Tripoli on the Brink: Showdown in the Streets

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A frame grab from a Libyan state-television broadcast on Feb. 24, 2011, shows burned cars in Tripoli

When Rahma starts her conversation over the phone, she says the shooting outside her home, in the streets of Tripoli, had calmed. It had been a terrible Friday. "After prayers, around 6,000 people gathered to denounce the regime, and soon after that, soldiers opened fire and killed two people," says the 21-year old woman, an employee of an oil company. But 20 minutes after we began talking, she suddenly says, "I'm hearing shots again — a lot of them now. It's getting worse." The terrible day is not yet over.

As more and more cities join the ranks of "Free Libya," Tripoli is increasingly the theater for what looks to be Muammar Gaddafi's last stand. Almost on cue, antiregime forces, reportedly bearing arms taken from arsenals and swelled by the ranks of defecting soldiers, are bringing the battle to the capital from the so-called liberated zones. And for their part, thousands of residents of the capital took to the streets on Feb. 25, following Friday prayers, in a procession that kept growing in size as it headed for Tripoli's central plaza, Green Square. The regime's troops responded by opening fire.

Rahma tells TIME she was out among the crowds earlier on Friday but had been inside at home after hearing from family members elsewhere in the city that troops had shot unarmed marchers. By midafternoon, people she knew at the march told her that their numbers had grown to about 10,000 people. "The nearer to Green Square they get, the more people come out to join them," she says. "The soldiers are shooting more to reverse that, but it isn't working. The soldiers may shoot people, but more citizens will come to replace them."

Like most other Libyans, Rahma has relied on cell-phone communication to get updates on events, though not all information is easy to vet. "It's very difficult to confirm everything you hear, and there are a lot of rumors around," she says. "But I was told that earlier [on Friday], soldiers at an army compound in Tripoli had joined the people and have turned against the government. But there are navy war vessels in the port of Tripoli. No one knows if they are there to use heavy arms against the people later or not."

Rahma is a member of a family that she says has "made its opposition to this regime very well known and open," and so she has had to spend much of the gritty past few days inside as shooting resounded outside. In addition to protesting, Rahma says she's traveled to a military hospital where he father has been held since fainting during his arrest at an opposition gathering. "We were allowed one-minute visits for the first two days, and nothing later," she says. "Still, I'm relieved he's there. People tell us if they'd taken him to a secret prison, no one would ever see him again. They seem to think he's a very influential opposition figure, so they're treating him well."

Rumors also concern Gaddafi and his whereabouts. Rahma says the dictator is widely known to suffer from insomnia. She's also often been told he has other health conditions that require medication that supposedly has mental side effects. "It's funny to hear him accusing the protesters of taking drugs, because it seems obvious from the crazy things he said this week that he's the one who's hallucinating," Rahma says, adding that a lot of the pro-Gaddafi supporters she's seen in the streets this week have had glazed looks about them.

"He's obviously insane, and most people who heard his voice yesterday are sure it wasn't his, that it was just someone they found to imitate his crazy ranting," she comments. "But because it's all so confused and no one knows where he really is, people just hope the rumors that he's sick and in poor health are true and that he dies quickly so this can end."

Rahma fears there will be more loss of life in order for "this long week of stress and sacrifice to reach its goal." Yet in spite of that, she's also optimistic it won't involve the nightmare scenario that Gaddafi warned his people of during his televised address on Feb. 23. "History has shown us this guy's way of doing things has always been to do the worst he's capable of to people first and then threaten us after," she says, laughing. "I think he's already inflicting as much death and damage as he could. If he could do more, he would have done more already."

Perhaps it's that optimism that leads Rahma to contradict demands some of her fellow Libyans have been making in the past week for European Union or NATO forces to intervene in the conflict and end it faster. "This is something Libyans must do without outside help," she says. Intervention may turn Libya into "the next Iraq or Afghanistan." "We ask and will gratefully accept economic and development aid and help to reconstruct the country. But we need to do this on our own, without foreign intervention."