Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Discord in the Rebel Capital

Benghazi may seem like an island in the storm, but beneath the surface lies confusion and disharmony.

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

BENGHAZI, Libya — In the streets of Benghazi, change is afoot. Previously shuttered shops are tentatively opening their doors. Tiny coffee bars are selling paper cups of thick Turkish blends, the waiters brushing away the dust and rubble from outside their storefronts. More women venture out, dressed in designer sunglasses and vividly patterned headscarves.

Even the celebratory bursts of gunfire are waning. The waterfront no longer throbs with the blasts of dynamite lobbed into the water by exuberant young men, jubilant with newfound freedom.

But the war here is far from over. Muammar al-Qaddafi still retains his grip on the country's capital, Tripoli. The city of Misrata, for weeks encircled and pulverized by Qaddafi's troops, only recently rid itself of enemy fighters, pushed out of the city -- for the time being, at least -- on May 11.

BENGHAZI, Libya — In the streets of Benghazi, change is afoot. Previously shuttered shops are tentatively opening their doors. Tiny coffee bars are selling paper cups of thick Turkish blends, the waiters brushing away the dust and rubble from outside their storefronts. More women venture out, dressed in designer sunglasses and vividly patterned headscarves.

Even the celebratory bursts of gunfire are waning. The waterfront no longer throbs with the blasts of dynamite lobbed into the water by exuberant young men, jubilant with newfound freedom.

But the war here is far from over. Muammar al-Qaddafi still retains his grip on the country’s capital, Tripoli. The city of Misrata, for weeks encircled and pulverized by Qaddafi’s troops, only recently rid itself of enemy fighters, pushed out of the city — for the time being, at least — on May 11.

And while NATO’s warplanes have secured the rebel-held cities in the east, the disorderly rebel army is woefully unready to take on Qaddafi’s strongholds in the west. As the Libyan war drags on through a third month, the revolution’s leaders in Benghazi are readying themselves for the long haul: shaping their bands of rebel volunteers into a streamlined fighting force and forming a new governing body that they hope will steer the country as it prepares for its first free elections.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), a governing body hastily assembled in the first weeks of the Libyan uprising, has found itself the de facto government of the rebel-held east. Its representatives meet with international powers in world capitals. They run basic services and organize military training. Now they are requesting billions of dollars of funding, backed against frozen Libyan assets abroad.

The council is a chaotic body: a coalition of disparate leaders, including defected Qaddafi apparatchiks, returned leaders from exile, and local dissidents. United by their desire for Qaddafi’s downfall, they have muddled along happily enough so far, aided by revolutionary euphoria. But as they seek legitimacy and international recognition, the flaws of the fledging group are becoming more apparent.

In early May, the announcement of the appointments for a new executive committee were repeatedly delayed, adding to Western leaders’ concern and confusion about exactly whom they are dealing with in eastern Libya, even as revolutionary representatives called for increased funding for the interim government and weapons for their fighters at a high-profile meeting held in Rome in early May.

There have been further mix-ups in recent days. On May 5, a spokesman for the council announced that Canada, Denmark, Spain, and the Netherlands had all recognized the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people only for the foreign ministries of these countries to immediately deny such recognition.

Two days later, the vice chairman of the NTC, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, told reporters in Benghazi that Italy would provide rebel fighters with weapons, to be paid for with funds made available at the conference in Rome. His claim was swiftly denied by the Italian Foreign Ministry, and later that week, the NTC issued a statement clarifying that the funds from the conference would not be used to purchase weapons.

The political disharmony extends to the military. The chain of command that links the various rebel brigades that formed organically to fight the advance of Qaddafi’s troops in February is unclear. Two commanders vie for the position of rebel military leader. The council insists that Abdel Fattah Younes, a former interior minister who defected early in the revolution, leads the rebel forces; others, including the military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, have said that Khalifa Hifter, a former general recently returned from two decades of exile in the United States, is in charge.

The proliferation of small arms in the east means that firm control of the disordered rebel army is essential. Already there are flickers of vigilante activity. On May 11, a French security contractor, Pierre Marziali, was shot dead in the city, hours before he was due to meet Ghoga, the NTC vice chairman. His four colleagues from the French security firm Secopex were arrested. Their whereabouts have still not been made public, and the circumstances surrounding their detention remain murky.

Setting up new institutions in Libya will not be easy; in his decades in power, Qaddafi forbade any organizations independent of his revolutionary committees, effectively erasing civil society. But many in Benghazi say they are confident that the council’s delays and mixed messages were the signs of good-natured chaos rather than bitter divisions.

"It’s not going to be a Westminster-style democracy immediately," conceded Amr ben Halim, a Libyan businessman whom I met near the front line. He now lives in London’s ultra-exclusive Knightsbridge neighborhood, but had returned home to Benghazi and was bringing food to rebel fighters. "It’s a revolution, and revolutions are unpredictable."

In the meantime, it is volunteers who are restoring order to the city. They sweep the streets, search for mines, and make food for rebel fighters. They have set up newspapers, radio stations, and television channels to fill the void left by decades of stultifying state-run media.

Even as they face stalemate in the fight with Qaddafi’s forces, despondency does not seem to have set in. "It’s not as if there are any activities, but I feel better, I just feel better," explained 15-year-old Zied Taynaz, one of the many who spoke of Benghazi’s shifting mood.

On the dusty fringes of the battle-scarred town of Ajdabiya, which for weeks marked the front line between the rebels and Qaddafi’s troops before a French-led NATO airstrike secured it for the rebels, four fighters guarded the road at an improvised checkpoint. They said that they trusted the council to represent them fairly.

One of them, Khaled Saleh, spoke of his 2-year-old daughter, Aiya, and her prospects for the future. "I am sure that she will have a better life," he said.

When I asked him what he would do if the new government turned out to be no better than the one before, he smiled. "We will make new revolution. We know the way now, and we will teach our children."

Portia Walker is a British journalist covering the Middle East. She has written for the Economist, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Washington Post.

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