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Libyan rebels building civil society from scratch

Saturday, March 12, 2011 | 4:47 p.m. CST

BENGHAZI, Libya — The burnt-out waterfront building was once the local branch of Libya's hated high court. In the past three weeks, it has been transformed into a bustling hub of civic society, home to a daily newspaper, a recording studio and a press center.

The dramatic shift highlights one of the main challenges facing the rebels seeking to topple Moammar Gadhafi, who for more than four decades has snuffed out any sign of independent action by his people. With his rule shattered in the east, activists led by lawyers, doctors and local businessmen are trying to fill the void.

Libya is not like Egypt, where ousted President Hosni Mubarak tolerated political parties, trade unions, rights groups and an increasingly vibrant independent press. Under Gadhafi, there were no independent non-governmental organizations, free trade unions or political parties. The press was — and in the territory under the regime's control still is — tightly muzzled.

But since the revolt erupted Feb. 15 in eastern Libya against Gadhafi's rule, the first impromptu institutions have begun popping up with Libya's intellectual class largely leading the way.

"What we've done so far in three these three weeks is astronomical, unbelievable," opposition spokesman Mustafa Gherkin said.

The battle is far from over. Gadhafi tightened his grip Saturday on the coastal road linking his territory to the rebel-controlled east, but the rebels have vowed to keep fighting.

Their crowning achievement so far is the establishment of an interim national governing council to manage the day-to-day affairs in territory under their control. It has even appointed a crisis committee to handle military matters and foreign affairs.

Headed by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the council counts two prominent lawyers, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga and Fathi Turbel, as well as a political science professor among its members.

But it has struggled to speak with a unified voice at times, most notably sending repeated mixed messages about an alleged Gadhafi proposal to negotiate, but members dismiss the problems as growing pains.

"We've survived these three weeks, and we have a functioning government," Gheriani said. "Are we going to have hiccups, bumps on the road? Of course, that's to be expected."

At the local level, city councils have sprung up to run hospitals, collect trash and provide essential services like electricity and clean drinking water.

Army units in the east that defected to the rebel side are busy training young volunteers eager to battle Gadhafi's forces.

Benghazi, the epicenter of the rebellion and the headquarters of the governing council, is even having new police uniforms sewn in Egypt to provide the force with a new look and distance itself from the Gadhafi regime, Gheriani said.

To the east in Bayda, young men collect trash, provide security, man checkpoints and direct traffic. The city council has reached an agreement with the banks to loan about $160 (200 dinars) a month interest-free to needy residents, said Hamdy Yacoub, a statistics professor at Omar Mukhtar University.

"We work as consultants to everybody in town, trying to help manage things," said Yacoub, whose two brothers serve on the city council. They also get their hands dirty, cleaning streets on some days.

Town councils in Tobruk, Derna and other eastern cities clustered along the Mediterranean coast have similar operations.

Doctors also have done their part, setting up a simple network to provide medical care and ferry supplies to rebel forces on the front lines and a rotation system to keep it all humming.

"We are educated people; most of us are professors who have the ability to be organizers," said Dr. Gebreil Hewadi, the head of the radiology department at Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi and a member of the health committee.

"I think this will provide a basis for after Gadhafi leaves," he said hopefully.

Hewadi acknowledged that it was just the beginning as 41 years of Gadhafi's unchallenged rule have left Libyans unversed in how to use the ballot box.

"We need to teach ourselves and train ourselves how to select leaders," he said. "It will take time, but I think the Libyan people, especially the young, can do this."

Young people launched the uprising, and they're also providing the manpower that has transformed Benghazi's former high court, which tellingly shares a courtyard with the dreaded internal security service's torched offices.

Some two weeks ago, the building still smelled of smoke, the floors were strewn with shattered glass and doorways were boarded up. Now, the tile floors are covered with cigarette butts and the charred walls are plastered with a rainbow of posters mocking Gadhafi. Foreign reporters and Libyan activists pack the halls and stairs from morning to night.

On the building's ground floor, there is a committee to help those needing food or money, another to document those kidnapped and killed by Gadhafi, and a third to register volunteers and direct them where to go.

One floor up is a bustling press center with wireless Internet — a precious commodity since Gadhafi pulled the plug on the Web early in the uprising — and a technology support team of English-speaking volunteers. In another room, arriving foreign journalists pick up rebel press credentials after signing in and getting their passports scanned.

Down the hall are the offices for the "Libya" daily, one of three new pro-rebellion newspapers set up since the uprising began Feb. 15. Men and women bundled up in coats and scarves against the cold draft whipping through the boarded up windows sit in front of computer screens, typing articles or arranging the layout for the next day's edition.

"We try to give the world the truth," said Maher Awami, a 37-year-old graphic designer and photographer working for the newspaper. "The state media in Gadhafi's hands just lies."

The decidedly pro-rebellion paper publishes one edition a day, often six to eight pages of articles about the uprising and those killed, color photographs full of flag-waving supporters and caricatures of Gadhafi.

"We have the ability to build our own civil society; we have educated ourselves at school and on the Internet," Awami said. "This revolution did not come from empty space."


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