Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Message from Bengazi
Message from Bengazi
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
by Catherine Ashton
The message from Benghazi
The birth of a democracy is beautiful, but it isn’t always pretty. Muammar Gaddafi starved Benghazi of money, so it was a drab city even before the current uprising. Now the clutter of revolution makes it look even more dishevelled. But just as the drabness fed defiance, so the clutter of old flags, home-made banners and crumpled leaflets speak of great hope.
I had come to Benghazi to open the first European Union office in free Libya. I arrived in the newly-named Freedom Square, to see the EU flag flying near the courthouse and to meet some of the people who have been bringing democracy to life.
As in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I found not just enthusiasm for reform but great warmth towards their European neighbours across the Mediterranean. Passers-by greeted me more as a friend than a first-time visitor. “Welcome, Cathy, Welcome Europe”, one said; “we know you care about us, thank you for visiting us, come again.” At the offices of the National Transitional Council, Fatma greeted me in traditional Libyan clothes with beaten silver jewellery on her ankles, wrists and fingers. At six years old she is tall for her age and quite shy to find herself the centre of attraction. She had come to give me flowers. She told me she liked to paint, and had two younger brothers, but that sadly her father had died so now her uncle looked after the family.
While Fatma sat with me I started to talk to the leaders of the National Council about their hopes for their country. They told me: “we want to do this for ourselves. We just need your help on some things.”
Security is one of their big concerns. Porous borders and too many weapons in the country create real problems. Their priorities include proper border management and an effective system for licensing weapons.
Security matters most to older people. Younger Libyans I met focused more on how to participate in democracy: “It’s not just about elections”, one said. As in Egypt, the revolution has a broad social base, unified around the essentially secular themes of freedom, justice and equality. Religion matters but does not dominate – at least, not for now.
At a hotel in the centre of Benghazi I met some of the people from civil society. One human rights activist, Mohamed, had spent eight years as a political prisoner under Col Gaddafi. “Being in prison wasn’t the worst,” he told me, “the biggest crime was that Gaddafi tried to kill our spirit and our dreams”.
Yezid, a former engineer, is typical of the young pro-democracy revolutionaries known as shabab. Now he runs a radio station. Media is big in Benghazi 55 newspapers have started since the revolution.
The women I met want to play a big role in the future of their country. Their message to me was: “We need women to believe in themselves, to understand that they can get involved in building our democracy. They have never been given that chance so we need help”.
I left Benghazi determined that the European Union should provide that help. In Libya, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the EU’s task is to provide practical assistance, not just now but long after the guns fall silent and the western media return home. We can help put down the roots of deep democracy – free speech, human rights, impartial Administration, an independent judiciary, enforceable property rights and a culture of equality and dignity.
However, deep democracy cannot be imposed from outside. It will fail if it is seen as a 21st century version of western imperialism. My short visit to Benghazi dispelled any fears that this need be the fate of EU assistance.
The yearning for democracy – and for the whole of Libya, not just the Eastern towns the National Transitional Council currently controls – is palpable. I did not introduce human rights and the rule of law into our discussions; they did.
Of course, nobody can guarantee that Libya, after Col Gaddafi, will become a beacon of liberal democracy. History supplies many examples of revolutions that turn sour. Indeed, it is precisely because tyranny, fear and corruption could return that the European Union will work hard with the new Libya to ensure that democracy thrives and lasts.
I left Benghazi optimistic that Libya can achieve that goal. I met people who are smart, realistic and up for the challenge. And the most encouraging moment came when I asked a group of them about the future of the people who had been around Col Gaddafi. One said they would follow South Africa and set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission. The others nodded, not just in agreement, but as if this were blindingly obvious.
Baroness Ashton is the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
By MICHEL COUSINS | ARAB NEWS
Published: Jun 3, 2011 21:37 Updated: Jun 4, 2011 23:51
BENGHAZI: Before Muammar Qaddafi’s forces attacked it on March 15, Ajdabiyah had a population of over 160,000. Eighty percent fled. They, like the thousands from other towns and cities attacked by Qaddafi’s forces — an estimated total of 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) — have found a roof over their head in Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya, sometimes provided by relatives but also at times by people they have never met before.
This help and support from ordinary Libyans to others is one of the most inspiring aspects of the Libya uprising. Stories of refugees knocking on doors and being taken in and accommodated are common.
