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Jefferson in Benghazi

Meet the idealists trying to build a new society in eastern Libya.

The border crossing from Egypt into rebel-controlled eastern Libya offers few clues that the country is at war. The Libyan immigration officers wear ragged uniforms and carry on the routine of stamping passports, though with a friendliness and ease that is undoubtedly new. The eight-hour drive to the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi is dramatic only for its scenery—a rugged coastline with wide open beaches, then, surprisingly, green hills, crossed by deep gorges and adorned with beautifully preserved Greek ruins, visited by no one. Some day this place will be crawling with tourists; let’s pray the developers don’t destroy it, I thought. This was not the threat I expected to be dwelling on in my first moments in Libya.

In Benghazi itself, the evidence of upheaval becomes more apparent. Each day, the streets roar with the sounds of pep rallies staged by fighters heading for the front; they fire guns in the air and occasionally set off dynamite to prove their devotion to their cause. But then the rallies give way to traffic jams and the rhythms of normal life. There are no lines for gas or food. Everyone says crime is down since the rebels took over. At Friday prayers, the imam tells the kids in the audience to cut out the celebratory gunfire: It rattles people’s nerves, he says, and besides, “we need the ammunition” in the besieged town of Misrata.

The most visible sign of the revolution is its iconography. In every city and town, the red, black, and green rebel flag, resurrected from pre-Qaddafi Libya, hangs everywhere, sometimes alongside the flags of the rebels’ foreign allies, most handmade in people’s homes—which is one reason the simple-to-stitch French and Italian tricolors are more common than the American Stars and Stripes or the British Union Jack. Even more striking is the graffiti. On my first day in Libya, in the town of Derna, one meticulously drawn panel caught my eye: “WE WANT A COUNTRY OF INSTITUTIONS,” it read. In how many revolutions have people marched to such a slogan?

From the cable talk shows to congressional hearings, every American discussion about Libya still seems to come around to a single question: Who are these Libyan rebels? One evening in Benghazi, I mentioned this, somewhat apologetically, to Professor Zahi Mogherbi, one of the country’s most eminent political scientists. He laughed and said, “Don’t worry—we ask ourselves the same thing! Who are we?”

For 40 years, under Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship, it was dangerous for Libyans even to have a conversation about what kind of country they wanted to live in. Now, in the eastern cities that have freed themselves from Qaddafi’s grip, something important is happening. An entire society is trying to define its political identity. This process could still end tragically. But it has begun mostly well. And it deserves greater attention.

Before coming to Benghazi, I thought that Egypt had a better chance than Libya of making the transition to democracy. Egypt has strong institutions, an independent press, a long history of civil society, and a whole class of politically engaged activists. In Libya, there was the regime and little else.

But, precisely because of its totalitarian nature, when Qaddafi’s state collapsed in eastern Libya, it collapsed completely. This left Libya’s opposition activists with one big advantage: They can start from a clean slate. Indeed, after all the turmoil of the Arab Spring, eastern Libya is today the only place in the Middle East where a democratic opposition movement actually is in charge. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they don’t have to plead with an all-powerful army to hold free elections or reform their laws. They won’t have to spend years rooting out an elite loyal to the old regime. As hobbled as they are by Libya’s lack of institutions, they also have the freedom to build new ones.

The rebels’ National Transitional Council, which has 31 members, is made up largely of former political prisoners, lawyers and human rights activists who had opposed Qaddafi, and technocrats who had been brought into the Qaddafi regime by the dictator’s son Seif to promote (fruitlessly as it turned out) reform from within. For the last three months, together with local councils in other eastern cities like Bayda, Derna, and Tobruk, they have been keeping basic services running, paying government salaries, rebuilding a police and justice system, and laying plans for a nationwide democracy once Qaddafi is gone.

This progress owes as much to civic activism as to the competence of rebel authorities. Virtually everything that must be done—from traffic control to running a cell phone network—is done by volunteers. When I held a press briefing during my stay in Benghazi, reporters from a dozen local newspapers showed up, all established in the last two months with the reporters’ own funds. The Libyan consultants and drivers who have been working for Human Rights Watch since March refuse to be paid: You’re here to make our lives better, they say. Why should we take your money?

Not all of the Libyan rebels are policy wonks: Next to the “country of institutions” graffiti I saw in Derna was a panel that read, “QADDAFI IS A VAMPIRE.” But everyone I met in Libya seemed to have a sober understanding of what their country needs. (And I met a wide range of people: from outwardly secular Facebook-savvy activists to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional religious and tribal hierarchy, from those who had spent years working for the old regime to those who had spent years in its prisons, from Libyans who had traveled the world to Libyans who had never left their homeland.) Just about everyone speaks about establishing the rule of law and checks on state authority. They say they want a Libyan Republic, not an Islamic Republic or an Arab Republic (since some of Libya’s citizens are Berber or Tuareg, not Arab). On Fridays in Benghazi, the main public gathering for prayers takes place not in a mosque but on the public square of the city courthouse. This is where, on February 15, the Libyan uprising began, when people gathered to protest the arrest of a lawyer who represented the families of political prisoners killed in a 1996 massacre. The shrine of Libya’s revolution, upon which people now paste photos of loved ones killed by the Qaddafi regime, is a symbol of law.

None of the Libyans I met seemed to crave a charismatic leader. Most seemed happy that the head of the opposition council is a low-key, former judge, Mustafa Abdul Jelil, who has promised not to seek any office in a post-Qaddafi Libya. I had met Jelil two years before when he was Qaddafi’s justice minister. He stunned me then by saying that Libya’s security agencies were “above the law,” that this was “wrong” and something “we need to change.” When I met him this time, he asked me, with a faint smile, “Did you guess I was with the opposition back then?”

