The inside story of Libya's underground revolutionaries as they organized, hid out, waited, and finally liberated the capital city.
- By Anand GopalAnand Gopal is a freelance reporter based in Afghanistan. His dispatches are available at anandgopal.com.
TRIPOLI, Libya – One night late last month, in a sweltering apartment deep in the heart of Tripoli, a group of men gathered around the television to watch the evening news. The program was carried on Libya al-Ahrar, a Doha-based news channel beaming into Libya in support of the revolution. At precisely 8:30 p.m., after the breaking of the Ramadan fast and as locals were streaming to the mosques, the message these men were waiting for came: "Truly, we have granted you a clear victory," the newscaster said, before signing off for the night.
It was a verse from the Quran, but to the men in this room, in the tightly packed neighborhood of Souq al-Juma, it was so much more — a code that signaled that their uprising was to begin. Over the next 48 hours, the people of Tripoli pushed Libya’s six-month revolution to its staggering denouement, ensuring their country would never again be the same and reinvigorating the Arab awakening — and it all began in this neighborhood.
The men watching the television were part of a group of 62 underground revolutionaries who had been preparing for this day for weeks. Malik Jamal Abargo, a 20-something port worker, was one of them. He grabbed his Kalashnikov and rushed into the streets with his comrades. "My heart was pounding," he says. "I thought that I might become a martyr."
The sight of the small crowd chanting slogans against Muammar al-Qaddafi in the street prompted shouts from the mosque. Soon its speakers issued forth a thunderous chant: Allahu akbar! Out came Khalid Abu Humeida, a customs worker. "I was standing in line for vegetables when I heard it," he says. "It had more force to me than any bomb or jet. I knew what to do." He was joined by Salem El Burai, a restaurant owner who came rushing out with a bag of rocks. Abdul, who would not give his last name and has no job at all, emerged with a Molotov cocktail.
The crowd grew to hundreds — the first large open protests against the government in any part of Tripoli since February, when demonstrations were drowned in blood. Almost immediately, truckloads of state security forces began to arrive. They pointed their weapons at the demonstrators. "We inched forward, step by step, trying not to waver," says Abdul.
Soon, less than 100 meters separated the two sides. They were facing off under a large overpass, and speeding cars roared above. Snipers were arrayed on a nearby high-rise. One group of protesters then doused vehicles parked on the roadside in gasoline and set them ablaze. "We wanted to create a sense of chaos, to confuse the government forces," El Burai explains.
This provocation was enough: The security forces opened fire. Bullets whizzed and popped, the protesters recall, and they jumped behind concrete pillars and behind trash cans.
At first, the security forces outnumbered the protesters almost three to one. But the protests were spreading from one block to the next, and soon they reached the streets behind the security forces. Within moments after the shooting began, the government forces were surrounded. The few protesters with weapons began firing back. Some started throwing stones. "I’m a bit scared of guns, so I threw Molotov cocktails," says El Burai.
Things turned into a stunning rout in the protesters’ favor: Thirteen police lay dead and almost 30 were captured. The rest fled. In that moment, on that street corner, 42 years of despair began to dissolve. "We’ve lost a whole generation to fear," says El Burai. "This was like a rebirth." Women and younger children gingerly stepped out onto the streets, for the first time in their lives free of the state’s presence. Strangers embraced, men praised God, and rebels fired their weapons in the air.
What appeared to be a spontaneous uprising was in fact the result of months of careful planning carried out in tiny apartments and automobile back seats. It all started in January, when 15 political activists, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, met secretly and drew up plans to issue a document calling for greater freedoms. They came from the higher layers of Libyan society — doctors, engineers, and businessmen — drawn together through the frustrated aspirations of the country’s professional class. But before they could issue the document, protests erupted on Feb. 15 in Benghazi against the arrest of a prominent human rights lawyer, spreading within days to Tripoli. "We were the revolutionaries, yet we were actually trailing behind the people," says Muhammad Omeish, a stout, balding American-trained doctor who was one of the group’s leaders.
Tripoli’s February uprising was crushed, but Omeish and his comrades persisted and went underground. Eventually, the group came to be known as the Tripoli Local Council, and it headed nine Tripoli-based revolutionary organizations and operated autonomously from the rebels in Benghazi. They established a military wing and clandestine cells throughout the city. "We smuggled in satellite phones and learned to speak in code," Omeish says. "If someone said they bought medicines, I knew it meant an AK-47."
The council’s military committee began to covertly train activists in Tripoli’s dark back alleys. Some 20 rebels went secretly to Tunisia to meet with figures in the rebels’ operations center on the Tunisian island of Djerba, and then went back into the western Libyan mountains to receive training from NATO soldiers and intelligence agents.
Meanwhile, the revolutionaries on the ground turned their efforts to procuring weapons, and they got help from the most unlikely of sources — Qaddafi himself. The strongman was perhaps so taken by the force of his own personality that he was convinced Tripoli’s citizens would rise up and defend the regime. The government handed out weapons throughout the city to those it deemed trustworthy — but many simply turned around and sold the arms to the rebels. Some weapons also came secretly on boats; others were stolen from government caches.
