“Underneath their uniforms, they had civilian clothes, jeans and T-shirts, as though they were expecting this,” said Badr Ben Jered, a 25-year-old employee in Nokia’s marketing division, patrolling his neighborhood with a Kalashnikov rifle. “Then people started screaming, ‘The Katiba are running! The Katiba are running!’ We were so shocked, and still so scared of them, no one even went after them.”
The guns have been collected, but abandoned uniforms still litter the ground around the television station and elsewhere in Tripoli, evidence of a gigantic loss of nerve, the sudden crumbling of a regime built on brutality and fear.
Its rapid disintegration Aug. 20 and 21 suggests that support for Moammar Gaddafi was far more shallow than the government had portrayed over the course of the six-month uprising.
But the way many of Gaddafi’s supporters just melted away into the night also prompts concern about whether some die-hard loyalists are simply lying low, waiting for the day they can regroup and launch their own insurgency.
Elements of the former government have already signaled their continued defiance. Gaddafi’s most influential son, Saif al-Islam, issued a statement to a Syrian-owned satellite television channel Wednesday in which he urged followers to fight to the death against the Transitional National Council, the new de facto government of Libya.
“We assure people we are here, ready and in good shape. Resistance is continuing, and victory is near,” he said. He boasted that 20,000 fighters loyal to his father — who is still at large — remain in the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte.
And yet, when it came time to battle the rebels for control of Tripoli, the Gaddafi government did not put up much of a fight. Since February, when the uprising began, there was a gradual hollowing out of the regime from within that seems to have finally precipitated its collapse.
For months, many state employees had not been turning up for work — some because the government had ceased to function properly, but many because they were simply boycotting the regime.
One of the key defections was that of Mohammed al-Barani Eshkal, who commanded the brigade guarding the television station and was charged with protecting Gaddafi in his main Bab al-Aziziya compound.
Eshkal had played a finely nuanced game, working for the Libyan leader while simultaneously assuring the rebels that if their fighters arrived at the gates of the capital, he would instruct his men to lay down their weapons. That is exactly what happened, according to rebel officials in Benghazi.
Operation Mermaid Dawn
Rebel commanders — working in conjunction with NATO — had long been plotting an uprising of Tripoli residents to coincide with an opposition advance into the capital.