The Transitional National Council (TNC) has now set up a committee to organize and oversee accommodation for IDPs, but before that ordinary Libyans did the task. “People opened their homes to IDPs. They opened schools and other buildings. They did not ask questions. They just did it,” explained a member of the committee now responsible for looking after the needs of 18,400 families — around 110,000 people. The others are still with relatives or those who have taken them in.
The IDP Committee itself is an example of Libyan solidarity. Operating out of a grand villa in a smart suburb of Benghazi that was seized from an absent Qaddafi supporter, it has 25 administrative staff and around another 80 working in the field. All are volunteers.
Not far away in the suburb of Ghuwarshah, Hussain Bosif Yasin and his brother Ahmad own a construction workers camp. It was empty at the time of the uprising. Meeting refugees by chance in March at a petrol station in Benghazi, Hussein invited them to move in. Others followed. The camp now houses 39 families from Ajdabiyah, Brega, Jalu and Kufra, 214 people in all, each in their own basic but separate unit.
It is not only a roof over their head that Hussain and his brother provide. For the first few days, before the IDP committee and other charities began to help, they provided all the food. They still cover all electricity costs and provide toys for the children and other needs — soap and washing powder.
Theirs is not a unique story.
When it comes to feeding the refugees, again Libyans have rallied around. And not just the refugees. There are the troops on the front line between Ajdabiyah and Brega to be fed as well as soldiers in the barracks — and people in hospital. One of the consequences of the conflict is that most of the expatriate workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Egypt and elsewhere who worked in the hospitals, restaurants and canteens, who cleaned the streets and did countless other low-paid jobs that the Libyans preferred not to do, have gone. There is probably a lesson there for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that rely so heavily on foreign labor. But in this case, the Libyans have simply rolled up their sleeves, picked up their brooms and mops, their kitchen knives and their buckets and got on with the job.
At the Qala restaurant, not far from Hussain’s campsite, a team is making free meals for the troops, IDPs and some hospitals. They make 18,000 meals a day — 9,000 lunches and 9,000 dinners, 2,500 of them for soldiers. Between 100 and 135 people are involved daily. Women do the cooking in an improvised outdoor kitchen, men the packing and delivery. All are volunteers. It is a slick and impressive operation. On Friday at lunch, it was couscous with lamb — and a lot tastier than the hotel food. All the ingredients are bought locally but the money to buy them, until a few days ago, came totally from private donations. Now, the Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company is picking up the bill for half the food costs.
Sami Shakmak, the restaurant owner, started the operation with friend Ayman Qader shortly after the Feb. 17 uprising. Initially the focus was helping expatriates in Benghazi harbor leave the country. With 200 volunteers, they helped provide shelter, food, transport as well as paperwork for 25,000 departing foreigners. When that was over, they started taking supplies including arms and ammunition to the troops at Ras Lanouf. The need to feed them became obvious. That led to the Libyan Humanitarian Relief Organization.
“We decided to provide 2,000 meals a day," says Shakmak. It soon rose to 5,000 a day and by mid-May the figure touched 15,000, at a cost of 15,000 Libyan dinars a day (on the present black-market rate about $10,000). It now costs over 18,000 dinars a day.
The volunteers all turn up on time. There are all sorts — government employees now not overburdened with work, lawyers, boy scouts, teachers. One of them is 35-year-old Hassan Ismail. He last worked as a carpet layer in London’s West Ham. He was part of the large Libyan diaspora living abroad, most of them in the UK although like so many of the diaspora, he traveled back to Libya regularly.
The post-Christmas and New Year period in Britain is a lean time for carpet fitters so he decided, before the Feb 17 uprising, to return. “I had seen what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt and felt it had to happen here,” he says. Like Shakmak, who also spent part of his life in the UK, he took part in the protests against the Qaddafi regime. Afterward, looking around for ways to help, he and five friends started collecting money and making bags of food for the volunteers on the front line — nothing fancy: a packet of biscuits, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of water. He then came into contact with Shakmak and the two operations were merged. He and the five others are now the drivers who distribute the meals, but they still take food bags to the troops.
Solidarity in liberated Libya is not just about volunteering. There has been a complete lifestyle change. People have become more courteous to others. Foreigners, talking to whom once risked arrest, are welcomed with open arms, especially if they are American, British, French or Italian.
The new courtesy is seen on the roads, where the style of driving in Benghazi, pre-revolution, would have been instantly recognizable to anyone in Saudi Arabia — vehicles weaving in and out of traffic, speeding, jumping traffic lights. That has gone. Almost everyone now drives with a degree of consideration that does not exist anywhere in Europe let alone Saudi Arabia. Speeding is a thing of the past while drivers allow other vehicles wanting to move into the same lane in front of them with a smile and a nod.
