The Eye of the Storm

With the rebels in the Libyan opposition stronghold of Benghazi, awaiting Muammar al-Qaddafi's next move.


BENGHAZI, Libya — A month into its life as the de facto capital of free Libya, the port city of Bengazhi has achieved a strange kind of normal. The cribs, garbage cans, and bed frames that were assembled into fortifications to block the advance of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces are disappearing off the city streets, as are the crates of Pepsi bottle Molotov cocktails. The teenagers who started manning these eccentric barricades last Sunday night are back in Freedom Square — a pre-revolutionary name — for their nightly ritual of prayers, hanging out along the boardwalk above the sea, and smoking. The scene among the makeshift tents, set up in the heady days of the revolution by everyone from soccer clubs to former political prisoners, is much as it was few weeks ago, except banners once imploring the international community to step in have been replaced by banners thanking the Americans, British, and above all the French. The crowds of mostly young men now exchange cell phone movies of Qaddafi forces’ failed attack on the city.

It had been a close call. When I went out for dinner at a local restaurant a week ago, I found the patrons there in a panic: Benghazi’s pro-rebel radio station had called all the young men to come and fight on the highway running west past the city’s Garyounis University. Heavy shelling started early Saturday morning and continued all day as tanks supported by rocket launchers pushed into the city. It was Qaddafi’s attempt to grab Benghazi, or as much of it as he could, before the international forces’ airstrikes began. The logic was clear: crush the city and, in so doing, crush the revolution that started there. By the time the coalition attacks started on Sunday, large parts of the city had evacuated to the east.

But the panic ended as quickly as it began. By Monday afternoon, crowds of local tourists felt safe enough to come out of the city to survey the work of foreign intervention. Tank turrets had been thrown dozens of feet from the vehicles’ smoking hulls. Men carried the charred remains of Qaddafi’s fighters past discarded 10-foot-long wooden boxes of 1980s-vintage Soviet-made rockets. “We thought Benghazi would just be a memory,” said a woman named Amina, attending the first big gathering in Freedom Square after the near-invasion. “We would tell the next generation ‘this was Benghazi.'”

The paranoia, too, is receding. Saturday’s attack was facilitated by local sleeper cells of Qaddafi’s revolutionary councils who laid low in the city after being driven from power in February, hiding their arsenals in schools and empty houses. Somehow, they even managed to conceal tanks in the city, probably by camouflaging them with revolutionary flags, which joined the government army attacking from the west. Many here believe Qaddafi’s short radio speeches contained coded messages for the loyalists, calling them to come out of hiding to join the fight. The bodies of some dead Qaddafi fighters displayed in the morgue after the battle wore military fatigues pulled over their civilian clothes, hardly a typical combat uniform. Much of this week, rumors of arrested fifth columnists circulated in the city.

But if Qaddafi’s forces no longer run Benghazi, it is still not clear who does. “There is no government per se,” Abdul Hafiz Gogha, the spokesman for the rebels’ National Transitional Council, told journalists this week. The council, which was assembled in late February, is the closest thing to an authority in the city, and is reputed among Benghazi’s tattered middle class and intelligentsia — from which it is drawn — to be honest and moderate. But Benghazi is home to nearly 700,000 people, and a month-old deliberative body is not the same thing as a city administration, let alone a national government. Among other things, Libya’s monthly pay day — on which this quasi-socialist state has for decades paid guaranteed salaries to the government-employed majority of its workforce — is less than a week away; rumors abound that Qaddafi’s people emptied the local banks on their way out of town.

It is not much clearer who is running the rebel army — or even who is in it. On Thursday, the first officer many journalists had seen after weeks of fighting appeared at a press conference in Benghazi: Col. Ahmed Bani, an officer who had defected from Qaddafi’s Air Force to join the rebels, announced himself as the spokesman for the new national army. He then explained that the Libyan rebels would have to build that army more or less from scratch; seeking to avoid the potential for a coup, Qaddafi had long ago disbanded the military in favor Praetorian Guard-like security brigades, a mixture of regime loyalists and mercenaries. “From now there is the idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals,” Bani said. Then he asked the international community for weapons and ammunition to help the idea along.

