The Fight of Their Lives
As the international community prepares to intervene, the citizens of Benghazi are building the institutions that could give them a fighting chance against Qaddafi's forces.
BENGHAZI, Libya — As the U.N. Security Council voted the evening of March 17 to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, the international media broadcast the joyous reaction from the streets of Benghazi, the de facto capital of the Libyan opposition. Thousands of Libyans celebrated in the streets, waving the old Libyan flag that has become the revolution's standard and firing guns happily into the air. A spokeswoman for the Libyan opposition said that the revolutionaries were "embracing each other" over the U.N. decision.
BENGHAZI, Libya — As the U.N. Security Council voted the evening of March 17 to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, the international media broadcast the joyous reaction from the streets of Benghazi, the de facto capital of the Libyan opposition. Thousands of Libyans celebrated in the streets, waving the old Libyan flag that has become the revolution’s standard and firing guns happily into the air. A spokeswoman for the Libyan opposition said that the revolutionaries were "embracing each other" over the U.N. decision.
But until recently, Benghazi’s attitude toward outside intervention was different. The rebels’ attitude toward the role of the international community evolved as Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces advanced aggressively over the past week, threatening to use their superior firepower to quash the poorly armed rebellion.
Only two weeks ago, professionally designed posters were plastered on billboards around Benghazi’s elegant palm tree-lined streets reading: "No foreign intervention. Libyan people can do it alone." Men and women in the city reacted defiantly to suggestions they needed outside support. Qaddafi had already tried to pin the uprising on al Qaeda — they wanted change to come exclusively from a homegrown movement free from allegations of outside influence.
Views quickly changed as Qaddafi’s military continued to advance across the country’s east. Even as the Security Council met to announce its decision, Qaddafi’s forces were shelling Ajdabiya, the last town on their march toward Benghazi. In a radio address, Qaddafi — perhaps in a show of propaganda — vowed that his forces would reach Benghazi that night, and that they would "show no mercy and no pity" to the rebels.
By Thursday, March 10, anxiety had already risen in the area outside the courthouse where Benghazi’s citizens have kept up a raucous presence. A French flag was unfurled over the building after French President Nicolas Sarkozy recognized the rebel government, and calls for outside help only grew stronger over the next week.
"Tell them to put in a no-fly zone," screamed one woman, grabbing on to my arm in front of the courthouse. A British mother of two married to a Libyan, she said she feared for her children. "I have two sons, they have barely lived, if Qaddafi arrives here he will kill them," she said. "Where is the U.S.? Where is the UK?" asked another.
The carnival atmosphere on Benghazi’s seafront grew tense. Even in Tobruk, a safer city further east, talk of the need for weapons grew. Those who had been reveling in freedom of expression and openly talking to the press started to fear a coming backlash. "Please don’t photograph me," said one woman — a striking contrast with the protesters’ general enthusiasm at the sight of cameras only recently. Rebels started to restrict access to their training facilities and front line, fearing media would give away their locations.
"We don’t want troops, but we want some protection to make a fair balance," said Abdel Hakim Ali, a smartly dressed 47-year-old schoolteacher turned rebel in Tobruk. "It is not a fair game between us and Qaddafi’s forces. We need arming and a no-fly zone."
For all their calls for limited foreign military help, the revolutionaries have already made huge strides on their own. In the month since Benghazi’s residents battled to take control, a nascent democratic culture has flourished across eastern Libya.
The rebels have been forced to build a new society largely from scratch. "In Egypt and Tunisia, the leader left but there was still a system in place," said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesperson for the rebels in Benghazi. "Here that wasn’t the case: Qaddafi was a one-man show. That left a big challenge for us."
Despite a framework of democratic institutions, including a General People’s Congress and popular committees, Libya has been ruled in an autocratic fashion by the Qaddafi family and a network of loyalists since 1969. State institutions were controlled by a parallel system of revolutionary committees, which disbanded as Benghazi fell.
As Qaddafi’s control collapsed in the east, Libyans were left with a tabula rasa. "We realized we needed to keep the city functioning so we started by finding experts in each area from health care to banking," explained Gheriani. A banker was put in charge of keeping cash flowing and the currency stable, and a doctor was told to keep the hospitals open to treat casualties.
Throughout Benghazi, a spirit of volunteerism has taken hold. Some residents handed out free coffee on the city’s seafront; vendors sold freshly printed souvenirs and the tricolor flag that has been raised as the national standard once again. Others ferried food and water to workers around the courthouse.
The rebels also established committees to respond to the international media, which is seen as crucial to their cause. A group of young Libyans equipped with laptops welcomed journalists to a media room in the courthouse, where an Internet cable diverted from Niger gave freelancers access to the outside world. In the lobby of the Ouzu Hotel, a staid business hotel whose lobby was filled with smoke and members of the uprising watching Al Jazeera, another team matched journalists up with local Libyans who spoke English. At their disposal as fixers, they eagerly turned up each morning and swiftly lined up interviews, refusing to take money for their work.
As Benghazi organized itself, new town councils from the areas that had been liberated from Qaddafi’s grasp slowly began to band together. On Feb 27, the National Transitional Council, which is headed by Qaddafi’s former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was formed. It features 31 members appointed from cities and towns across the country, including some in Libya’s west, most of which is not in rebel control.
The rebels also set up a military council headed by Omar al-Hariri, a former general who took part in a coup plot against Qaddafi in 1975, which reports to the transitional council. The entire apparatus is overseen by a group of lawyers who, as among the first to join the city’s uprising, have been tacitly appointed guardians of the revolution. Finally, the council delegated two ambassadors who defected from Qaddafi to represent the rebels’ cause on the international stage.
The international advocacy of the opposition’s diplomats paid off in spades with the push for a no-fly zone. Benghazi’s nascent political system would be in need of significant reform if the rebels triumph. Some already criticize the opaque nature of the council, many of whose members have not been named for security reasons. Others fear a leadership vacuum will be exploited by Islamists. "There is a lack of political expertise and education in the country," admits Gheriani.
Still, Libyans’ success at organizing functioning institutions on short order, and under extreme duress, is a testament to the strength of their movement. It is still unclear where international intervention in Libya may lead the country, but the spirit of activism in Benghazi has given the rebels a fighting chance.
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