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.