A Courthouse in Benghazi The Nerve Center of the Libyan Revolution

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.

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

Foto: John Moore/ Getty Images

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.

Growing Pains of a Revolution

Young men in ragged uniforms are now driving up to the Benghazi courthouse, hooting and honking their horns, as if the antiaircraft guns on their truck beds were parts of parade floats. They seem oblivious to the fact that hundreds of people have already died in this revolution.

Children are crawling on top of tanks parked along the seaside boulevard while loudspeakers drone in the background. There is chaos in the courthouse, where small groups are standing around, pushing together benches and getting into heated debates. Newspapers are being printed and slogans designed. In one room, boy scouts are cutting up chickens and dropping them into large aluminum pots on gas burners. The hundreds of people who have been debating here for days need to eat, even if the meal consists of nothing more than chicken and rice prepared by a group of boy scouts.

Of course, the committee was not popularly elected because an election would have been impossible to organize. Instead, courthouse discussions yielded a list of names that most people could support. Still, they say they want democracy.

A man is standing on the front stairway, shouting that he doesn't feel represented by this committee. Others try to calm him down by explaining that the committee first has to address the simple but important issues, such as making sure that the electricity stays on and that the hundreds of young people now directing traffic are replaced by something more permanent. Gadhafi's police officers have run away or taken refuge in their home to wait things out until the rage of the masses has subsided. Someone will eventually have to collect all the weapons that were stolen in the city, all the guns and hand grenades that protesters looted from the abandoned barracks.

The military officers have set up their own committee as well. They will have to plan how to defend the city if forces loyal to Gadhafi decide to strike back, though hardly anyone thinks this is something they need to worry about seriously. Having come to power in a putsch himself, Gadhafi knows full well that every dictator has to fear his own army. For this reason, he had already weakened the military and strengthened his militias. But as the military units he once neglected are now joining the protestors, his policies are coming home to roost.

A Desire to Go It Alone

Within a few days, the rebels managed to seize control of the majority of the country. But now, if things are ever going to return to normal, they first have to figure out how to govern. The committee serving as the provisional rebel government doesn't have any offices or staff members, relying instead on cell phones and inexperienced volunteers. Under these circumstances, the rebels need the help of the Gadhafi loyalists who know the basics about keeping a city and a country running, such as how to access the city's funds.

"Gadhafi insults us as Islamists and drug addicts, which are mutually exclusive. He claims we want to split up the country, which also isn't true," says Mohammed Ghunim, a plump, agile man with laugh lines around his eyes. Since he is a good speaker and knows English, Ghunim has been put in charge of producing flyers, coming up with slogans and explaining the rebels' demands to journalists. This is a revolt by normal people, he says, and no one is controlling them. But, he adds, no one can deprive them of it, either.

A large sign posted at the harbor, not far from the court, reads: "No Intervention -- The Libyan People Can Do It by Itself." "We don't want NATO or the United States here in Libya," Ghunim explains. "If they help -- and, of course, we know they can beat Gadhafi -- they'll want to stay in Libya to help us. Thanks, but we don't want that at all. We don't want to become another Iraq, and we don't want to be dependent -- on anyone."

That said, Ghunim adds, many people here would like to see American bombs being dropped on Tripoli and against Gadhafi. As of late Wednesday, the rebels had not reached a decision on whether they favored such an intervention, but most of the committee members felt it would be a good idea, according to Ghunim. They would welcome limited air strikes, he stresses, but not ground operations on Libyan soil. A no-fly zone would also be helpful, he says, "because it would hamper Gadhafi."

Ghunim believes a no-fly zone would be hard to enforce because the West's bombers would first have to knock out all of the government's anti-aircraft positions. Still, he's quick to point out that he isn't a soldier, so he's not even sure if that's possible. Instead, he's just the owner of a small beverage company in Benghazi that produces orange juice from concentrate he imports from Austria. "We want laws that apply to everyone," he says. "We want to be able to live and be free. That's all."

Saji, the lawyer, says it's much too early to draft a constitution, but he does say he's been thinking about it for a long time. The constitution of the former kingdom isn't bad, he adds. Of course, the passages that involve the king would have to be removed, but he says the rest could be used as a basic framework. Saji points out, however, that the entire population would have to be involved in a debate over a new constitution. According to the plan of the rebels in Benghazi, once Tripoli has been captured, a large committee will be formed to set up a transitional government and organize the first elections.

Unlikely Heroes

On the top floor of the courthouse, the man who just might be the most important person in the revolution is just getting up from a stack of old mattresses. He blinks his eyes as the noon sun shines through holes in the curtains. He has been here for many days and nights, getting too little sleep and drinking too much coffee.

Mohammed Nabbous asks what day it is, and it turns out that today is his 28th birthday. There are no slogans written on the walls here like the ones in the hallways downstairs. Instead, the walls are covered with words and numbers like "Channel," "Username" and "ip 62.32.46.100." Nabbous barks into his microphone: "My upload is zero! What's wrong?" There are cables hanging from the equipment in the room, and a pair of pliers and a small screwdriver are lying on the table in front of him.

Gadhafi had shut down the Internet in Libya, and it wasn't until Monday that some lines were up and running again. Nevertheless, Nabbous was able to use a satellite to send the rebels' message to the rest of the world. "Gadhafi can't shut this down," Nabbous says. "He'd have to drop a bomb to stop me."

Images taken by cameras within the courthouse are running across the screen behind him. The satellite sends them directly to the Internet via livestream.com. Nabbous is providing the images to television stations around the world. And when protesters come under fire in Tripoli and call Nabbous, he holds his cell phone up to the microphone so that the sounds of gunfire and screams can be broadcast live online.

Photo Gallery of Body Parts

Nabbous uses a laptop to store the horrific images taken by the rebels. Since it would look like propaganda, little of this material can be published. For example, one shaky video show a soldier executing a protester. The material also includes a photo gallery of individual body parts.

Facebook -- the second-most important tool of the revolution after Twitter -- is running on another computer. By constantly posting new messages, fans are lending momentum to the revolution. This is exactly what they did in Tunisia and Egypt -- and exactly why Gadhafi wanted to shut down the Internet.

But Nabbous, who once owned a small computer company, almost always finds a way. When the rebels took control of the courthouse, he brought all of his equipment to the building without hesitation. "We wouldn't have existed without this stuff here," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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