Zero hour in Benghazi

Nicolas Pelham writes:

Two and a half weeks after shrugging off Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship, the rebels are continuing their carnival outside the courthouse in Benghazi, the city on Libya’s east coast where they have made their headquarters. Roaring crowds taunt Qaddafi to send his planes and tanks, and promise to brave them as they did his anti-aircraft guns. Mannequins with military boots swing from lampposts, enacting the colonel’s hanging. Cartoon graffiti of him as Abu Shafshufa—literally “father of the fuzzy hair”—cover the surrounding walls. And in cafes broadcasting Arabic news, Qaddafi’s appearance triggers cries of zanga, zanga, or dead-end.

Western civil rights movements had Jim Morrison’s “Five to One”: “The old get the old and the young get stronger. They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers. Gonna win, yeah we’re takin’ over. Your ballroom days are over, baby.” Benghazi’s version is Adil Mshaitil, a 37-year-old Islamist doctor and former inmate of Qaddafi’s jails studying in London whose recordings have likewise become anthems for the Libyan uprising. “We’ll stay here until our pain disappears,” sings his voice—pure, pietist, and unaccompanied—against the backdrop of hooting and gunfire. “We will come alive and sweetly sing. Despite all the vengeance, we will reach the summit and scream to the heavens. We’ll stand together with balm and a pen.”

Volunteers have replaced the authoritarian government. Stalls have sprouted across the forecourt of the rebel headquarters, serving free cups of macchiato, the ubiquitous legacy of Italy’s colonialism. Nine-year-old boys patrol the crawling traffic, cautioning drivers to buckle their seatbelts. Their brothers guard the central bank, and mow the lawns. Salim Faitouri, an oil engineer until the uprising began, has been supervising a catering operation that prepares hot meals for demonstrators and Benghazi’s poor.

The rebels’ euphoria waxes and wanes with news from the violent front—now about halfway between Benghazi and the Libyan capital Tripoli to the west—and their own efforts to forge a new governing authority. Thanks to his brutality, Colonel Qaddafi has successfully turned the democracy uprising into a war in which, while the rebels have higher morale, he has the most money and arms. By killing many times more people than died in Egypt’s uprising—in a population less than a tenth the size—he has slowed the rebellion, something that neither Tunisia’s nor Egypt’s erstwhile leaders could achieve.

But unlike the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the revolt in Benghazi and across eastern Libya is fully fledged. Qaddafi’s revolutionary committees, people’s congresses, and security apparatus have disbanded, offering no interim stopgap. Even transitional institutions have to be built from scratch, by a population that for forty years has been severed from governing norms, and before that took lessons from Italian fascism.

The east now has a National Transitional Council, which claims authority over the remnants of the armed forces and which is led by the former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil. But many in the youth revolution consider the slight elderly former judge with an old-timer’s red felt hat too old-school. In the first days of their uprising, he was still in Qaddafi’s government; he defected on February 21, after protesting the colonel’s “excessive use of violence” against protesters. Aside from Abdel Jalil, all but six of the council’s members have refused to identify themselves for fear of reprisals and the council despite promises of transparency meets behind closed doors. Its first newspaper is as partisan and sycophantic as those it replaced.

Supporters emphasize Abdel Jalil’s revolutionary credentials, but it is unclear whether he can fill the vacuum. Beyond the courthouse, government departments and schools have yet to open. And despite the council’s goading, many shops, police stations, and military bases remain shuttered, apparently because their proprietors are still hedging their bets. Though there has been little crime, frequent gunfire punctures Benghazi’s nights.

Some speak of a lurking hidden paw of the colonel. “His revolutionary committees come out at night and shoot randomly,” says a National Transitional Council member. Businessmen receive warnings by text message. People who previously gave me their names are now asking that they be retracted. “Qaddafi has lived with us for so long, he entered our hearts,” apologizes an oil engineer talking oil politics. In a traffic jam, a car pulls up alongside mine and a Qaddafi loyalist reprimands my driver after eavesdropping. “We are all Muammar,” the driver obediently responds, curtailing his anti-Qaddafi tirade. In an alleyway of Benghazi’s old city, a tailor who normally stitches abayas—black tunics for women—shrinks when asked why he is now sewing rebel flags. “I have to make money,” he apologizes, and clams up.

Their fears are not unfounded. Though it has lost its buildings, Qaddafi’s internal security apparatus remains at least partially in place. Hotel receptionists subserviently field calls from a regime informer seeking information about al-Jazeera. Intruders broke into one of the very few European consulates still open here, stole its computers, and warned the consul, who had lived for two decades in the city, to flee. In this highly centralized state in which communications are routed through Tripoli, the Qaddafis still retain control over the Internet, which they can flick off with a switch—as they did on the afternoon of March 3 (it remains off)—and over both mobile phone companies. Mohammed Qaddafi, the colonel’s eldest son, owns all three. As the colonel noted in a recent speech, “it’s my country.”

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1 thought on “Zero hour in Benghazi

  1. Norman

    As the protesters stated once they took over Benghazi, there was no turning back. As long as the West keeps its greedy hands out of the picture, then perhaps things will turn out O.K. As the pace of change has been like a blitzkrieg so far, one has to wonder if the west did have this planned out in advance? And if they did, can they bring to fruition the original planned conclusion? I have my doubts that they will or can. For all the millions of people in the M.E. who have endured all those years of repression, I can’t see them trading that for what the West would replace it with. Keeping the I.M.F., World Bank, Wall Street, The U.S. State Department and any other E.U. Organizations that would be more of the same, or status quo continuing, doesn’t seem to be in the cards, probably to the Wests chagrin.

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