Zero Hour in Benghazi

Libya, 2009.jpg

Josef Koudelka

Libya, 2009

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.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil.jpg

AP Photo

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil

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.”

Worse than the fear has been the east’s degradation. The second city of Africa’s richest country, Benghazi is a pot-holed, battered wreck. Most of the housing predates the colonel’s rule, though the population has since quadrupled to about 700,000. The Ottoman quarter, Sidi Harabish, an architectural gem, lies sunk in a swamp of sewage. The ochre plasterwork of its walls is peeling off. In a land littered with ancient ruins, Benghazi once had a museum, but it was closed in 1980. Though the country produces some two million barrels of oil a day, the city’s marketplaces look like sub-Saharan shacks. Mari’a Kashmi, a veteran of Qaddafi’s wars in Chad and Uganda, takes home a soldier’s salary of 250 dinars a month, enough to house his four children in a single damp room. “Qaddafi cares about oil, not people,” he says. “He hates us.”

The roads out of Benghazi reveal more desolation. Qaddafi’s Green Book economics has turned Cyrenaica’s farms—once the ancient world’s bread-basket—into dusty wastelands where goats roam, fed on stale bread. The one suspension bridge through the nearby Green Mountains was built under the monarchy. In recent years, the colonel’s state investments, prodded by his besuited son, Seif al-Islam, have only compounded the negligence. Foreign contractors imported hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers to implement projects despite Libya’s chronic unemployment. In the scrub west of Benghazi, Chinese workers, fleeing conflict, have left behind an unfinished tenement city based on a Beijing blueprint, replete with acres of concrete uniform blocs. A new Turkish-designed motorway heading west lies half-buried in sand. In the city center the few new buildings are hotels, for foreigners.

All of which makes it easy for alternative forces—the army, the tribes, and the Islamists—to claim that they can make better use of Libya’s oil wealth. None are in great shape. After successive attempted coups by the armed forces in the 1970s, Colonel Qaddafi sent the army into Chad, and in the rout that followed thousands—senior officers among them—were captured. Later, Islamist groups emerged as the prime challengers, only to be similarly beaten down. In the mid-1990s, a group of jihadists returning from Afghanistan formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and waged war on Libya’s modern infidel. Hundreds, including many who had nothing to do with the violence, were rounded up and subjected to gross abuse. When a riot erupted in Tripoli’s political prison, Busalim, in 1996, Qaddafi’s guards shot 1,270 prisoners dead—all but 30 of them Islamists.

Paradoxically, the killing designed to liquidate Qaddafi’s opposition may turn out to be a cause of his demise. In mid-December 2010, Busalim survivors set a date for February 17, 2011, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of an earlier Benghazi protest the authorities had suppressed, and they gained inspiration from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In fact, they were pre-empted by fourteen lawyers protesting on February 15, two days before the planned rally, against the detention of a fellow lawyer, Fathi Turbil, who represented families of the Busalim victims seeking the return of their bodies. Seizing the moment, Mohammed Bu Sidra and other preachers issued fatwas declaring nonparticipation in street protests a sin. Under pressure from their young members, local tribal sheiks echoed the call, declaring that anyone who suppressed the protests would lose tribal protection. Army commanders in the east defected en masse.


John Moore/Getty Images

Opposition protest signs sit in a rebel press center in Benghazi, Libya, March 4, 2011

Will the rebel alliance survive? To date, inclusiveness has been its hallmark. For such a violent revolutionary regime, revenge killings have been remarkably infrequent—at least for now. Young urban lawyers sit side-by-side with tribal elders and Islamists on the National Council. A non-Islamist lawyer serves as the council spokesman, and a staunch secularist is charged with running Benghazi’s education. The politicians have also consciously wooed the armed forces; youth protestors and the old border guards man their side of the border with Egypt together. Still, the armed forces will likely remain too fragile to safeguard the revolution during the transitional period. Tribal irregulars, not the army, recaptured the oil-rich town of Brega west of Benghazi. The army has also proved unable to ward off tribesmen raiding by the truckload huge armories of such heavy weapons as Sam-7s abandoned by the colonel’s militias.


In cities across Libya, Islamist groups have proved more efficient at responding to the collapse of authority. While council members squabble for positions inside the courthouse, Islamist leaders escorted by followers with walkie-talkies emerge from their tents to mobilize the large crowds with sermons and open-air prayers in the square below. Mosques formerly required to close between prayer times are now open round the clock, and imams call for an armed jihad against Qaddafi in Friday sermons—where politics was previously banned. Salim Jaber, who heads the religious affairs office of the Benghazi council, has transferred responsibility for food distribution to Benghazi’s poor from the local markets to the mosques. Unlike in Egypt where the beltagiya, or street thugs, rampaged for several days through downtown Cairo, religious injunctions against looting ensured that attacks quickly subsided. Mosques organized collections of local weapons. And sheikhs on Benghazi’s new Free Libya radio have called on their followers to take over the jobs left by departing migrant workers.

To a significant extent, Islamists have also extended their influence into Qaddafi-ruled territory. In Tripoli, leading preachers used fatwas to bring supporters out on the streets in defiance of curfews and militiamen who opened fire. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghaliani, Libya’s most prominent cleric, also ruled against accepting bribes, curbing the regime’s attempts to buy loyalty. “Qaddafi, Tajoura [a city fourteen miles east of Tripoli] will be your grave,” scrawled his followers on the walls near his Saad bin Amr mosque.

For now, most Islamists have given their assent to the National Transitional Council’s declaration authorizing UN-approved international intervention, including American airstrikes, on Qaddafi. Even jihadi groups openly look to the West to recognize civil institutions, and hope the Western powers will support democratic over military rule. But if popular mood turns against outside operations, the jihadi forces could yet play to the gallery. “No to Military Intervention,” declare the large billboards on roads outside Benghazi. “Libyans can do it alone.”

Such messages are not only aimed at Western forces. Libyan Islamists appear equally fearful that if Western countries do enter the war, global jihadi groups might seek to turn the southern Mediterranean into their next theater. “We think we can do it ourselves without Osama bin Laden,” says Islamist leader Busidra, who is close to Libya’s jihadi groups. “Otherwise the rest of the world will be against us, and join in and it will be like the Spanish civil war.” Concerned about their own survival, he fears, military regimes in Algeria and Egypt could prop up the Qaddafi regime, not least with fresh supplies of mercenaries.

A quick overthrow of Qaddafi might not guarantee stability either. In the past, the strong-man dominated; but with a more consensual politics each faction will demand its share. Oil workers will likely form unions, the army will want its reward for switching sides, and the tribes will seek royalties for using their land for drilling and piping oil. They all want a greater proportion of the wealth that Qaddafi hitherto kept for himself and his allies. If any of the constituencies are dissatisfied, a central authority is likely to be too weak to prevent them from resorting to force to further their claims. Thanks, after all, to their looted caches of weapons.

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