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World & Nation

Police in Libya rebel capital pivot from oppressor to protector

Officer Sharif Ganasi was working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift, cruising the trash-strewn streets of Benghazi, alert for drunks and carjackers.

His new black police uniform was too tight and too hot. He was drenched with sweat, his bulky body crammed into the tiny driver’s seat of a white Hyundai compact. His hand-held radio kept cutting out.

“We could use better equipment,” he said as he guided car 23 through evening traffic in the de facto capital of Libya’s rebels.

Ganasi doesn’t carry a gun or a badge. He rarely arrests anyone. Mostly he reports suspicious activities so that police headquarters can dispatch officers who actually do have guns.

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Such is the marginalized world of Benghazi’s finest: 6,000 poorly trained and woefully equipped men struggling to establish law and order in the middle of a revolution.

They haven’t been paid in two months. They often buy their own gasoline. If they want a gun, they come up with their own.

The first target of rebels who liberated eastern Libya from Moammar Kadafi in February was the instrument of state repression: the police. Their stations were burned and ransacked. Guns, radios and police cruisers were looted. Cops fled, many to join the rebel fight against Kadafi’s troops.

Five months later, 80% of those police officers are back on the streets. But of the more than 500 police cars they once drove, barely 100 have been returned.

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For all the shortcomings, though, Benghazi’s police seem to be slowly earning something that did not exist under Kadafi: trust.

“Before, people were terrified of the police; they hated us,” Ganasi, 35, said as pedestrians waved to him on his rounds. “Now they see us as someone who can protect them, not someone to protect the people in power.”

Ashour Showil, 52, the city’s new police chief, served as Benghazi’s top traffic officer under Kadafi. He now commands both forces. Before, he acknowledges, police were “a threat to civilians, rather than their protectors.”

Now, as Showil tries to fashion a modern police force from the ashes of a state security apparatus, he has a simple message for his officers:

“The old ways are gone,” he said. “Police are here to serve the people, to treat them with respect.”

Officers explain their sudden pivot from oppressors to public servants by saying they quietly seethed under Kadafi’s regime. Ganasi said he was jailed for two weeks for complaining about raw sewage at the police academy.

“No one was proud to be a policeman then, but you couldn’t say anything or there would be severe punishment,” said Saad Mohammed Agheli, a 21-year traffic police veteran who patrols in a Ford Crown Victoria.

Saad Ashour, 32, who sells coffee outside a downtown police station, said people tolerate the suddenly repentant police because ordinary citizens also resented Kadafi’s stifling rule but were terrified to speak out. Besides, he said, it was the dreaded Lijan Thawriya, Kadafi’s secret security police, they really hated, not ordinary cops.

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“We’re being patient with the police, because they’re sincerely trying to be good officers,” Ashour said. “They just need better training to learn how to serve the people.”

The scholarly Showil, whose men address him as “Doctor” on account of his advanced degree in legal management, said that crime is down in Benghazi. His said his city is far safer than any municipality in Egypt or Tunisia, two neighbors that toppled long-standing autocrats this year.

In fact, Benghazi is far less chaotic than it was in February and March, when gunmen roamed the streets, firing weapons day and night. Gun trucks crammed with looted police and army weapons careened through the streets.

The gun trucks are now at the battle front outside the oil city of Port Brega, 140 miles southwest of Benghazi, and few weapons appear in public here. In fact, police have issued a directive that any American gun-control advocate would love: All weapons must be registered, and they may not be carried on the street.

Billboards proclaim: “Hey, young guy, don’t shoot. You’re scaring my mother!”

Out on evening patrol, Ganasi said robberies and kidnappings are few these days. Thefts are down, except for a rash of cellphone pilfering.

But even with the gun law, young toughs with looted weapons still embark on carjacking rampages. Firearms were strictly banned under Kadafi’s rule, so guns have a distinct allure for young men, Ganasi said. They are the cause of most violence here, he said.

“Now, when these young guys get into fights, somebody ends up shot dead,” he said.

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In March, Ganasi said, he and two other officers encountered an armed gang that had carjacked a woman. One officer was armed, so they confronted the carjackers instead of calling headquarters.

The officer fired into the air and the gang retreated, Ganasi said. They didn’t arrest anyone, but they recovered the woman’s car and escorted her home.

Alone and unarmed tonight, he wouldn’t dare confront gunmen. He focuses instead on young men drinking khamra, or homemade booze. Alcohol is banned in Muslim Libya.

“We never got cooperation from the public before, but now these guys’ fathers report them for drinking and carousing,” Ganasi said.

He steered past the Doha police station, burned and gutted in February but now rebuilt as a showpiece. In other neighborhoods, chief Showil said, people who had reviled the police now raise money to rebuild substations.

Inside the whitewashed Doha station, deputy station chief Musa Muzany has only 15 pistols and 10 automatic rifles for 150 officers. He pointed to a stack of papers in his bare, freshly painted office.

“Those are police reports of stolen weapons” from the February uprising, he said. “I’m still trying to get them back.”

Muzany does not carry a gun. Asked about his station’s most urgent needs, he replied, “Everything: cars, gasoline, guns, training.” Seven of his men are fighting for the rebels.

Even under Kadafi, Muzany said, officers’ access to guns was restricted. Kadafi kept both the police and the military in restive eastern Libya weak and poorly armed to discourage coup attempts. Weapons restrictions were tossed aside to help put down the February uprising, but many officers joined the rebels after security police shot their relatives.

Kadafi had given the best weapons to the Lijan Thawriya, which detained, tortured and killed regime opponents. The Lijan Thawriya is gone here, but rebels who control the east have their own special security branch. Working with militias that report to the military, it hunts down suspected pro-Kadafi sympathizers, including former security branch members, and detains them without charge or trial.

Muzany said security police intercepted several carloads of explosives that Kadafi supporters intended for attacks on civilians at a recent rebel rally.

In his little Hyundai — one of dozens donated by wealthy businessmen — Ganasi drove on. A cop for 13 years, he fled his post during the uprising, he said, but returned a week later because police work is all he knows.

It was early evening. The call to prayer rang out. Garbage burned in alleyways, and stray dogs tore at bags of restaurant waste. Idle young men gathered in sidewalk cafes.

Ganasi steered the car to a hotel, his normal duty station, where he provides security, sitting for hours at a time, listening to radio calls, usually hot and bored. He parked, took a drag on a cigarette and exhaled blue smoke.

“A new day is coming,” he said. “Soon, God willing, we will all be doing real police work.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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