They work 18-hour days inside two dingy courthouse buildings streaked with graffiti that ridicules Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. When they enter, they wipe their shoes on a portrait of him.
These are the lawyers, businessmen, college professors and political defectors risking their lives to lead the eastern rebellion against Kadafi. Thirty-seven days ago, they demonstrated at the courthouse for political rights, and in four days of street fighting overran Kadafi’s lejan thouria, the gun-toting Revolutionary Legion that had terrorized Libya’s second-largest city.
Suddenly the rebel leaders had to fight a war and build a new government in a region starved of resources by Tripoli. They found themselves riding a revolution they have been unable to fully control.
“You’re talking about people with no experience in running a government, and overnight we had to build a new country and figure out how to run it,” said Zahi Mogherbi, a retired political science professor who advises the Provisional National Council.
Their goal, they say, is to replace Kadafi with a unified nation with Tripoli as its capital. They do not seek an Islamic emirate or Sharia (Islamic law), they say. Instead, they envision free elections, a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, a free press and a democratic government that guarantees free speech.
But the rebel leadership ruefully acknowledges that it has done a poor job of organizing itself and presenting a coherent message to the world. Like the enthusiastic but inexperienced rebel fighters, the political leaders have suffered from good intentions undermined by shoddy execution.
Officials who deserted Kadafi, expatriates and longtime foes of the Libyan leader jostle for power. The area faces shortages of cash and fuel. Its fighting force is disorganized and suspicious of its leadership.
“The process is still pretty chaotic. The Provisional National Council has dropped the ball in many places,” said Ali Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics professor who handles economics for a “crisis management committee” formed this week to bring order to the chaos in Benghazi.
One of the council’s main goals is to convince the world its members are not nihilistic Islamic radicals, as Kadafi claims.
The students, oil engineers, bank clerks and jobless young men fighting Kadafi’s tanks with outdated weapons represent a generation that has known only Kadafi’s regime. Many young fighters are hooked on Facebook, YouTube, Britney Spears and lowbrow American TV shows like “American Idol” and “Pimp My Ride.” Some tell American reporters they want to emigrate to the U.S.
Iman Bugaighis, an orthodontics professor and a council spokeswoman, said the revolution was dominated by moderate Sunni Muslims.
“The last thing we want is to turn our country over to Al Qaeda,” she said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were jailed by Kadafi, also has called for a democratic form of government.
The leading voices at the Benghazi courthouse are the Gheriani brothers of Michigan: Mustafa and Essam. Both are tall, balding and urbane. Fluent in the American argot and passionate about the revolution, they are affable but often exaggerate the rebels’ progress while discounting Kadafi’s military gains.
Mustafa lived in Fenton, Mich., for 30 years with his American wife and two sons, ran a successful construction company, and lost a school board race before returning to Benghazi for the rebellion. He has a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Western Michigan University. Essam earned a master’s in psychology from Michigan State.
Both men say they and other rebel leaders will be targeted for death if Kadafi prevails.
“Kadafi can stand on my grave,” Essam said, “but he will never rule me as a living person.”
The nominal opposition leader is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Kadafi’s former justice minister who has a $400,000 bounty on his head after defecting last month. The soft-spoken and uncharismatic Jalil, who maintains a low profile, engaged in an early power struggle with Abdelhafed Ghoga, a cocky human rights lawyer who announced that he, not Jalil, was in charge. The two men eventually made up and Ghoga became council vice president and chief spokesman.
Ali Essawi, Kadafi’s ambassador to India before he defected last month, and Mahmoud Jibril, a planning expert who earned a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, are designated foreign ministers who meet diplomats in Europe.
The council’s military expert is Omar Hariri, a Libyan army officer who helped Kadafi mount his 1969 military coup but tried and failed to overthrow Kadafi in 1975. Hariri was jailed for years and under house arrest in Tobruk when the rebellion broke out.
Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, Kadafi’s interior minister and special-forces commander before he defected, is supposed to lead rebel forces. Younis has failed to bring order to the rebels, many of whom despise him.
“Some people still don’t trust him,” especially young fighters, Mogherbi said.
Asked whether Younis was the right man to command the so-called people’s army, Tarhouni replied, “I’m not sure we have someone better.”
The opposition’s image has been stained by roundups of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa accused of being mercenaries. Since Sunday, rebel gunmen have been hunting what they claim are “sleeper cells” of former Kadafi operatives hiding in Benghazi.
Some detainees were put on display for a busload of journalists at the same prisons where Kadafi’s security services once held and tortured dissidents. The irony seemed lost on opposition officials, who vowed to shoot or jail all remaining Kadafi loyalists.
Even Mogherbi, a mild-mannered academic with a doctorate from the University of Missouri, defended the effort. He said rebels let former regime security officials remain free, only to watch them rise up and fire on rebels Saturday as Kadafi’s tanks rolled into Benghazi’s southern outskirts. The armored column was advancing into the city when rebel gunmen and French airstrikes forced a retreat.
“One more hour and Kadafi’s guys would have raised their flag at the courthouse, and we’d have all been tracked down and killed,” Mogherbi said.
Mogherbi, who once served with Kadafi’s son Saif Islam on a panel writing a new constitution, said detainees would be tried once a justice system was established. A Human Rights Watch representative in Benghazi said the council had been cooperative in providing access to detainees.
The council faces a crippling gasoline and fuel shortage, according to Benghazi executives of the biggest state-owned oil company. Natural gas that normally fuels the city’s power plant has run dry, and the rebels have substituted diesel from Europe and a Tobruk refinery.
Cash flow is another concern, although Tarhouni said the rebels had money in safes at the national bank branch in Benghazi. They also have more than $1 billion worth of Libyan bank notes printed in Britain and sent to Benghazi, he said.
The rebels are receiving weapons and ammunition from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other nations, one council representative said. But the war effort has stalled, and the political leadership is still shaky.
“We were not as organized as we first thought, and Kadafi was stronger than we realized,” said Tarhouni, who left his U.S. teaching duties mid-semester to join the rebellion. “We need to put our house in order.”
Even with the protection of a no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes, retired professor Mogherbi harbors no illusions.
“We have a very bumpy ride ahead of us,” he said.