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Libya's tipping point proving elusive

By Nic Robertson, CNN senior international correspondent
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Is opposition waning in Tripoli?
  • Until the leadership is overthrown, then Tripoli is where the tipping point will need to happen
  • It appears at the moment that both sides are heading for a stalemate
  • If talks can progress in rebel-controlled Zawia and Misrata it could provide incentive for other areas
  • The government is feeling international and domestic pressure but it is also a diehard leadership

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- In Libya, the rivals for power appear to be heading towards a stalemate. CNN's Nic Robertson explains what's happening in the capital, Tripoli, why two cities in rebel control could be key to the country's future, and why neither side has the power to dislodge the other completely.

What's it like on the streets of Tripoli?

We have seen about three rings of security around the capital. They include Army checkpoints with armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft batteries and tanks.

But there are not that many soldiers around and they don't stop many vehicles. They are more interested in vehicles coming into the city than those leaving it.

On the streets in the outskirts where we know there have been anti-government protests we saw some police in armored vehicles and riot gear.

But we are talking about a couple of dozen at any one location. At street intersections there might be a couple of soldiers or police armed with automatic weapons but it is not a complete lockdown of every street.

The traffic passes through and they are not stopping people.

How willing are people to talk to you?

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Some people, as soon as they see the camera, they come up and tell us how much they love Gadhafi but if you engage in conversation you can scratch the surface and they will tell you they want reforms.

Often you hear the chant or people saying "miya miya" which means they are 100 percent for Gadhafi.

Others may not want to share their opinions but it is clear they are not happy with the situation or the government.

Yet others are brave to explain their positions. One man who came up to me took me into his confidence.

He said they had tried anti-government protests and thought they were doing well, but now they've been so badly beaten and forced off the streets that they are afraid to come out again.

Is Gadhafi's message resonating with Libyans?

There is an uneducated population that will go with their tribe. If the tribe says "go with Gadhafi" then they support Gadhafi.

Government officials will tell you a good part of the population will follow the tribe. It is not a developed society. It's tribal and basic and people are not taught to analyze for themselves.

When you speak to the more middle class people they take it with more of a pinch of salt. But a lot of these people are worried by how the protests developed.

I talked to a lawyer who said he protested the regime but when he saw weapons in the hands of protesters he felt the protest was being hijacked.

These people have a lot at stake -- their kids' education, their businesses or professional reputations. They are worried that violent protests threaten stability. They want change but do not want it through violent means.

There were others, intellectuals among them, who think they have to really pressure the regime to make the change.

Can the protesters in other parts of the country affect what happens in Tripoli?

Yes and no.

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Protesters in Benghazi can come out on the streets but it will not change anything in Tripoli. Until the leadership is overthrown in Tripoli, then Tripoli is where the tipping point will need to happen.

But they can make a difference by organizing politically to either negotiate with the government or to build international pressure.

And they can organize militarily to move forces and try to take the capital. But that is not going to happen anytime soon.

In a place like Zawia the center is controlled by the opposition but they are surrounded by government forces. The more they engage the military the more it stretches the government but it does not appear they are doing that.

We are in a stand off. There is no pressure point where the opposition can push through.

What do the options seem to be at the moment for how this will play out?

The government says it wants to negotiate. I do not think the government can get away with wholesale bloodshed to retake parts of the country.

I am not sure that they have enough loyal military to mobilize against the opposition.

The government does not have the strength to breakout from where it is. And the opposition does not have the strength to tip the balance at the moment.

I think a key test will be in Zawia, west of Tripoli, and Misrata, east of Tripoli. We are told the government is trying to negotiate with the rebels in these areas. If they can negotiate then they may be able to be productive with rebels elsewhere.

But I don't think it will come together in the next few days. The situation cannot go on for much longer but it could still be a few weeks.

A senior government official told me dealing with the opposition is "chaotic." The opposition is divided. There are the protest leaders and former government ministers who have just resigned and swapped sides. It is possible the government is reaching out to the former government elements.

There is no effective process for any sort of dialogue.

I think the government here does not quite know what to do. It is still on the back foot. The government is feeling international and domestic pressure but it is also a diehard leadership.

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