World

'We Don't Want Our Revolution Stolen': On the Ground in Libya

Libyans understand that their aspirations for freedom and justice might coincide with the cynical motives of empire.

Every evening just after four, Benghazi’s main thoroughfare is overtaken by a raucous group of some 200 cheering women and children and gun-toting men headed toward a sunset gathering in front of the city’s dilapidated courthouse on the Mediterranean. It is the loudest moment of the day, with passing cars blaring their horns, and intermittent gunfire let off by trigger-happy young men in four-wheel-drive vehicles. The women raise spirited chants against Gadhafi, urging people to stay steadfast in their resistance.

Seventeen-year-old Hanin Gheriani, giddy with a newfound fearlessness, says she has no doubt life will be better in the new Libya. “We used to be so afraid to speak, now we can say whatever we want. We are finally free.” The mood is light, even festive.

But this brief daily spectacle of celebration is deceptive. As the Libyan uprising enters its fourth month, people in the liberated eastern part of the country are playing a waiting game, and for many, patience is running thin. The spontaneous jubilation that marked the early days of the revolution is all but gone. In its place, an unmistakable sense of weariness and uncertainty fills the cool springtime air.

Concerns of a civil war or an Islamist takeover do not predominate here; most people laugh these off as overblown Western fears that are not grounded in Libyan realities. “Civil war, tribal loyalties, Al Qaeda, these are all bogeymen raised by Gaddafi and his son, Saif al-Islam in the early days of the uprising. This is not what people in Libya are afraid of,” asserts Naim Ali, a former correspondent with the independent news website Libya Today, who now directs Al Jazeera Arabic’s Benghazi office. Now that the fate of the uprising is almost wholly in the hands of those with the best weapons, foremost on people’s minds is how much longer they must wait for the regime to fall.

It has been weeks since the frontline has moved past the strategic crossroads town of Ajdabiya, just 100 miles southwest of Benghazi. The initial exuberance over the no-fly zone and NATO’s air support is tempered daily by horrific stories of violence from the western city of Misrata and grim reports of continued attacks by  Gadhafi's forces against towns in the western mountains and southern oases. The Transitional National Council that is now leading the popular uprising continues to insist that its armed forces will bring  Gadhafi to his knees in a matter of weeks. Yet the unmoving frontline tells a different tale.

Journalists are no longer allowed near the actual frontline—for safety reasons, the Council argues—so it is impossible to independently confirm the presence of trainers or weapons from France, Italy, Qatar, the UK, or the United States. The training camps that journalists do have access to, on the outskirts of Benghazi and further along the road to Ajdabiya, are sadly comical and do little to inspire confidence in the ability of this army to make any advances on  Gadhafi's troops. Filled with young recruits straight out of high school, the barracks are overflowing with  Gadhafi's aging stash of weapons, some of which date back almost half a century.

The trainers at these camps are all Libyans, some of them military men who joined the charismatic young Colonel  Gadhafi soon after his 1969 coup against King Idriss. Denying reports to the contrary, generals at the camps insisted they have not seen evidence of any foreign military or intelligence training, and are still waiting for better equipment. Innovation is key here, they insist. Indeed, the man in charge of refurbishing and testing anti-aircraft weaponry to be sent to the frontlines is a hydraulic engineer by training with no experience in armaments.

But with few tangible gains on the ground, on the streets of Benghazi rumors abound. Is the stalemate to be blamed on the incompetence and inexperience of what the media routinely describes as the “rag-tag rebel army”? Has the division within the military leadership—between the CIA-backed hero of the Chadian war General Khalifa Heftir and  Gadhafi's recently defected interior minister and former Special Forces head Abdel Fattah Younes—spilled onto the battlefield? Or is NATO now directing the Libyan revolution?

A group of women staging an anti- Gadhafi protest in front of the courthouse in Benghazi wonder out loud how it is that Libyan revolutionaries (they despise the word “rebels”) were on the doorstep of the  Gadhafi-stronghold of Sirte in late February without international help. Now, they ask, why are they still stuck at Ajdabiya, despite NATO’s air support as well as purported arms deliveries and sophisticated weapons and tactical communications training. In hushed tones, many expressed a private distrust of Younes who, they say, had never spoken a word against  Gadhafi until the uprising began. He had no choice but to defect, one woman said, given that he was in Benghazi the day it fell to the protesters. Heftir’s ties to the CIA were of little concern to them; much more important was his 20-year track record of opposing  Gadhafi.

Most of the women gathered in the square are no strangers to political struggle. Regular visitors to the courthouse—even before the February 17 uprising this year—they are the mothers and sisters and daughters of the victims of what is perhaps  Gadhafi's most notorious atrocity against his people; the brutal massacre of some 1,200 men in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996.

