TRIPOLI — 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 “Hi!” to friends working there.
She glanced around to see who might be listening, then blurted out part of a slogan from the fallen regime — “Muammar is all we need” — and scurried away.
After four decades during which openly criticising Muammar 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 suburb of Jila who says 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 were lifted, life had been improving, Huda said wistfully. Now, she has no faith 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 September 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 most grateful,” he added.
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) adding, “We think that some of the individuals will start to organise 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.