Outside Libya, as the third sustained revolution to engulf North Africa — and the bloodiest by far — continues to rage, some reactions are predictable. The world’s powerbrokers are fretting about the increased price of oil and evacating their workers, and President Obama’s response has been sensibly muted, unlike that of David Cameron, who, like the arrogant two-faced public schoolboy he is — playing at being a world leader — flew into Egypt on Monday in the company of a bevy of British arms dealers, and, ever since, has delivered a series of contradictory statements that rival the hallucinatory ramblings of Colonel Gaddafi, who has been blaming the Libyan revolution on al-Qaeda and Nescafé spiked with drugs. In swift succession, Cameron positively endorsed selling arms to dictators in the Middle East, saying that opponents of Britain’s arms trade were “completely at odds with reality,” and then, demonstrating how completely at odds with reality he is, apologized for propping up dictatorships in the Middle East, saying, as the Guardian put it, that “Britain was wrong to prop up ‘highly controlling regimes’ as a way of ensuring stability” — although he failed, of course, to mention how, in its eagerness to secure access to Libya’s oilfields for British companies, the previous goverment — with the full support of the Tories — had treated political opponents of the regime as pawns in a cynical game, holding them as “terror suspects,” and including them in a false narrative of the “War on terror,” as I explained in a recent article, Revolution in Libya: Protestors Respond to Gaddafi’s Murderous Backlash with Remarkable Courage; US and UK Look Like the Hypocrites They Are.
In Libya itself, there is no room for reflection on the hypocrisy of whey-faced imbeciles like David Cameron, as the regime and its opponents continue to be engaged in a bloody battle for control of the country. Below, I cross-post an excellent article by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov, the first Western journalist to visit the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolution began just days ago, and where, as he explained, government buildings have been looted and butrned, and Gaddafi’s soldiers have defected en masse, and where, as he reported today, “a makeshift organising committee of judges, lawyers and other professionals” is now running the city, sending young people out “to direct traffic and restore basic order.” A high court lawyer, Amal Bagaigis, told Chulov, “We started just as lawyers looking for our rights and now we are revolutionaries, and we don’t know how to manage. We want to have our own face. For 42 years we lived with this kind of barbarianism. We now want to live by ourselves.” A follow-up article by Chulov, examining how lawyers, doctors and engineers are attempting “to take the city’s destiny into their hands,” is also cross-posted below.
Over the last few days, Gaddafi’s embattled regime has suffered blow after blow, even as the dictator has responded with brute force, gunning down protestors, and bringing in mercenaries to do the killing that the military, it seems, is increasingly unwilling to do. Politically, “Libyan and Arab sources said the biggest blow to Gaddafi so far had been the defection of his interior minister and veteran loyalist, Abdel-Fatah Younes al-Obeidi,” who, as the Guardian explained, “called on the army on Tuesday to ’serve the people and support the revolution and its legitimate demands.’”
Other notable defectors include the justice minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abud Jalil, who revealed that Gaddafi had “personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing,” Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, a cousin of Gaddafi’s and formerly one of his closest aides, who “announced on Thursday that he had defected to Egypt in protest against the bloody crackdown,” as the New York Times described it, Youssef Sawan, who, expressing “dismay against violence,”, resigned as the director of the Gaddafi International Charitable Foundation run by Saif al-Islam (Gaddafi’s supposedly moderate, reformist son, who has, nevertheless, been stoutly defending the regime in recent days), Ali al-Sahouli, a senior figure in the revolutionary committees, and numerous diplomats around the world.
In addition, defence minister General Abu-Bakr Yunis Jaber, who is also the commander of the army, was put under house arrest, and Major General Suleiman Mahmoud, the army commander in Tobruk, defected. Al-Jazeera reported that he said, “We are on the side of the people. I was with him [Gaddafi] in the past but the situation has changed — he’s a tyrant.” Other military units also defected, and it was also reported that a batallion of Gaddafi’s special forces had attacked Gaddafi’s revolutionary guard in Benghazi.