At one intersection the traffic lights had been damaged; only the green was working. Yet the traffic stopped the instant the green light went out and waited till it came back on again. You would not see that in Jeddah.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of this new self-help and solidarity is the sense that Libyans are discovering and embracing each other for the first time.
It has been remarkable to see, as I did on several occasions in the past few days, young Libyan activists who had never met before finding out that they are distantly related or that the person that they are dealing with was once a friend of their parents or grandparents.
“That’s because Libyans did not talk to each other before,” said a Libyan with one of the UN agencies in Benghazi. “People did not know how their comments would be interpreted. They feared each other.”
It is said that before the uprising 20 percent of the population were used as government spies.
“Qaddafi destroyed our trust in each other,” says Salma. “Now we’re finding it again.”
Four months after the start of the popular uprising against Col Muammar Gaddafi, the rebel-held eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has regained a veneer of normality.
Today, Benghazi regularly receives foreign diplomats, and hosts droves of foreign journalists.
But even as it sheds its revolutionary colours and inches towards political stability, it remains guarded by bands of "irregulars" - armed civilians who form the city's main pillar of security.
The Transitional National Council (TNC) is widely accepted in the east as a legitimate political body representing Libya, and is being increasingly recognised as such internationally, but it remains unclear who holds the key to security, and ultimately to real power in Benghazi.
The charred remains of Col Gaddafi's brigade headquarters still stand in the middle of Benghazi, testimony to a battle recalled here with pride, passion, and lingering memories of terror.
The brigade - or Kateeba in Arabic - was chased out of the city by men armed mainly with the TNT they use for fishing.
Residents of Benghazi have taken up arms to guard the city against Gaddafi loyalists
One man, fast becoming a legend, packed his van with explosives and rammed it through the gate to open the way for the attack. On 22 February the Kateeba was defeated, and the city fell to the rebels.
The battle marked the end of Col Gaddafi's power in the city. Regular police had already withdrawn from the streets, having taken little or no part in attempts to put down growing protests.
But they were not spared the wrath of demonstrators, and most of the police stations were burnt down.
In the ensuing vacuum, local councils spontaneously formed, and armed civilians took responsibility for the security of their neighbourhoods.
Dressed in khaki uniforms and jeans, and armed with Kalashnikovs, they man checkpoints at night, and guard the city against the "fifth column", a common reference to Gaddafi loyalists who are said to roam at night.
It is generally accepted in Benghazi that these armed irregulars are still needed.
Some of Col Gaddafi's forces are still only 180km (110 miles) from Benghazi, and the city is continuously buzzing with rumours of the activities of Gaddafi loyalists.
An effigy of Col Gaddafi hangs during Friday prayers in Benghazi
But some in the transitional council are asking if it is time to bring the irregulars under one official umbrella. The first attempts to do so have met with resistance.
When an announcement was made of a new internal security force, reaction on the street was swift. A small but furious crowd took to the street, protesting against the appointment of former regime officials, allegedly responsible for torture and killings, to sensitive positions.
A carefully worded statement from the protesters reaffirmed support for the transitional council, but accused "elements" of the former regime of retaining their positions.
The council took a step back, and the plans were temporarily shelved.
Digging around for an official line on security issues in Benghazi is no easy task, but we managed to reach one official who seemed to have some authority in the subject.
Ahmad Darrat is "in charge of internal affairs and local governance" in the TNC - "like an interior minister," he explained to the BBC, "but the council avoids that title because we are not a government until Tripoli is liberated."
Mr Darrat said the old police force, now back on the streets, was currently the only functioning official security force.
A new force in the making will be called Preventive Security, and aspire to merge all the irregular forces under its umbrella, he said.
"Everyone operates under the legitimacy of the TNC, and there is no resistance to the merger plans," Mr Darrat claimed.
But a civilian commander soon dismissed the suggestions. "Ahmad who?" he sneered, when I told him of the plans.
His faction is not planning on joining any preventive security force, he assured me. "The revolution belongs to the revolutionaries," he added.
Col Gaddafi is hated with a burning passion here, and the graffiti all around Benghazi is a constant reminder of this.
For now, the diverse groups of rebels are bound together by a common cause - removing Gaddafi and reuniting Libya.
But a lot depends on what happens next, and whether they will transform into political groups contesting power, or break into armed factions fighting for it.