Libyans in the eastern half of the country find themselves in an unimaginable situation: freed from Muammar Gaddafi’s rule for the first time in more than four decades.
Now citizens are figuring out how to run their own affairs and build up their military, as Gaddafi remains very much in power on the other side of the country.
It began as a series of small protests over the imprisonment of a human rights lawyer and then, in a week of increasingly bloody battles, the residents of Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, found themselves, improbably, in charge.
Just days after the last government forces fled, the city appears orderly, with cars stopping at traffic lights, stores open and a new local government emerging where once all forms of social organising were ruthlessly suppressed.
“We were not planning to make a revolt, it happened all of a sudden,” said Fathi Turbel, the 39-year-old lawyer whose imprisonment sparked the protests. “People can’t imagine how it all could have happened so quickly.”
Following the example of their Egyptian neighbours, the Libyans quickly formed popular committees to guarantee basic security and began to talk to local academics, lawyers and experts to figure out how to run the city they had inherited.
The result, announced on Thursday, was a 15-person city council of prominent figures, including Turbel.
He spoke to the Associated Press in the city’s seaside courthouse, the focal point of last week’s protests.
Rallies still sprout up regularly outside as residents celebrate their long-denied right to pile into a square and chant slogans. Under a 1973 law, it was illegal for four or more people to gather together because of Gaddafi’s conspiracy fears and any type of civil organisation was squashed.
Now, said Turbel, they have to learn to work together.
Inside the courthouse it’s a hub of activity as earnest young men and women bustle through the corridors putting together a new municipal apparatus, even while the dictator that ruled them for so long remains in his palace on the other side of the country.
“We have no experience whatsoever in this, so we resorted to the help of people who may know better than us, and so far, as you can see, it’s working,” said Atif el-Hasiya, an engineer now working for the new administration. “We’re actually more organised than we were before.”
The evidence outside seems to bear out his optimism. Traffic police have returned to the streets and the only jams are as people slow down to gawk at the burnt out remains of the symbols of the old regime. New signs posted around the city say “Yes to opening bakeries, pharmacies, shops and yes to continuing normal life in Benghazi.”
The crackle of gunfire, however, usually from someone firing an assault rifle in celebration, still splits the night and sometimes can be heard during the day.
Officials admit a top priority is getting back the many guns that fell into people’s hands after the chaos.
This is one of the main jobs of the new army that is slowly forming from the scattered units in the eastern half of the country that defected to the rebellion rather than shoot protesters. It is only in recent days that the individual bands have formed an operations room to coordinate their actions and officers admit that so far no actions against the central government are planned. Instead, they are waiting for the rest of Gaddafi’s forces to defect.
“We are hoping for a coup d’etat from the people around him,” acknowledged Abu Ahmed, a senior activist involved in organising the new government. He noted, though, that Libya’s army, even when it was united, was not very strong. “He pulled all the capabilities out of them.
The only capabilities available in Libya were with Gaddafi’s (private) security forces,” he said, explaining that Gaddafi feared military coups and left the army with little in the way of ammunition.
For now, the troops who have defected say they are in contact with their colleagues in the western half of the country in an effort to convince them to do so as well.