This was perhaps the most significant news in terms of a military defection, because, as the New York Times explained, Gaddafi always kept the Libyan military too “weak and divided” to turn on him effectively, relying instead on “an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that report primarily to his family,” which was “designed to check the army and in part to subdue his own population.” The Times added, “At the top of that structure is his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which mainly guards him personally,” plus militia units controlled by his seven sons, and, perhaps most significantly, the force of “about 2,500 mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he calls his Islamic Pan African Brigade,” hastily recalled from Sudan and other countries, who appear to have been at the forefront of the killings, with at least a thousand people so far presumed to have been killed.
Speaking from the east of the country, Al-Jazeera correspondent Hoda Abdel-Hamid said that, all along the border, “we didn’t see one policeman, we didn’t see one soldier and people here told us they [security forces] have all fled or are in hiding and that the people are now in charge, meaning all the way from the border, Tobruk, and then all the way up to Benghazi.” She added, “People tell me it’s also quite calm in Bayda and Benghazi. They do say, however, that ‘militias’ are roaming around, especially at night. They describe them as African men, they say they speak French so they think they’re from Chad.”
In terms of the struggle for control of the country, with Benghazi and the east in the revolutionaries’ hands, protests spread to the port of Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, to the nearby town of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, where, as the Guardian explained, “a key tribe has reportedly come out in support of what is being called the 17 February revolution,” and to Sebrata and Zawiya in the west. Al-Jazeera also reported that, in the Azzintan and Nalut areas, also in the west of the country, the tribes had come out against Gaddafi, and that they had taken over control of the area’s oil facilities.
Today it was reported that Misurata had fallen to the revolution, with one resident, Abdul Basit Imzivig, telling the Guardian that “regime forces had fled overnight and the city was in opposition hands.” Despite a claim that pro-Gaddafi forces had launched a counter-attack, lawyers and judges said in a statement issued through the Internet that they were in control of the city, and that they had removed agents of the “oppressive regime” with help from “honest” military officers.
The Guardian also reported that all the oilfields in the south of the country had fallen to the revolutionaries, and Moustafa Raba’a, a mechanical engineer with the Sirte oil company, said that production had been closed down “to send a message to Gaddafi to stop the slaying of our people in Benghazi. We made a decision to deny him the privilege of exporting oil and gas to Europe.”
The key to Gaddafi’s overthrow, of course, is Tripoli, the capital, where, if the Guardian is correct, his influence is “confined to parts of the capital and steadily shrinking.” The Los Angeles Times reported that protesters “plan a huge rally in Tripoli after Friday prayers,” and around the capital, the noose appears to be tightening. Zuara, 75 miles to the west, has reportedly fallen to the revolution, although, as the Los Angeles Times also reported, “Foreign residents fleeing the city emerged with grim tales of fighting in the streets.” Hassan Sheikh, an Egyptian laborer fleeing for the Tunisian border, said, “The situation there is very bad. There is no mercy there. They killed many people.” Other witnesses said that “armed militiamen [had] roamed the streets, killing people with guns and swords.”
There were also reports of clashes in the town of Az-Zawiyah, just 30 miles west of Tripoli, where, according to the New York Times, “government opponents had briefly claimed victory,” until Gaddafi’s forces forces — “a mixture of special brigades and African mercenaries — fought back, blasting a mosque that had been used as a refuge by protesters.” A Libyan exile heard that Gaddafi’s forces began their attack at about 5 am, and that the ensuing battle lasted four hours, and led to the death of around 100 rebels, who were armed only with hunting rifles.
Below are Martin Chulov’s reports from Benghazi.
Inside Libya’s first free city: jubilation fails to hide deep wounds
Martin Chulov, The Guardian, February 23, 2011
At the heart of the city where he launched his rise to power, Muammar Gaddafi’s indignity is now complete. In little more than three days of rampage, the rebels in Libya’s second city have done their best to wind the clock back 42 years –- to life before the dictator they loathe.
Benghazi has fallen and Gaddafi’s bid to cling on to power, whatever the cost, has crumbled with it. There is barely a trace of him now, except for obscene graffiti that mocks him on the dust-strewn walls where his portraits used to hang.
