A Courthouse in Benghazi: The Nerve Center of the Libyan Revolution

By Clemens Höges in Benghazi, Libya

Though the revolution against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has no set leader, rebels in Benghazi have set up a provisional government in a courthouse. Here, a justice-obsessed lawyer, a beverage vendor and a computer expert are among those who have become the heart, head and voice of a country intent on change. 

Rebels in Benghazi have set up a provisional government in a courthouse. Zoom
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Rebels in Benghazi have set up a provisional government in a courthouse.

The old general is crying, his cheeks trembling. His eyes are red from weeping. Then he buries his face in his hands. Brigadier General Abdulhadi Arafa is one of the most powerful men in Benghazi, in the entire rebel-held eastern part of Libya, in fact. The 64-year-old officer commands 2,000 members of a special-forces unit. And he did everything right a week and a half ago when, after 41 years of service, he decided to refuse to obey Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

When the revolt began, he ordered his officers to stay in their barracks, lock the gates and not take any action against the protesters. Their men were not to shoot at anyone unless they were shot at themselves.

The general has four sons and four daughters, who are all about the same age as the protesters marching outside. Thoughts of his children made it easier for him to decide that these youths represented the very Libyan people he had once sworn an oath to protect. He is crying, he says, because Gadhafi is a criminal for having ordered his men to shoot at his own people and even at children.

But this isn't something General Arafa couldn't have known before. Perhaps he is also weeping out of regret, for having spent decades serving a man who commits murder and seems to have only a tenuous grasp on reality. He has come to the courthouse across from the beach in Benghazi to pick up new orders from his new masters, of which there are now quite a few.

A Unique Experiment in Democracy

The Libyan revolt erupted in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city, in front of this very courthouse. Rebels from all over the country have now set up their headquarters in the austere-looking building facing the Mediterranean. The new rebel government, established last Saturday, consists of a committee and subcommittees to administer the city and surrounding region. It's meant to be a provisional government born out of the need to have someone in charge, someone to give orders and instructions.

The 13-member committee includes lawyers, professors and teachers. Representatives of committees from cities in southern Libya are in a hallway, searching for people they might know. They want to join the rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Gadhafi's renegade former justice minister has proposed creating a real transitional government for the entire country based here in Benghazi. A national transitional council also wants to coordinate the rebels in other captured cities from its courthouse headquarters.

What's happening here in Benghazi is an anarchistic experiment unique among the rebellions in the Arab world. In Egypt, by contrast, the military has temporarily assumed power and, in Tunisia, the structures of the former regime continue to function.

Celebrating Freedom

Crowds of hundreds and sometimes thousands gather in front of the Benghazi courthouse every day. As the waves crash against the shore and ocean spray fills the air, they walk along the coast road singing, dancing and praying, celebrating what they've accomplished and their newfound freedom until late at night.

On Wednesday, a rumor suddenly started circulating that a unit loyal to Gadhafi had attacked Brega, a key Libyan oil port 200 kilometers (125 miles) southwest of Benghazi, and that six men had been killed. When they heard the news, some of the young men in front of the courthouse started shouting, jumped into their pickup trucks and sped away. Brega seemed to offer an opportunity for them to test their strength.

Inside the courthouse, Khalid al-Saji is standing on a bench in a courtroom, leaning forward to make himself heard above the commotion. Saji, a lawyer with sharp features and thinning hair, is one of the 14 men who inadvertently launched the revolt. When the revolt started, he was chairman of the Libyan bar association, and now he's a member of the judicial subcommittee.

Though this is no longer used as a courtroom, he is wearing the robe he always wears in court. Draped over his shoulders is the rebel's red, black and green flag. The flag's colors are the same as those on the flag of the Kingdom of Libya that existed until 1969. That year, when the king went abroad for medical treatment, a colonel named Moammar Gadhafi overthrew the government in a coup. Drivers now use Gadhafi's green flags to wipe dirt from their windshields.

The Spark of Revolution

Saji has a lot of experience with the dictator's arbitrary behavior and with laws that did not apply to everyone. He himself has been arrested and detained, often for days or weeks at a time, for having filed suits against the government. Though such actions were theoretically permitted, Saji rarely won his cases.

On Feb. 6, Saji and three colleagues drove to Tripoli, where they had an argument with Gadhafi in person in his tent. The men had come to discuss two demands, one minor and one far more significant. Although their terms had expired, the members of the board of the country's bar association who were loyal to Gadhafi had refused to step down from their positions. They were able to refuse because Gadhafi and those close to him could ignore the rules and break laws with impunity. Saji was now demanding that the board members who had been newly elected be allowed to enter into office.

"Gadhafi talked to us because the uprising in Tunisia had made him nervous," Saji says. He eventually promised to appoint the newly elected board members. Then Saji and his colleagues got up the nerve to address their larger concern: They wanted a constitution that would require Gadhafi to also obey the law. They spoke and argued with Gadhafi, trying to convince him that he needed to institute some reforms if he wanted to keep his people calm. "But when we were leaving the tent," Saji recounts, "he said he wouldn't make any announcements until he felt the time was right."

On Feb. 15, the families of the victims of a 1996 massacre demonstrated in Benghazi. That year, Gadhafi's thugs had mowed down 1,200 revolting prison inmates -- the protesters' relatives -- with assault rifles. Two days later, a small group of attorneys led by Saji demonstrated for more human rights in front of the courthouse. As the hours passed, they were joined by more and more people. The uprising had begun. Soon the first shots were fired. Then the rebels set fire to Gadhafi's palace and the secret police building next to the courthouse, where regime opponents had once been tortured. The revolt soon spread to other cities.

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