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Tripoli, Benghazi embody battle for Libya’s future

Every day, residents of the two cities gather at photographic displays in their respective downtowns, paying homage to a distinct pantheon of the fallen: heroes of the regime in one case, martyrs of the resistance in the other.

Officials in each city denounce atrocities — slayings, rapes, mass detentions — allegedly unfolding daily in the rival city.

Here in Tripoli, marchers proclaim their unbending allegiance to the country’s longtime leader. About 650 miles to the east, they trumpet their revulsion for him.

Tripoli and Benghazi have come to embody the battle for Libya’s future. As the conflict enters its fourth month, a steady fusillade of propaganda emanates from both the national capital and the de facto rebel capital.

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The two cities’ essential characteristics — language, customs, religion — appear almost identical. Many Libyans have relatives or loved ones in both places. There is widespread fear in both east and west of a partitioned homeland or a prolonged, fratricidal struggle. Nevertheless, the cities have come to define themselves by their opposition to each other.

Libya, a nation of 6 million, is not like the Balkans or Iraq, simmering with long-suppressed sectarian tensions. The conflict focuses almost entirely on one man.

Benghazi has long chafed under the rule of Moammar Kadafi, who led the 1969 military coup that ousted King Idris I, still a popular figure among many in the east, where his grandfather founded an influential religious order. An element in the political ferment that led to the coup was resentment among western tribal leaders who believed the king was pampering the eastern part of the country.

Since Kadafi’s ascension, people in the east say, it is Tripoli that has benefited from preferential treatment, at their expense.

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Benghazi has the threadbare look of a city that could use a makeover. In Tripoli, glossy new towers facing the Mediterranean — including a sleek JW Marriott hotel, shuttered just after its grand opening because of the war — attest to a sustained government effort to turn the sleepy, slightly ragged capital into a cosmopolitan hub.

Throughout Benghazi, Kadafi’s image and name have been diligently defaced or expunged. Boisterous marchers daily demand that he and his family leave the country.

In Tripoli, his defiant, fist-pumping likeness stares from lampposts, buildings, vehicles and offices, exhorting his followers to stand firm.

The arrival of foreign journalists in Tripoli inevitably triggers “spontaneous” demonstrations by people waving banners of green, Kadafi’s signature color. Much of the spectacle is clearly orchestrated, but some of the emotion seems sincere.

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“I’m proud that my son gave his life for the Leader,” a grim-faced Nadja Ramadan said recently at a boisterous pro-Kadafi women’s rally.

She held aloft a color photograph of her eldest child, Akrum Musbah, 18, an army recruit who she said was killed in April fighting rebels in the opposition stronghold of Misurata. She showed a certificate, in gold leaf, from the government acknowledging her son’s “martyrdom.”

Others at the rally expressed deep fear of the daily bombing and the instability they said would follow a rebel march on the capital, where fuel shortages and bare grocery shelves attest to Libya’s isolation. Some worried for their livelihoods in a nation where most people work for the government.

“We want democracy, but not this way,” said Delal Khasi, a mother of three.

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Despite a deep antipathy for rival combatants, residents of each city generally speak positively of their fellow citizens who have not taken up arms.

“We have nothing against the people of Tripoli,” said Aymal Gadir, a Benghazi businessman who has organized meals at one of many volunteer kitchens where food is prepared for rebel fighters and those displaced by the fighting. “They are our brothers and sisters.”

Finding people in Tripoli who are willing to criticize Kadafi openly is as unlikely as encountering Kadafi supporters in Benghazi, where anyone defending the government could end up afoul of rebel authorities.

In both places, a kind of enforced orthodoxy of opinion reigns, though it is not absolute.

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“Right now, we can taste our freedom: We know it is not far off,” said Ahmed, 25, a vegetable vendor in Tripoli’s ancient central marketplace, a labyrinth of alleys and stalls so dated that columns left over from Roman days have been incorporated into some walls.

Ahmed declined to disclose his last name out of concern for his safety, but nevertheless insisted that fear of the regime was abating because people believe Kadafi’s days are numbered.

“The secret police is not so strong now,” said Ahmed, standing among baskets of eggplant, tomatoes and other foodstuffs in a shop where a pair of Kadafi portraits graced the walls, the handiwork of a former owner, he said.

“Before the rebellion, everyone was afraid to speak. But now we know that this man will be gone soon.”

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A few doors down, Mohammed Hashim Haggar, a Sudanese barber from the disputed Darfur region, offered a spirited defense of Kadafi, whose portraits are affixed to the shop walls, along with posters of Bob Marley and Argentina’s national soccer squad.

“Kadafi is a friend of the black man,” he said, expressing a sentiment common among sub-Saharan African immigrants here. “Kadafi has the heart of an African.”

In Benghazi, sub-Saharan Africans are widely viewed as a potential fifth column. The opposition leadership has accused Kadafi of employing African mercenaries to put down the rebels.

Although it now demonizes Kadafi at every opportunity, the Benghazi-based rebel leadership includes several of his one-time Tripoli confidants, including his former ministers of justice, interior and foreign affairs and two former top economic advisors. More defectors seem to arrive by the day.

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In Tripoli, the rebels are denounced as drug addicts, criminals or Al Qaeda-linked fanatics.

“The only future they have is to stay in prison for 20 years or join the rebellion,” said Musa Ibrahim, the chief government spokesman, who alleged that thousands of convicts were taken from jails and forcibly inducted into Benghazi’s insurgent ranks. “And these criminals, once they have weapons, they are controlling the city. They look and see beautiful girls, they rape them. They see money in banks, they take it. They kill their enemies.”

In Benghazi, the rebels are acclaimed as a volunteer corps of carpenters and lawyers, bricklayers and accountants, united in a noble bid to oust the tyrant.

The streets of the rebel capital brim with armed men and weapons, but journalists have not witnessed the generalized “reign of terror” that Ibrahim describes.

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As sunset approaches, residents of each city gather near their respective Mediterranean ports: in Green Square in Tripoli and in Martyrs Square in Benghazi. Outdoor exhibitions at both sites display gruesome images of injured warriors, along with snapshots of the dead.

Predictably, the accompanying text in Benghazi excoriates Kadafi. Here in the capital, the main targets of invective are President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, leading proponents of the NATO bombing campaign.

In both cities, celebratory gunfire frequently crackles through the air, usually marking a pro-Kadafi rally in Tripoli or an antiregime event in Benghazi.

A thunderous round of festive shooting erupted in Benghazi in the early hours of May 1, after Libyan state television solemnly announced that a North Atlantic Treaty Organization strike had killed one of Kadafi’s sons and three of his grandchildren.

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In Tripoli, their funerals sparked indignation and mob attacks on foreign embassies, including the U.S. mission. Even in death, there is no unity in Libya when a Kadafi is involved.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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