Residents who would not have dared to approach the town’s main military base without an invitation were doing victory laps around it in their cars. Every barrack block inside had been torched and looted. The stage where Gaddafi would address the masses on the rare occasions that he came here had collapsed. His house across the road had been ransacked and there wasn’t a loyalist soldier inside.
“He is gone. A dragon has been slain,” cried Ahmed Al-Fatuuir outside the secret police headquarters. “Now he has to explain where all the bodies are.”
The Middle East’s longest ruling autocrat seems disinclined to do that, or to go quietly. His rambling speech on Tuesday night, in which he vowed to die in his homeland as a “martyr”, has convinced many in Benghazi that although they may have ousted their foe from eastern Libya, they have not seen the last of the bloodshed.
At the city’s hospitals, administrators are still tallying the toll from the most savage fighting seen here in decades. At the al-Jala hospital, at least 65 deaths have been recorded since 17 February, along with dozens of injuries, many of them horrific. And they are still coming in.
A Libyan soldier, who along with many of his colleagues had joined the anti-government insurgency, was pronounced dead as the Guardian arrived inside the overworked intensive care unit. A small bullet wound near his right kidney had caused irreversible chaos inside his body.
“They are still out there,” said the doctor who pronounced him dead. “These mercenaries who are hired by Gaddafi are lurking in the shadows.”
Wherever they are hiding, they must be running out of arms. All day defecting troops and officers were lugging in thousands of pounds of ammunition to a courtyard inside the secret police headquarters on Bengazi’s waterfront. By the day’s end an arsenal that could easily supply an army brigade was piled up. There were plastic explosives, rockets, machine guns and even the anti-aircraft weapon that was used to mow down demonstrators as they assaulted the military base on Sunday.
Evidence of the carnage it caused was clear on the walls of nearby buildings and in the mortuaries. Doctors had used their mobile phones to capture the carnage that was caused by military weapons on human flesh. And they coolly displayed the aftermath of the battle, denouncing Gaddafi as a criminal as they did so.
Nearby Filipino orderlies were putting the finishing touches to the short life of a dead soldier, washing his body with a clinical calm and slowly readying a green body bag. It was a process they were clearly familiar with. ” Too many times, too many times,” said one orderly as he rested on a trolley. “It has been terrible in here.”
At least 232 demonstrators in Benghazi are believed to have been killed since the uprising began and up to 1,000 injured. There are no reliable figures on the number of soldiers or mercenaries killed during the assault of the barracks, or in the hours of chaos that followed.
One thing that is clear is that this was not a peaceful stroll through the streets of Bahrain, as has largely been the case on the other side of the Arabian peninsula. This was a savage rampage on both sides, a blood and guts revolution, fuelled by decades of repression, neglect and rage. There has been nothing peaceful about it.
Testimony to the protesters’ vehemence is dotted all around the base, in the form of bulldozers stolen from nearby worksites that were used to breach the walls. At least six of them stand burned and mangled near where their work had been successfully done — gaping holes in whitewashed walls that allowed protesters to storm through.
“That is where the anti-aircraft gun was and that is where all the African mercenaries were found dead,” said Mohamed Fatah, who was part of the throng that attacked the base. “The people were leading a funeral march past the big roundabout and people from inside the base opened fire,” he said. “They went home, gathered themselves and came back. This is what happened.”
Gaddafi’s reported use of mercenaries appears to have tipped the hand of many protesters and armed forces. “That is why we turned against the government,” said air force major Rajib Feytouni. “That and the fact that there was an order to use planes to attack the people.”
Workers at an oil refinery 120 miles west of Benghazi said that they had seen an air force jet crash nearby and two parachutes land. There were widespread reports that those on board had refused to carry out an order to attack the east of the country.
The reports could not be independently verified. However, Feytouni confirmed that an air force base to the east had been hit on Sunday by two bombs dropped from a jet. “They were trying to make sure that the weapons did not end up in the hands of the opposition,” he said.