The courthouse in front of which they stand is now the revolution’s first de facto monument to decades of state terror and repression. The bustling center of the uprising in February, the courthouse is now all but deserted on the inside, the revolutionary leadership having moved to more comfortable and secure quarters. But the building’s exterior has come alive: plastered with photographs large and small, its peeling walls are now an overwhelming canvas of grief. Each one of the thousands of photographs carries a name and is flanked by two dates: the person’s birthday and the day they were last heard of—when they were detained, disappeared, tortured, or killed by  Gadhafi's regime. The vast majority remembers the victims of the Abu Salim massacre, but alongside their fading images are newer, shinier posters of Libya’s most recent martyrs, the scores of young men killed since February.

Dozens, sometimes hundreds of men and women congregate around this building every evening. Almost everyone has a flag in hand; the dark red, green and black hues of the new Libya dominate, but many also flaunt French, Qatari, British, and even American flags. Despite the flag-waving, there is nothing naïve about their understanding of what it means that their aspirations for freedom and justice might coincide with the cynical motives of empire.

One man wearing a long tunic decorated with colorful anti- Gadhafi slogans in French and Arabic was waving a particularly enormous handmade banner, a patchwork of the flags of every country that supported the Libyan uprising. He described his gratitude to France in particularly emotional terms, explaining how Sarkozy’s bombing of  Gadhafi's advancing tanks two months earlier had rescued Benghazi from the jaws of disaster. But that, he argued, was no excuse for allowing foreign soldiers into the country. “This is our red line: absolutely no foreign military bases or ground troops in Libya,” he proclaimed, and the crowd around him cheered in agreement.

It is clear that almost everyone in eastern Libya welcomed the initial Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and the initial bombing campaign. The stretch of highway west of Benghazi, where  Gadhafi's tanks were bombed, is still littered with remains of the assault that could have been. A grim reminder of how quickly the revolution could lose its hard-won gains without international support, the highway has become a pilgrimage site of sorts. Families who pose for photographs amidst the burnt-out tanks speak in glowing terms about the special place France has in the hearts of Benghazi residents. But now, as the war drags on, there is a palpable unease over how much control to cede to NATO.

“We don’t want our revolution to be stolen,” asserted Haithem al-Mangoush, a soft-spoken 30-year-old bank employee who was waiting for an Italian visa in search of better prospects in Rome when the uprising began. Now he cannot conceive of leaving Libya until the regime falls,  Gadhafi is tried and all his crimes are a matter of public record. He admitted that he was being unrealistic, but added that he still hoped it would be Libyan troops and not NATO or other forces who finally capture  Gadhafi.

There is a bitter and growing awareness of the contradictions inherent in wanting NATO to do more to assist the armed revolutionaries while also remaining skeptical of too much foreign intervention. Some openly question the wisdom of taking up arms against a force as stubborn and powerful as  Gadhafi, and look almost wistfully to the continuing peaceful demonstrations in Yemen.

Suleiman, a civil engineer and longtime activist who organized protests with the families of the victims of the Abu Salim massacre, believes that if  Gadhafi had not used lethal force on peaceful demonstrators, the Libyan uprising could have had a very different trajectory. “When we began, we didn’t want this to be violent and we never dreamt of asking for outside intervention,“ he said, shaking his head. “We wanted a peaceful revolution just like Egypt and Tunisia. And we wanted to do it ourselves. But  Gadhafi went too far, he gave us no choice.”

Although many Libyans believe they had no choice but to take up arms and subsequently, to ask for and rely on international intervention, in their struggle against  Gadhafi, they are deeply pragmatic about why the world’s most powerful countries responded to their call. The irony of the sudden volte-face of countries like Italy, Britain, France, and the United States, is not lost on them. Many recall how these countries had publicly supported  Gadhafi over the past decade and even hailed his regime’s alleged steps toward democratic reform. Indeed, the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention, so prevalent in the United States and Europe, has few takers in Libya.

“Of course there are interests at play,” explained the man in the graffiti-covered tunic, listing oil and winning broader support among Arabs following the debacle in Iraq as possible reasons behind the intervention. “We’re not stupid, we know Western countries have their own interests when they finally decided to help us.” A man from Sirte who identified as being from  Gadhafi's tribe interrupted him, expressing a widely held sentiment: “It doesn’t matter what the West’s interests are, because we too have our interests—we want to survive and get rid of this regime and ultimately live like the rest of the world, without fear.” The crowd erupted in applause.

*****

West of Benghazi, the closer one gets to the nebulous frontline, the mood changes dramatically and it is near impossible to find even a pretense of enthusiasm for the current stalemate. The city of Ajdabiya, about a dozen miles shy of the battlefront, is almost completely abandoned. Neatly arranged in the eerily empty central square, amidst pasted warnings by United Nations agencies of the dangers of unexploded munitions, is a gruesome collection of the remnants of Soviet-era weapons used here by  Gadhafi's forces in mid-March. In that latest attack, his armed brigades attacked the city from the ground, air, and sea. Most of the residents fled east along the desert highway to the nearest settlement of Al-Beidan, which soon became overwhelmed by thousands of fleeing families from Ajdabiya, as well as the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf further west.

