterner overthrown by Gaddafi’s 1969 coup whose rule was deeply resented by Libyans elsewhere.
“The flag they used is totally hated in this part of the country, because Idris Senussi came from the east,” Fetouri said. “The political message that the flag sent was either that the east is rising up to dominate the west, or that they want to divide up Libya, and why should we let them do that?”
And so Gaddafi’s version of events is taking hold among a fearful populace. According to the official script, the rebels are drug-dealing members of al-Qaeda pursuing a Western-led agenda to seize Libya’s oil and install an Islamic state, an explanation embraced by music student Fares Mishawad, 21, who says many of his friends participated in the protests until the rebels in the east took up arms. “This is not a civilian movement. It’s an armed conspiracy from outside the country,” he said. “I believe in freedom of expression, and I was supporting Gaddafi only 5 percent before these events, but now I support him 100 percent.”
Whether a majority of Tripolitans feel that way is hard to judge, because many citizens are too afraid of being seen talking to foreigners, and journalists risk detention if they venture into sensitive areas. According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, scores of people have been detained in Tripoli in the aftermath of the uprising, and many others are missing. On the streets, most people avoid eye contact with foreigners, or mutter vague hopes for peace that only hint at their dissatisfaction.
Yet nearly two weeks after the last reported protests, it is clear Tripoli is still far from normal, despite the return of traffic jams and the reopening of many shops.
Within earshot of the roaring crowds in Green Square, most of the stores in the narrow alleyways of the ancient souk remain shuttered, and in some neighborhoods barely half the shops are open. The Internet has been cut off for more than two weeks. And what can explain the sinister-sounding and sometimes sustained bursts of automatic fire that crackle across the city in the small hours of the morning?
“There’s a tension, though we don’t know what it is,” said the only merchant to have opened his store in the gold souk, looking nervously over his shoulder to see if he was being watched.
“People are scared,” said one man in his 20s, who asked not to be identified. He spoke of the suffocation he feels under Gaddafi’s rule, his yearning for change and how he was inspired to join the protests by the events in Tunisia and Egypt.
But after security forces opened fire on citizens, he concluded that it was too dangerous to continue. He said he believes the protest movement is dead. “There are some people who have children, and they have wives and they have too much to lose, so they won’t go on the streets again,” he said. “It will be a waste of time.”
He would still like to see Gaddafi gone, he said, “but the uprising was a mistake. Weapons are more powerful than people.”