He added that he had personally witnessed 4,000-5,000 mercenaries flown into his air force base on Libyan military transport planes, beginning on about 14 February — several days before the uprising started.
“They [the planes] had 300 men at a time, all of them coming out with weapons,” he said. “They were all from Africa: Ghanaians, Kenyans.”
Several of the alleged soldiers of fortune are being held in a jail at the top of the ransacked courthouse on Benghazi’s corniche. One was briefly brought to meet the Guardian. He was quickly ushered away by lawyers who said he was not allowed to speak until the case against him was finished.
But the court of public opinion on the heaving street below had already convicted the unnamed African, along with anyone else linked to what they believe are the dying days of 42 years of sadistic oppression. There was no sign of any pro-regime figures. And even those who have recently defected, such as the country’s justice minister, are not prepared to show their faces publicly, fearing the reactions from a combustible street.
The mood of people fluctuated easily between nervousness and violence; warmth and zeal. The first western reporters seen in the city since law and order collapsed were embraced almost as liberators. At some points during the morning and at the hospital, it was difficult to move without people eagerly thrusting in our faces more macabre images of dead people or missing relatives.
“His time will come,” said one man brandishing a simple sign that said in English: “Freedom for Libya”. He added: “You are welcome here. The world needs to see what is happening.”
Along the long and winding way from the Salum crossing from Egypt, there was not an official to be seen.
Neighbourhood Watch-like groups, all armed with AK-47s, manned checkpoints in and out of all the towns. But every military and police post for 360 miles had been abandoned. The scattering of the police was leading to claims of victory and the feeling of triumphalism among many of the city’s young people.
The deathly emptiness of a rainy morning in a city under siege had by dusk given way to teaming streets and jubilant cheers. Celebratory burst from AK-47s cracked into the air thoughout the afternoon — always a disconcerting sound in a war zone.
The jubilation did little to hide Benghazi’s wounds, though. Here, more than in the capital, Tripoli, or Gaddafi’s other strongholds, mainly in the west, society remains brutalised and stagnant, a drab decaying old-order feel, much like Iraq in 2004.
“Here hospitals are nothing like in Tripoli,” said an intensive care nurse who identified herself as Fatima. “It is first world there, but we have to make do.”
It’s the same with government buildings — what remains of them. There is barely a typewriter left, let alone a computer or the basic tools of administration.
Neglect had been a clear strategy for Gaddafi for a city that had in 1969 deeply resented the coup he launched against the monarch, King Idris, and has not forgiven him since. The independent flag last flown 42 years ago has become a prominent symbol of this revolution. It flies above key government buildings and even hospitals and it is worn as a badge by most organisers.
Benghazi feels Libya’s time has come. Residents are adamant that the leader who forgot them has days, or perhaps weeks, left as president. “He can’t survive and he won’t survive,” one man shouted outside the courthouse. “He is deluded and he is cruel. He will attack us again even though everyone knows he is finished.”
The city has little sense of what is happening in the west of the country where Gaddafi still appears to be in control of at least large parts of the capital.
Meanwhile, many of the 1.5 million foreigners still in Libya are scrambling for the border, or waiting from help from their governments. Several passenger ferries are waiting in the choppy waters off the coast of Benghazi for any evacuation order. And the Salum border crossing to Egypt is a chaotic scramble of fleeing Egyptians who overran the arrival hall on Tuesday evening as the Guardian was trying to enter Libya. Riot police were moved into position but weren’t used.
The international community again appears hamstrung by the man it had spent decades trying to rehabilitate. Leverage is limited and options are few.
“The people of the international community had been helping their governments to help the assassin,” said an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Shakir, in al–Jala hospital. “And that only because the assassin and his government is helping them. That is a flawed logic.”
So far reactions to the gathering storm here, which may soon lead to the overthrow of the third Arab autocrat in less than three months, has been to renounce the volatile leader and the compulsive savagery he is launching as his legacy melts away.
But there remains a gnawing fear that the worst may be yet to come. “Of course it is true,” Saad Achmed, a 24-year-old student, said. “If he feels he is cornered he will come for us. Those roads you came in on may be clear, but you did not see who is hiding over the hills? We have won the big battle, but that does not mean the war is won just yet.”
