Noon prayer at the Ajdabiyah checkpoint is ominous. Thick white rain clouds and the whipped yellow whirls of a sandstorm move across the face of the shrub-studded desert. And no one here is praying. The rumble of an enemy warplane somewhere overhead at least that's what people think it is mingles with the thunder of an impending rainstorm. The rebels shout to one another across a landscape littered with bullet casings and other debris. The militia is a disorganized collection of mutineers from the military of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, plus oil workers, day laborers, schoolteachers, bankers and at least one rugby player. Suddenly, someone among them lets loose with round after round of antiaircraft fire. A fighter 100 ft. (30 m) away launches a surface-to-air missile at the invisible target above. As everyone waits for death or a distant boom, rain starts to fall.
Mohammed al-Tahawy, in his 30s, is one of the bankers among the rebels. He moves deliberately, slowly, not charging forward like his compatriots, not whooping and yelling and blasting celebratory gunfire as many of them do. His feet don't look as if they belong to a warrior: he's wearing socks with his sandals. His round face and rosy cheeks are framed by a short, messy beard, for which he apologizes. "If you see a long beard," he explains, "that's because we are in the fight one month." No one has had time to shave. As he talks, one of his trigger-happy comrades fires off a shot.
Al-Tahawy is from Tobruk, which is more than eight hours by car from Ajdabiyah if you take the long highway that links the big cities and towns on Libya's coast. The eastern cities on that route very quickly threw off Gaddafi's yoke in a few days around Feb. 15 Tobruk, which, al-Tahawy brags, was the first city to raise the revolutionary flag; al-Baida; Benghazi, which has become the rebel capital; Ajdabiyah. Then the ragtag volunteers advanced westward, their eyes on Libya's capital, Tripoli, which lies almost at the other end of the 700-mile (1,125 km) highway. For about a week, the horde, numbering in the thousands, seemed unstoppable. Moving from Ajdabiyah, they took the oil-refinery town of Brega and then the next petroleum center, Ras Lanuf. For al-Tahawy, the pace of victory is further confirmation of the Libyan people's immense dislike of their leader. He says Gaddafi is a liar and a tyrant given to bombast. Al-Tahawy is confident that the rebels have the people power to take him down one town at a time.
The rebels' mood shifts erratically from confidence to jubilation to utter panic. But their enthusiasm has, for the most part, managed to overcome their indiscipline. Nevertheless, the regime is staging determined and brutal counterattacks against what has been called Free Libya. And the government can field warplanes and helicopters and tanks, manned by perhaps enough true believers to turn a revolution into a civil war of attrition.
On the other side of that war from al-Tahawy is Major Ahmed Mahmud, one of Gaddafi's die-hard loyalists. After the rebellion broke out in the east, he was part of a contingent sent to try to retake the town of al-Baida. By his account, the offensive was a disaster. "We fought for days around the airport," says Mahmud, 30, a tall, well-built officer whose large eyes and wide smile are framed by a tan desert turban. "We were very badly beaten. About 120 soldiers were caught and killed, and some had their throats slit," he says, drawing his finger across his neck with a shiver.
Mahmud is back in Tripoli guarding Libya's Central Bank, an old colonial building near the harbor. Its brick exterior bears the inscription "The authority and the revolution and the weapons are in the hands of the people." For him, those words perfectly capture the thinking of Libya's Brother Leader, as Gaddafi is officially known. "He is not a king, he is not a sultan, he is not a President," Mahmud says, explaining why he so fiercely defends the colonel. "If you were with Gaddafi for even one minute, you would know the truth, the right path to take."