Libyan city grapples with self-rule

In Benghazi, the center of the eastern rebellion that broke free from 41 years of despotic rule a week ago, everyone is in charge — and no one is in charge. But everyone seems to have claimed a piece of the revolution.

Men toting shotguns and hunting rifles operate checkpoints. Teenagers in sneakers direct traffic. Young men dance in the back of pickup trucks towing antiaircraft guns, and the makeshift government center in the downtown courthouse has the strung-out, manic feel of a college all-nighter.

Moammar Kadafi: A Feb. 28 article in Section A about self-rule in the Libyan city of Benghazi said that an independent newspaper would be the first published in Moammar Kadafi's 42 years. As stated elsewhere in the article, Kadafi has run the nation for 41 years. —

All day and deep into the night, ecstatic young men continue to celebrate the end of Moammar Kadafi's rule here by cranking up car radios and firing rifles into the air. Others line up to have their faces painted in the colors of the pre-Kadafi national flag, or wave flags along the corniche in a sort of spring break party — without the alcohol and bikinis.

But other young men volunteer to stand watch over banks and cash machines 24 hours a day to prevent looting.

A self-appointed "Feb. 17 Revolution" committee of 13 members, named for the day the rebellion erupted, attempts to run the city from a courthouse overrun by euphoric young revolutionaries. But they are struggling to overcome chaos in a city whose ruling order has collapsed.

"All of a sudden, we are in charge not only of a city, but a revolution," said Iman Bugaighis, a professor of orthodontics who was drafted as unofficial spokeswoman for the committee.

Committees and subcommittees, numbering about 150 lawyers, judges, doctors, businessmen and young people, have been set up to deal with city services, banking, education, health, security and so on.

Donations of food, medicine and cash have flooded the courthouse, said Mustafa Gheriani, who helps coordinate committee activities from a bare corner office.

"This is a revolution that happened overnight," said Gheriani, an urbane, silver-haired University of Western Michigan graduate and industrial engineer.

Gheriani held out a thick wad of Libyan banknotes, a fraction of the money donated by residents, most of them young people, he said.

"Our kids have really surprised us — they've risen to the occasion," he said.

Benghazi and the rest of eastern Libya may be free of Kadafi's erratic rule, but the garbage still needs to be picked up. Water and electricity still must flow. Civil servants need to be paid.

More important, someone has to provide security for a city of more than 1 million people. Local police and army units, staffed largely by local men commanded by Kadafi loyalists, are fragmented. Weapons were looted by young protesters known as shabab, or youths, who roam the city wearing fragments of army or police uniforms.

"We're feeding the police and army," said Khaled ben Ali, 49, a University of Texas graduate who calls himself the Feb. 17 committee's "crisis manager."

There seems to be a crisis a minute here, much of it beyond the control of the hundreds of self-styled freedom fighters roaming the cold, damp halls of the courthouse.

According to Ben Ali, about 300 fighters from Benghazi and the eastern city of Tobruk are joining dissidents fighting in the capital. Some were soldiers who once served the regime, he said, but most are young protesters.

The Benghazi soldiers and police who turned against Kadafi and fought his loyalists here were enraged when Kadafi's special forces fired on demonstrators, said a senior military commander who has defected.

"The soldiers and police are local people, and their relatives were being killed," said the commander, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

The commander said Kadafi deliberately neglected the regular army, fearing that a well-equipped and trained force might overthrow him. Instead, he lavished money and equipment on special forces to buy their loyalty.

A special forces compound at the airport had marble floors and plush sleeping quarters. Across the tarmac, a regular army compound was filthy and decrepit.

"I was ashamed to be a member of this kind of army," the commander said.

The police, meanwhile, seemed overwhelmed.

"The police came to us and asked what they should do," said Bugaighis, the orthodontics professor.

The city will be able to pay government salaries and pensions this week from existing reserves, Ben Ali said. But no money is coming from Tripoli, "and it won't come as long as Kadafi is in power — but he'll be gone soon."

Inside the courthouse, young men and women printed posters and caricatures mocking Kadafi. Some were in English to appeal to an international audience, as are some graffiti in town.

Other young people tapped away on laptops in a dimly lighted room, trying to figure out a way to get around restrictions imposed on Internet traffic by the Kadafi regime. Still others rushed to publish "Free Libya," the first independent newspaper during Kadafi's 42 years.

The people of Benghazi don't seek a separate state in eastern Libya, Gheriani said. They want a unified Libya with Tripoli as its capital — and they want Kadafi deposed, of course.

"This tyrant's days are numbered," Gheriani said as people barged into his office with more donations. "But, right now, we have a city to run."

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