Benghazi the nerve centre as Libya protest turns to revolution
Martin Chulov, The Guardian, February 24, 2011
The nerve centre of Libya’s revolution is an anxious place indeed. At the heart of Benghazi’s courthouse, a building that claimed to stand for justice through Gaddafi’s reign, groups of civilian professionals — lawyers, doctors, surgeons and engineers — find themselves at the heart of the movement that is throwing off his despotic yoke.
“We decided to protest last week, for our rights,” a lawyer told the Guardian. “And suddenly everything changed. It turned from a protest to a revolution. We don’t have any experience in this,” she said.
All around her people swirled with documents, mobile phones and momentous news from afar. The town of Zawya fell today, a messenger rushed in to say. Shortly afterwards came word of Masrat, a city halfway to Tripoli that also seems to be falling to the rebels, then the three largest oil fields around Benghazi. The speed of events was staggering.
Five days after Benghazi was sacked, Libya seems to be falling quicker than anyone in Benghazi expected, or prepared for. History has overtaken those who find themselves running the revolt. “And it’s causing me a lot of stress,” said the lawyer. “We are worried about the people in Tripoli, food and other supplies. We need to co-ordinate everything. There is a lot of responsibility.”
Her colleague Amal Bagaigis agreed. “We started just as lawyers looking for our rights and now we are revolutionaries. And we don’t know how to manage. We want to have our own face. For 42 years we have this kind of babarianism. We now want to live.”
Almost a week after a series of rolling demonstrations became a full-blown revolt, the country’s detested old guard now seems confined to a shrinking region near the capital. Gaddafi’s grinding reign is widely despised and openly mocked, and the ruined part of the country that has freed itself of him is very much in the mood for re-invention.
“We could be anything now,” said one man outside the courthouse where the overwrought professionals upstairs were trying to usher the revolution westwards. “He kept us down because he didn’t want anyone to threaten him. That’s how despots have always worked. When Libyans get a chance to achieve things, we can be the best in the region.”
Thousands gather on the road outside the courthouse each day. By night their numbers swell at least tenfold. Here, wedged between the storm-tossed Mediterranean and a building that once stood as a pillar of the regime, they chant anti-regime slogans, fire guns into the air and hold two fingers skywards in Churchillian “V for Victory” style.
The people are clearly looking for direction from the city’s new custodians. And they seem more confident than the professionals are in their ability to get things done.
“This city has a good spirit,” said Ahmed al-Sereti, on the rain-soaked street below. “Everyone is doing what they can to make sure things don’t slip backwards. There has been no stealing, no looting [apart from government offices, all of which have been sacked]. And people know that this event has changed everything.”
The primary concern in Benghazi has been security. But with eager youths manning traffic lights and residents patiently queuing outside banks in the vain hope that they may open soon, there is no sign of frustration or fear. Relief and euphoria seem to be driving this place. The people’s awareness that Benghazi’s destiny is in their own hands for the first time in four decades is clearly empowering.
“I came back three months ago,” said Haithem Gheriani, an Irish-trained surgeon. “And I’m really glad I did. To find myself at the centre of an event in my own country that is so important, so liberating, is a terrific feeling.”
Gheriani pitches in at the courthouse, along with oil engineers and businessmen, many of them returned expatriates. Several floors above them, three of Gaddafi’s ill-fated mercenaries are locked up in what used to be a holding cell. Hollow-eyed and horrified, their futures seem bleak. “They are kept here for their own safety,” said Gheriani. “If we let them go the people would kill them,” he said, pointing at the milling crowd in the street below.
The erratic leader who recruited them, just over a week ago, on Thursday seemed to be at the verge of losing total control of the country. His grasp on sanity was again also in question. In a third address on state television, he blamed al-Qaida for inciting the rebellion and called on Libyans to rehabilitate wayward children who had joined the fray.
“The power is in your hands,” Gaddafi said. “It is a different system here [compared with Tunisia, or Egypt]. If you want change the advantage is with you. It is your choice. You can put people on trial, you can change your job.
