TRIPOLI, Libya — A man bends over, pretending to work on his car, muttering “just keep walking.” A long wait, a brief, coded phone call — and a car stops. A door swings open.
“Get in,” the man in the front tells two reporters. “If anyone stops us, just say we are going to the fish market.”
In Moammar Gaddafi’s Tripoli, under a shroud of fear and suspicion, a clandestine opposition movement is struggling to reorganize after February’s protests were brutally suppressed. As rebels in eastern Libya continue to hold territory and fight for more, resistance to the government in the capital is taking peaceful and violent forms.
“People are ready for suicide bombings,” the man, a leader of the anti-Gaddafi insurgency, later told two reporters over coffee and a cigarette in a safe house somewhere in the city.
Gaddafi, the man said, often salutes adoring crowds standing through the open roof of his car. “We can get near him,” the insurgent said.
Almost every night, the crackle of gunfire erupts around the Libyan capital. The insurgent, middle-aged and stocky, would not give his name, and his identity could not be independently verified. But he claimed responsibility for the gunfire. “Our boys,” he said, attack checkpoints at night, killing Gaddafi’s militiamen and stealing their weapons.
“There are not so many checkpoints now, because their boys got scared and they don’t want to do it anymore,” the insurgent said.
The strikes aren’t limited to checkpoints. Anti-government forces attacked bus stations in the capital this week, he said, and gas stations are next. The goal, he said, is “to make chaos in the country.” Innocent bystanders will just have to get out of the way.
Although information is difficult to corroborate in Tripoli, given stringent restrictions on reporting by foreign journalists, similar claims have been made to other reporters.
Reuters quoted Tripoli residents as saying there have been several attacks on army checkpoints and a police station in the past week.
But Gaddafi’s forces are also claiming victories: The insurgent said that many of his men had been arrested.
The opposition says 20,000 people have gone missing since protests erupted, and informants continue to try to infiltrate the opposition’s ranks.
“We have to get rid of them because they are no good,” he said. “If we don’t kill them, they are going to kill us.”
Elsewhere in the city, a group of men is trying to keep the flame of peaceful protest alive. Last week, a dozen friends assembled in the early-morning hours in a side street in the city’s Ben Ashur district and read a defiant statement of opposition to Gaddafi.
“These are our streets, and these are our alleys,” the protest leader read. “For we vow to you, shameful and disgraceful Gaddafi, not you nor your battalions, nor your snipers, nor your mercenaries, however many they are, will terrify us anymore, and we will not back down on our revolution and uprising, no matter how great the sacrifice.”
The video, circulated by e-mail and since shown on at least two foreign TV news channels, shows a few young men, scarves wrapped around their faces, nervously looking at the camera and holding up placards.
“Friday’s protest was a start, but it isn’t the benchmark of what’s to come,” the organizer later told The Washington Post via Skype. “It was more a statement of intent, a symbol. That we are on the streets, in the open, that we are here.”
With the Internet cut and phones tapped, the protest organizer is one of a handful of dissidents with a satellite connection, something he says is probably a “hangable offense.”
Dissatisfaction with Gaddafi’s rule had been brewing for a long time, he said. But what really angered people in Tripoli was the way the protests in the east were violently suppressed in mid-February. Now, there is no going back.
“Too much blood has been shed,” the organizer said. “There have been too many inflammatory speeches. Too many people were called ‘rats’ and ‘al-Qaeda drunks.’ Too many peoples’ freedoms were suppressed, and too many had their dignity violated.”
“Believe me, if we go back to how it was, then he will kill us all. There will be silent vengeance the likes of which has never been seen.”
The organizer promised more protests, in greater numbers, but the challenges are growing. Most people lack access to news reports, and the government is filling the vacuum with fear and misinformation.
Last week, undercover agents took to the streets of the restive Fashloom neighborhood, residents and activists said, waving opposition flags and chanting slogans. Anyone who joined was arrested.
Tripoli buzzed with rumors of protests again this week, but even the organizer of last week’s protest was suspicious. “I don’t know where the rumors came from,” he said. “It could be a trap.”
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied there had been any shooting between rebels and the government in Tripoli.
“We have heard of these reports. They are false,” he said. “Tripoli has been peaceful. There is no organized rebellion.”
He also denied that government agents were posing as protestors to entrap dissenters.
Despite the obstacles, the protest organizer and the insurgent have one thing in common: their hope that the Gaddafi government will crumble under the weight of its own fear and repression.
“We are just waiting for one more army commander,” the insurgent said. “If one of them turns against him, we’ll get him.”
In the meantime, he said, the time for peaceful protest has passed. “It is a waste of life anyway,” he said. “They don’t think twice. They just kill and ask questions later.”