The rebels fixed a date for the uprising: Aug. 20, commemorating the Prophet Mohammed’s capture of Mecca. But then, just weeks before the big day, disaster struck. Mustafa Noah, head of the Tripoli council’s military forces, went missing. Noah, a onetime Libyan army captain turned revolutionary, had been integral to preparing the city for insurrection. "He was supposed to show up for a meeting with us, but we never heard from him," says Omeish. "His phone kept ringing, but there was no answer. We got nervous and shut off our phones."
They soon learned the truth. Security forces had nabbed him and a number of his associates, dealing a potentially devastating blow to the movement. Miraculously, however, one of the detainees had managed to smuggle in a cell phone and got the word out. Omeish and his family fled to Tunisia, and other members went deep underground.
They decided, however, to press on with their plans. "We knew that we couldn’t hold out for long underground," says Abargo, the revolutionary from Souq al-Juma. "Qaddafi’s people knew about our group, and they were closing in." A well-placed source told the rebels that Qaddafi was preparing a list of thousands of people to be imminently tried for treason and executed. From hiding and in exile, the remaining rebel leaders sent couriers into the various neighborhood cells, passing along the code phrase and instructions for the insurrection day.
"We felt we could sustain the resistance for 24 hours," says Omeish. It would be enough time, according to the plan, to allow for the arrival of supporting forces from Misrata, the western mountains, and elsewhere. "The regime cannot fight the whole city," he says. "That’s what we were banking on."
But moments after Abargo and his comrades defeated the police in Souq al-Juma, a neighborhood woman scaled her apartment building, pointed a Kalashnikov, and began firing wildly into the crowd below. Protesters managed to shoot their way into the building and forced her to surrender. "She said she would support Qaddafi to the grave," says El Burai, the restaurateur. "There were people like this on every street." Some rebels contemplated revolutionary justice, but cooler heads prevailed and they banished her from the area. She hasn’t been seen since.
The war, however, was not yet won. NATO airstrikes pounded key government installations — with the aid of the 20 or so rebels from Tripoli whom NATO soldiers had trained in the mountains to dial in coordinates. Meanwhile, with the coordination of the underground cells, uprisings spread elsewhere throughout the city. Qaddafi’s men responded in force and a number of protesters were killed, but the breadth of the uprising proved too much for the security forces to completely wipe it out. The two sides battled for nearly 24 hours, until the first units arrived late on Aug. 21 from the newly liberated city of Zawiya, by boat from the eastern city of Misrata, and elsewhere. The incoming rebels were reportedly aided by a deal cut with the senior officer in charge of Tripoli’s gates, who allowed the rebels to enter unmolested at the zero hour.
Over the next day, as these outside rebel groups fought their way through key Qaddafi strongholds, the regime apparatus began to crumble. Muhammad Farajala was at home when he heard the thuds of rocket fire coming closer. Gangly and soft-spoken, Farajala was an air force pilot until the outbreak of the revolution, when he refused to bomb fellow Libyans and stayed home. He walked down the street to the notorious Abu Salim prison, a massive center for political prisoners, and patiently convinced the guards to walk away. He then shot open the prison’s main doors one by one with his Kalashnikov until more than 1,500 prisoners escaped to freedom. "We hid some of them in our houses until we knew it was safe," he says. In a similar fashion, hundreds of jail cells around the city were opened. Among those who walked out was Noah, the Tripoli rebels’ military commander, who had been badly tortured in custody.
Back in Souq al-Juma, even as the revolutionaries celebrated their victory, something gnawed at Abargo, the young member of the secret group of 62. He had not heard for days from his brother, who had gone on to fight in other neighborhoods. Mohanad Abargo, 27, was found six days later, when locals noticed blood running from a box in a government office. Inside were the bodies of six men and one woman, killed presumably by Qaddafi’s forces. Mohanad’s battered body showed the bruises of torture. "He is why I am still out here," his brother told me as he patrolled his neighborhood with a Kalashnikov days later. "I want to make sure he did not die in vain."
Beneath the triumph lie immense challenges ahead. There are class divides — the rebel movement has had difficulty penetrating some poorer areas, particularly those with Libyans who believe they benefited from the state’s social welfare programs. And the victory has been marred by racism against darker-skinned Libyans, whom some rebels unfairly see as being in the pay of Qaddafi. A subtle power struggle is being waged between the Tripoli council and the military brigades from outside the city. A growing number of Tripoli-based revolutionaries are voicing discontent with the official Benghazi leadership. "During this whole uprising, Mr. Jalil has been sitting out there in Doha. He rarely shows up," complains Omeish, referring to Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the rebels’ governing body, the National Transitional Council. The sentiments underscore deeper tensions between eastern and western Libya. "We need a ruler from Tripoli," says rebel Ibrahim El Titly. "We won’t accept being ruled from the east."
In Souq al-Juma, the mood is still too festive to dwell on such concerns. Locals are busy painting over the ubiquitous green doors, and armed citizens continue to patrol the streets. "Now I don’t mind if I die tomorrow, for I’ve done my part," says El Burai. "I have a nice chair. I’ll sit and watch my children grow up — they own this neighborhood now."