“This is unacceptable, unbelievable. People claim that they are intelligent; teachers, engineers. If they are reasonable people with reasonable demands, just ask them what they want. But they are not reasonable. They have been dictated to by Bin Laden.”
Gaddafi did not appear on video, raising questions about where he is now as towns around the capital steadily fall into rebel hands. Zawya to the west of Tripoli was the scene of fighting between opposition groups and the regime that left scores dead, local officials said. In further bad news for Gaddafi, leading members of his own tribe have denounced him, and in particular the brutal crackdown he ordered on dissenters in the east of the country that led to Benghazi being lost.
“They started this protest peacefully,” said Gheriani. “And the youths joined them. And then when Gaddafi started killing them the people rose up.”
That version of Libya’s fast-moving revolution is echoed by most people spoken to by the Guardian over the past two days; a series of protests inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the region that were met by prescribed savagery.
That much seems formulaic in a regime that has shown no tolerance for dissent since 1969. However, the next phase was not in the script. “We all just decided we had had enough,” said Qais al-Ibrahim. “We felt that this was just too much and the people attacked the bases and the government. But to see things fall the way they did was astonishing.”
Another lawyer, Abdul Salam al-Masmari, said the savage over-reach of Gaddafi’s forces on Saturday was a final straw. “We started hearing about all the killings and we didn’t want to stay here demonstrating in front of the court. It was a chilling moment, a powerful moment. That’s when we knew we had to make this push for freedom.”
As the lawyer was speaking to us, security officers inside the court arrested a local reporter who they suspected was a spy for the remaining regime elements in Benghazi. He was taken to the same prison cell where the alleged mercenaries are held. The event left nerves even more frayed.
“The revolution is four days old,” said the female lawyer. “The fence of fear has been broken. But we still need to protect ourselves. The regime will find whatever way they can to reach us. He has all of our names and thoughts in a notebook and he has my voice on tape. He is not a real journalist. Collaborators are still out there. That’s why I don’t want to give you my name.”
Throughout the afternoon, there didn’t seem to be much strategic organising going on. But nor did there need to be. One by one, reports came in of towns falling like dominoes on the long march to Tripoli. The revolution seems to be self-fulfilling. Help keeps pouring in from unlikely sources.
“One of the regime’s key figures in the area came to see us today,” the female lawyer said. “He said he is with us now.”
Did she believe him?
“Not really,” she said. “But he has done his calculations and he can see that we are winning strongly. He will be loyal to where the strength is.”
On Libyan television the father of a defecting air force pilot wept with pride as he explained the exploits of his son, who had been sent to bomb three oilfields near Benghazi. The father’s account confirms those reported by workers at the Bregga oilfield of two men parachuting to earth and a jet fighter crashing nearby.
“My son was ordered to take off by a man with a gun pointing at his back. He said no and pulled the lever to eject them both. He is a hero. Even if he died I would still be proud. He refused to kill the people.”
Across town at the army base, which fell to swarming demonstrators on Sunday, a dungeon has been unearthed. It is not far from Gaddafi’s former parade ground, which lies in a crumpled heap. Today fathers were taking their children through the site, a heavily concreted underground hole that showed signs of recent use. “People were tortured here last week,” said one father. “It used to be the most feared place in town. Now it’s for everyone to see. It shows how bad he was and how lucky we are.”
Change has been rapidly embraced in Benghazi. In less than four days a new radio station has opened, called Freedom Radio, and a new newspaper has hit the streets. A revolutionary song recorded in recent days is on high rotation and bandanas in the colour of the former independence flag are worn.
However the rapid succession of events seems perhaps a little too fast for the revolution’s organisers. “I am really stressed about this,” said the female lawyer. “We are sleeping three hours a night, we are not seeing our families and we cannot get too far ahead of ourselves. One step at a time, we keep telling people. But they are really proud and enthusiastic. The trouble is this is not over yet. Tripoli is our capital, yesterday, today and tomorrow. That is our goal.”