Residents of Eastern Libyan City Try to Fill Void in Cradle of Revolt
By Leila Fadel
Thursday, February 24, 2011
BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Here in this eastern Libyan city where the nationwide uprising against Moammar Gaddafi was born, there is no government. Motivated by fury after 41 years of oppression, the people rose up this week and ousted their local rulers.
But now, residents are determined to prevent chaos from filling the void. At the main courthouse, the city's educated professionals - lawyers, political scientists, teachers and doctors - have spontaneously formed a management committee to run Benghazi in the absence of the state.
Led by a female lawyer who has barely slept all week, the committee has moved with remarkable speed. It has organized street cleaning, traffic control and a program to consolidate the city's weaponry. The group has also created a security force, one it will need if Gaddafi's men should try to return.
"We don't know where we're going," said Ahmed el Gallal, 42, a Benghazi businessman. "But we know what we're moving away from."
Benghazi, which has long been a thorn in Gaddafi's side because of the city's rebellious nature, is fast becoming a model for what Libya's citizens hope to build in their country if their autocratic president should fall.
While Gaddafi derided his opponents Thursday as drug-addicted Islamic extremists, the picture here is of neighbors who are stepping up to build the society that many have long sought but until this week could not have imagined would be possible so soon.
Similar scenes are playing out in other eastern towns and cities, even as Gaddafi clings to power in Tripoli, the distant capital to the west.
"Gaddafi hoped people would take weapons and chaos would take this city. We're not going to let that happen," said Abu Ahmed, a businessman and retired psychologist with a degree from Michigan State University. "We want a state of law, human rights, democracy. . . . People are fed up of this criminal regime."
Ahmed's wife, Um Ahmed, is leading the city's management committee. The couple did not want their full names published, for fear of retribution.
The committee has sprung into action so quickly because its members had been closely watching democratic revolutions unfold in two of Libya's immediate neighbors, with the hope that something similar would happen here.
"We learned from the events in Tunisia and Egypt," said Um Ahmed, her eyes heavy with exhaustion and her short brown hair pushed behind her ears.
On Thursday, evidence of the committee's work was all around.
A judge stood in the middle of one intersection, directing people to wear their seat belts. Across the road, young men were turning in rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons that were seized from local military bases when residents revolted. Throughout the metropolitan area of 1.3 million, fresh signs had been posted asking residents to keep the streets safe and clean.
The mood across the city was euphoric Thursday. After decades of repression, people have learned that they can successfully stand up to Gaddafi and his men. But the jubilation was tempered with fear and caution. With little hope of outside intervention to put a check on Gaddafi's behavior, people were terrified of what he might do next.
Benghazi has paid dearly for defying its leader. Residents say that at least 250 civilians died and 2,000 were injured when Gaddafi tried to put down the youth-led uprising. Security forces loyal to the government shot at demonstrators, burned them and drove over them with cars, people here said.
In the city morgue, eight charred corpses lay unclaimed and unidentified Thursday. They were found in a tunnel underneath one of the security bases.
Jalil Howeidy, head of the radiology department, said he thinks they were soldiers who were punished for disobeying orders to attack civilians. Amid the green body bags, he wept, overwhelmed by a week of carnage.
"Tell the world!" he screamed. "These are crimes against humanity."
Inside the Jallaa Hospital, someone had left carnations on the pillows of the critically wounded. Outside, a new sign had been crafted identifying the building as the Hospital of the Martyrs.
'Gaddafi is a flea'
Not all of those who made Benghazi's uprising possible were civilians. Some were troops who defected.
On Wednesday, two pilots ejected from their fighter jets rather than follow orders. One of them was Capt. Abdul Salam Al Abdely.
The pilot's father, 77-year-old Attiya Moussa el Abdely, said his son told him from his hospital bed that he had decided to ditch his plane rather than strike targets in his home town.
"My son is a hero, and Gaddafi is a flea on the Libyan citizens," the elder Abdely said, his eyes red from weeping.
Back at the courthouse, Um Ahmed sat inside an office, the sounds of celebration from outside filling the air. But she said that she and her husband were still afraid. They fear that Gaddafi will take revenge before he falls, that without order the uprising will be hijacked and that foreign powers, specifically the United States, will not intervene until it's too late.
"Obama is talking as if there is time," Abu Ahmed said. "For us, today is the last day in our lives. Two to three days only means more people are going to be killed. What in the hell is the international community waiting for?"
Abu Abdul Hamid, a businessman, said the outlook for Benghazi is very simple. Now that Gaddafi is gone from the city, the people have no choice but to keep him out.
"He'll murder us if we let him take this city back. We'll die," Hamid said. "It's a point of no return."