Today, some of the displaced families have returned home, but most are too afraid to do so. Their homes are damaged, there’s no work or school to return to, and the memories of narrow escapes from speeding missiles are still fresh in their minds.

“We’re tired of this war and want to go home. We want freedom, but we can’t live like this for much longer,” said Amna, who lives with her six children and three other families in a two-room house.

For the 700 families who are still living in Al-Beidan, some in tents, others in small concrete structures, spending two months isolated in the harsh desert environment with dwindling supplies of food, water, electricity, and medicines is wearing them down. “We are not happy with this war,” shouted one stocky young man who introduced himself as Mohammad. “We support the revolution, but not the war. We are stuck in the middle, between  Gadhafi's forces, NATO, and our young untrained boys.”

An oil engineer, also from Ajdabiya, described his dramatic rescue from an oil field deep in the south three weeks into the fighting. But soon after he returned home,  Gadhafi's forces began shelling his neighborhood and he had to flee to Al-Beidan. He explained that he supported the struggle against  Gadhafi, but added, “this war is causing nothing but suffering to us.” He was deeply opposed to relying on international forces. “If there are foreign ground troops in Libya I will take up arms against them. We don’t want them on our land.”

*****

Back in Benghazi, almost no one has the time to address the concerns of those displaced from Ajdabiya. The hospitals are full of the wounded from Misrata, everyone has a missing relative or friend captured by  Gadhafi's forces to the west or knows someone on the frontline who needs food or weapons. And despite the trappings of normalcy, there are unexplained explosions and gun battles every other day, few have jobs to return to, and money is scarce.

The returns from the oil fields and installations in the control of anti- Gadhafi forces are yet to materialize. Italy, France and the United States have promised to work around the sanctions on Libyan oil to help market oil from this region. At the same time, the Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company, which broke away from the Tripoli-controlled National Oil Corporation, says that all oil production in the southeast has come to a halt since  Gadhafi's forces attacked the main oil fields in the area in April. That attack followed an initial shipment of one million barrels of crude oil to Qatar.

In this environment, many Libyan professionals consider themselves lucky to have landed a part-time job as a translator, fixer or driver working with the steady stream of international visitors. After decades of being considered a no-man’s land by much of the Western world, Libya is now seeing an unprecedented influx of foreign dignitaries, journalists, aid workers, oil traders, communication consulting firms, and private security contractors.

The Transitional National Council is well aware of the lucrative possibilities offered by this fresh interest in Libya, but they remain cautious in awarding new contracts. The Council-appointed Minister of the Economy, Abdallah Shamiya says that old agreements made under  Gadhafi will still be honored until the regime falls and a new state is set up for the entire country. At that point, he added, new contracts will be drawn up not just for Libya’s oil and gas wealth, but also for infrastructure development, transport, telecommunications, and manufacturing. In an ominous sign for Russian and Chinese investments in Libya, he added that the new agreements would favor those countries that helped the Libyan revolution: “We will need all the help we can get, and we will recognize our friends.”

For the growing coterie of businesses that profit off conflict, the oil-rich and insecure new Libya would seem to offer the potential of unparalleled opportunity. At this time however, the private security contractors in Benghazi appear to be largely restricted to British companies working with large media organizations, and those providing security for visiting officials from Europe, Qatar and the United States.

The one private security company, a French outfit named Secopex which arrived in Benghazi hoping to secure a contract with the Transitional National Council, did not receive a particularly warm welcome. Under circumstances that remain shrouded in mystery, armed men working for the Council at a checkpoint near Benghazi arrested four of the five men and killed the company’s founder Pierre Marziali. Immediately after, the Council put out an opaque statement apologizing for the “accidental” death of Marziali, saying the men had been arrested because they had recently visited Tripoli and were suspected of also working for  Gadhafi.

Notwithstanding incidents like these, dreams of profits will certainly continue to attract more and more businesses to Libya. Meanwhile for the majority of Libyans waiting for a more complete liberation, economic security is a distant fantasy.

Faraj is a geography teacher in his late 30s from Tobruk, a town close to the Egyptian border, some 250 miles east of Benghazi. He was fishing off a small cliff, overlooking the harbor that dominates the city. With schools permanently closed since February, he has not received a paycheck in months. He responded without hesitation when I asked him if life had improved since the uprising: “No, our lives have gotten much harder, there’s no doubt about that.” But then, a broad smile slowly spreading across his face, he added, “Our spirits, however, have certainly improved.”

Anjali Kamat is an independent journalist and a correspondent for Democracy Now!
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