How did people form such political commitments in a country where civil society was crushed for 40 years? The only answer I can think of is that Qaddafi was a great teacher, but not in the way he intended. Qaddafi built a state with weak formal institutions—no president, no parliament, no legal framework—just the illusion of “pure democracy” by “people’s committees” masking arbitrary rule by one man. So Libyans learned to crave the opposite—in place of an ideology, a constitution; in place of a Leader, a government. And the pattern continues: Because Qaddafi isolated Libyans from the world, they want to rejoin it. Because he manipulated tribalism for political ends, they go to great lengths to deemphasize it. Because he supported terrorism, they say to anyone who will listen that they reject it. Indeed, few things upset them more than the charge, repeated by everyone from Qaddafi to FOX News, that they are all affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Reader beware: it is hard to spend time in Benghazi and maintain one’s objectivity. One has to constantly remind oneself that no revolution lives up to its founding ideals. The joyful solidarity that those Libyans who have liberated themselves feel right now won’t last forever. If they are lucky, their country will end up with normal democratic politics, dull and uninspiring. And they may fall short even of that goal.

The spirit of bottom-up initiative one sees in Benghazi is not always such a wonderful thing. It is one reason Libya’s rebel fighters, mostly volunteers rushing to the front lines with more enthusiasm than organization, have sometimes seemed so hapless. Civil society doesn’t do well on the battlefield. It’s also not the best organizing principle for maintaining security under the rule of law.

When Qaddafi’s regime evaporated in eastern Libya, the police went with it, so committees of volunteers sprang up to patrol streets and checkpoints. Many of these men are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other ordinary citizens who do not wish to play cops forever and have been trying to uphold high standards. But some have become a law unto themselves, arresting and sometimes abusing people they suspect of being Qaddafi supporters or saboteurs. Some have been suspected of using their power to settle private scores. Several members of the former regime’s security police recently have been killed in Benghazi under mysterious circumstances. Rebel soldiers on the battlefield also have abused Qaddafi fighters they have taken captive, and there is at least one credible report of a prisoner being executed. In the early days of the revolution, mobs also attacked and in some cases lynched African migrants suspected of being mercenaries for Qaddafi.

The opposition council has so far been responsive in addressing concerns about its behavior. It has given human rights groups unrestricted access to detention facilities. Once prisoners arrive at an official facility, they appear to be treated humanely. When rebel troops were caught laying landmines on the battlefront, the council quickly ordered them to stop and pledged to destroy all the mines in its possession. They have told the United Nations that a post-Qaddafi government in Libya will join the International Criminal Court, so that it will be accountable for any crimes it may commit.

But the civilians who lead the council do not yet fully command the streets of their cities or the front lines of their war. They have not completed the task of bringing the volunteer security committees under their jurisdiction. They initially hesitated to establish an Interior Ministry, having suffered themselves under Qaddafi’s feared security agencies. It remains unclear how much sway civilians have over the rebel troops fighting in Brega, Misrata, and Libya’s western mountains (though all troops do claim loyalty to the leadership in Benghazi). The opposition authorities have begun to build a functioning government. But they have not quite attained the key attribute of sovereignty—a monopoly on the use of force.

And, for the idealists among them, the challenge will likely grow whatever course the war takes. If the fighting drags on, the spirit of hopefulness and generosity that is this revolution’s most attractive feature might dissipate. Paranoia about pro-Qaddafi sleeper cells in Benghazi might increase. Gratitude to the West might turn to resentment. Would Libyans then still look to the civilian lawyers and diplomats of the Benghazi council for leadership? Or would they turn to harder men who argue that fine principles are useless against an enemy that has none?

If instead the opposition were to roll into Tripoli tomorrow, they would face a different test. Qaddafi still has pockets of support in the western part of the country, especially in his home town of Sirte. Will the rebels deal with regime supporters in keeping with their commitment to the rule of law? Will they cut deals with elements of the old regime that compromise their liberal principles? And, when the fighting is done, will the young rebel warriors return to civilian life and rally around their government? Or will they demand a special political role for themselves?

I did not leave Benghazi with any better sense of when or how Libya’s conflict will end. I did leave believing that we should care about the country’s fate. It would be wonderful to see a democratic state in Libya—something virtually no one believed was possible just a few months ago but which feels tantalizingly close today. Americans who ask if they have any national interest in Libya should also consider how good it would be for such ideals to triumph in a part of North Africa from which Al Qaeda did, indeed, draw a disproportionate number of its recruits. A democratic, human rights-respecting Libya would show that there is an alternative, positive path to liberation from tyranny in the Arab world. If the Libyans do build their “country of institutions,” it would arguably be a bigger blow to Al Qaeda than the death of Osama bin Laden.

The rebels deserve more respect than they’ve gotten for what they’ve achieved in three months. But they should not be romanticized. Precisely because what they are trying to do is hopeful and important, they should be held to their own high standards. Their allies in the United States and Europe should praise the rebels’ commitment to human rights and the rule of law but prod them to move faster in reining in vigilantes and establishing a fair system of justice that is consistent with that commitment. They should give the opposition council access to Libya’s frozen assets so that it can meet humanitarian needs but insist on transparent accounting so that Libya’s emerging leaders are not tempted to use their people’s wealth as Qaddafi did.

Professor Mogherbi is right: Even the rebels won’t know who they really are until the war in Libya is over and they can play their part in governing a united country. Until then, Libya’s opposition needs scrutiny for the same reasons it has earned support.

Tom Malinowski is Washington director for Human Rights Watch. This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.