But it’s only the cellphone of a government minder — the rambling, ranting speech delivered by Gaddafi at the beginning of the uprising has become a popular ringtone among his supporters here.
And so the days pass in the Big Brother world of the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, where foreign journalists are obliged by the government to stay in conditions that can best be described as luxury imprisonment. There are whirlpool bathtubs in every room, a sumptuous spa and guards armed with Kalashnikovs posted at the gate.
Their job, it is clear, is to keep journalists in, not intruders out.
In the initial stages of the conflict, when 130 members of the foreign press corps were first “invited” by the Gaddafi regime to Tripoli in a rare moment of openness, there was at least a degree of pretense that reporters were free to do their jobs.
Although those who strayed into sensitive areas or toward a battle zone would likely be detained, often for hours, trips into central Tripoli were tolerated. From there it was possible to slip into other neighborhoods, meet ordinary Libyans and take the pulse of the city.
But since an unexplained gun battle near the hotel in the early hours of Friday, all unaccompanied forays out have been banned. Even trips to the grocery store across the street, for chocolate bars or shampoo, now must be supervised by a Libyan “companion,” the government’s euphemistic term for the minders assigned to watch the journalists.
Government officials say the restrictions are for the journalists’ protection. “Weapons are everywhere because we are arming the people. They believe the international media is part of the conspiracy against us,” chief government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim explained at a recent briefing. “This is risky for you.”
Yet most Libyans encountered by chance on the streets are friendly and welcoming, and the only real sense of threat comes from within the confines of the government-sanctioned bubble. On two occasions, angry Gaddafi supporters have burst into the hotel to noisily denounce the Western journalists, chanting “correspondent, correspondent.” It was a sinister twist on “zenga zenga,” or “alley by alley,” the rallying cry taken from the Gaddafi speech in which he pledged to hunt down his opponents.
Midnight phone calls
Every few days, reality-show-style, journalists awake to discover that their ranks have been depleted by a deportation. On Sunday, it was Damien McElroy of London’s Daily Telegraph, who received a midnight telephone call telling him a car would be ready in the morning to take him to the Tunisian border. “You know what you’ve done,” the caller said before hanging up.