TRIPOLI, libya — In a mini-mall in the poor neighborhood of Abu Salim, a 21-year-old perfume store salesgirl named Nisrin popped her head into a mobile phone shop to say hello to friends working there. She glanced around to see who might be listening, then blurted out part of a slogan from the fallen regime — “Moammar is all we need” — and scurried away.
After four decades, during which openly criticizing Moammar Gaddafi meant risking imprisonment, torture or death, the architects of post-revolution Libya are promising freedom of speech and openness to a plurality of political views. But supporters of Gaddafi say they don’t yet feel that freedom.
“We can’t talk,” said a 50-year-old housewife in the Tripoli suburb of Jila. She said she and her loyalist friends do not dare reveal their views in public. “If I go out now and say I like Gaddafi, they will arrest me maybe, or shoot me.” Like other Gaddafi supporters in this article, she did not want her name used because she feared retribution.
For people who preferred the old Libya, the capital’s streets and workplaces feel like hostile territory. Radios blast revolution rap songs, children skip down the street singing the pre-Gaddafi national anthem and everything — from tree trunks to freeway overpasses to clothing to slushy drinks — is saturated with the red, black and green of the new order.
Although Gaddafi loyalists still hold some pockets of the country, most notably the ousted leader’s home town of Sirte, weekend advances there by anti-Gaddafi forces underscore the difficult environment facing supporters of the old regime.
In the hospital where Huda, a 29-year-old doctor, works, a large portrait of Gaddafi lies on the floor of the entryway. “If you don’t walk on it, they curse at you,” she said of the guards stationed there.
In the past five years, since sanctions against Libya were lifted, life had been improving, Huda said wistfully. Now, she has no faith that the new government cares about her rights.
“They are no better than Gaddafi. If I go with a green flag into Green Square, I will disappear in five seconds,” she said. “There is no democracy. It’s a big lie.”
Such fears have some basis in reality. With militias in Tripoli reporting to separate commanders, the arrests they make are often arbitrary, and suspected loyalists are held without due process, said Daniel Williams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, which released a Sept. 30 report detailing prisoner abuse by revolutionary militias.
Sometimes, arrests are “based on people coming in and saying, ‘I know so and so, he has a weapon and he supported Gaddafi,’ ” Williams said, adding that people of all ages, including some women, are being held.
A spokesman for the Transitional National Council said the right to political dissent will be guaranteed by the yet-to-be-written constitution. But he added that now is not the time to be publicly supporting Gaddafi while the country is still at war and he is still at large.
“We waited 42 years, during which we couldn’t say we didn’t like Gaddafi without being killed or maimed for life,” said the spokesman, Jalal al-Gallal. If the housewife can wait the estimated two years for a new constitution and elections, “we’ll be bloody grateful,” he said.
In Abu Salim, where revolutionary flags are scarce and where loyalists and revolutionaries have skirmished in recent weeks, the latter say they worry about sleeper cells forming.
“There’s a lot of groups that were supporting the regime completely, and now that the rebels came to Abu Salim, they are all rebels — they are acting as if they were always with the revolution,” said Abdel Majid Bushaala, 31. “We think that some of the individuals will start to organize themselves.”
Eysam Aker, 29, another revolutionary, said his colleagues do not arrest people simply for having supported Gaddafi. “We’re not doing anything against them unless they have guns or they are doing something against the revolution,” he said.
In the absence of polling, it is impossible to ascertain how many Libyans support the revolution, how many support Gaddafi and how many are undecided. People in the streets seem largely euphoric. But many say they are getting nervous about the young men with Kalashnikovs who have taken over the streets and who in some cases have reportedly stolen cars and household items under the pretext that their owners supported Gaddafi.
“Why did they do the revolution?” asked Tarek, a lanky 27-year-old clerk in the mobile phone shop in Abu Salim, an area known for supporting the old regime. Under Gaddafi, he said, “We ate, we were happy, we were doing well. Now all the time we’re hearing ‘Bang, bang!’ It’s completely a mess. We’re not feeling secure anymore.”
The situation has hurt his business, he said, noting that shops in his area close at sunset rather than at midnight because people fear going out after dark.
The lack of security, rather than a real love for Gaddafi, is fueling some of the dissent. But some are true believers in the man who cast himself as both brother and demigod.
“I got used to him, every day, every day,” said Najia, 45, a mother of eight whose son fought on the side of the rebels.
Nisrin said that she never saw any evidence of Gaddafi executing people and that she knows many people who would march in support of him today if they dared. For now, she keeps him close to her — in a photo gallery downloaded to her mobile phone.
Tarek, who works around the corner, keeps a small portrait of Gaddafi hidden in the crack between a shelf and a window in his shop.
In the home of the housewife in Jila, the foyer boasts a giant wristwatch showing Gaddafi’s face. Sitting on cushions as the television played melodramatic music and showed dead revolutionary soldiers, the woman and her husband, Abdu, debated the new and old systems.
“I’m worried about the Islamists,” said the stout woman in a pink smock and beige head scarf. “Islamists means al-Qaeda. And I’m afraid of civil war.”
Since age 8, she has known no leader other than Gaddafi. “It hurts me,” she said, when she sees murals depicting him as a rat and trash bins with his name scrawled on them. “I don’t like what they say about him.”
Abdu, 55, a customs inspector wearing a gray jalabiya, or traditional robe, disagreed. “He’s getting what he deserved,” he said. “We need Libyans to lead a normal life. We were oppressed. We need education and health.”
Although the current government needs to organize itself better, he said, it is too early to judge it. “We will see what’s going to happen in the future, if we were right to kick Gaddafi out or not. We will see and compare.”