He did announce, however, that there was finally a general in charge of this embryonic force: Gen. Khalifa Hafter, long considered the only real choice for a military leader here. Hafter had led Libyan forces in Chad during the last phase of Qaddafi’s sporadic nine-year border war with his southern neighbor, ultimately fleeing to the United States. Since the uprising began he has been a mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel-like figure in Libya; people close to him say he has spent the last few days travelling the east of the country organizing the defense of cities and towns in case Qaddafi makes another eastward push.

But for now Hafter’s army is mostly theoretical. The fighting near Benghazi is being carried out by the Shabab, young volunteers who show up at the front — a divided highway in the desert — with their own weapons and cars. They are the same forces that rushed out of Benghazi shortly after the revolution hoping to free all the cities between here and Tripoli, only to be driven back to the city a few weeks later.

As courageous as they are undisciplined, the fighters’ simple tactic is to make quick, abortive jabs at Qaddafi’s forces, drawing fire from various kinds of artillery. At the front, it is rare to come across anyone who presents himself as a commander, let alone an officer. The Shabab seem to come from all classes of society, with both secular and religious fighters among them. The other day I met a 19-year old medical student and 22-year old mechanic, equipped with a single uniform and one large knife between the two of them. When tank shells and rockets began to land a few hundred yards away, the mechanic encouraged us to hop in a pickup truck that was joining the mad exodus from the area. When we stopped half a mile back, the mechanic told us that his brother had been killed in a similar attack that morning. His only other brother had been killed in the initial uprising a few weeks earlier.

The goal of the Shabab, for the moment, is to reach the town of Ajdabiya, which lies five miles across the desert from the front. The occasional air strikes there can be seen from a small rise filled with onlookers. According to Bani, the military spokesman, Qaddafi’s soldiers in Ajdabiya are now surrounded by rebel forces and negotiating. If the revolution does re-ignite, this may be how it comes about: Air strikes followed by negotiations for surrender as Qaddafi forces are pressed by fighters inside and outside the cities.

But it is a slim hope. A real military is unlikely to be organized by the rebels for some time and they have rejected any foreign troops, including volunteers from the surrounding countries. As Bani put it, “The only foreign expert we use is Google Earth.” A least on the ground — the sky is another matter. For the moment, the rebels are hoping that continued air strikes will liberate the western town of Misrata and the southern city of Kufra. This would give them a bases in both the south and the west, exposing Qaddafi’s flank as well as proving that the rebels are not simply representing a regional revolution as the Libyan leader has tried to portray them. Hopes of liberating Tripoli have not disappeared, but the reality of Qaddafi’s weaponry has tempered them drastically.

Should that plan fail, Benghazi and the towns west could become a kind of Kurdistan or Kosovo. Much will depend on how much support Qaddafi can rely on, and how much money he still has to pay the regime loyalists. Historically, there have been cultural differences between the east and west of the country, a geographic division that lies not far from today’s front line, which makes partition appear to be a possibility.

But whatever the differences from one end of country to the other, people in Benghazi emphatically believe that this will not become a civil war. They see their enemy as a mafia state run by very few with a great deal of power and little real support. The tribal divisions have been exaggerated, they say, and, unlike Iraq, the population is not divided by major fault lines of either sectarian or ethnic differences that can be exploited. Nor are any of Libya’s neighbors in a position to play the complicating role that, say, Iran did in Iraq.

There is a faith among Benghazians that Libyans across the country are united in their dislike of Qaddafi’s violence and his family’s incredible corruption. The stories of the Qaddafis’ greed that circulate here would make the Sopranos envious — the price of operating a reasonable-sized business in Benghazi is said to be giving a 40 percent share to a Qaddafi as a silent partner. Not insignificantly, there is very real embarrassment over a leader who is even more vulgar and weird in Arabic than he is in English.

But clearly Qaddafi is not finished, even in Benghazi. As Amina and her family filed out of the square on Wednesday night, her son Heithem, a 25-year-old dental student, pulled out his cell phone to show me a film of fighters defending his neighborhood from attack. Amid heavy gunfire and shouting — “God is Great!” “There is a tank coming!” — the men with Kalashnikovs hid behind walls, occasionally darting out for a shot. It was hard to understand how they hoped to overcome the tank. Clearly, even filming the fight was an extraordinarily courageous act by Heithem. Still, as the family left, Amina asked me not to use their last name.

“Why?” I asked.

“Qaddafi,” she said.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola