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The Rebels from Benghazi Chaos and Uncertainty in Libya's Revolutionary Leadership

The international community is using air strikes and missiles to defend freedom, human rights and democratic ideals in Libya. But are those also the values the rebels themselves are fighting for?

The chief of staff of the Libyan revolution receives guests in a villa not far from Benghazi's airport. When the uprising began, Abdul Fattah Younis was celebrated in the streets for having his soldiers raid the city's military base, thereby stripping Moammar Gadhafi of control over the eastern part of the country.

Now, Younis has found shelter in a living room outfitted with brocade curtains and plush carpeting. When the general wants to know what's happening outside, he watches the BBC's Arab-language TV channel and calls his associates on a satellite telephone. It is his connection to the outside world -- a connection he uses to support American and French air strikes, which he keeps track of on a map along with the new front lines.

Tomorrow, Younis will sleep in yet another house together with his wife and daughter, who sit next to him in silence. These days, Benghazi is home to hit squads of both rebels and Gadhafi loyalists. Shots pierce the nighttime silence. By sunrise, the morgues and emergency rooms are full.

Formerly Libya's interior minister, Younis has been leading the fight against Gadhafi since February 22. To that point, the brawny 66 year old with silver hair had spent almost his entire life serving the dictator. And for that reason, his defection marked a major turning point in this revolution. Now wearing green fatigues, he refers to himself as the chief of staff. This is not his first revolution, and he therefore knows that events now depend on military leaders rather than on politicians.

Posing for Photographs

Younis' special forces have vanished, having either deserted or rushed to the front. Now, he's assembling an army to liberate Libya. His associates, he says, have trained 15,000 men in recent weeks. In the Benghazi stadium, they learn how to shoot, to fire rockets and to drive tanks. They are taught to avoid the mistakes of the early days of the revolution, when the young fighters -- known as the Shabab -- accidentally killed each other up, ruined captured tanks and shot down their own airplanes. Younis, though, has been talking about these troops for weeks, and there is still little difference from the chaos seen at the beginning. Even with the backing of the air strikes, advances have been halting and temporary. They seem to prefer posing for photographs on wrecked tanks.

Since the air strikes began, the revolution has become a war with foreign support legitimized by a United Nations resolution and, as of this week, led by NATO. Western planes -- whether American, French, Spanish or Canadian -- have flown hundreds of sorties, bombing Gadhafi's supply convoys, military bases, tank columns and primary residence in Tripoli.

It was a moral decision, meant to help people rising up against one of the most brutal dictators in the Arab world. But there is no turning back. If the West intends to liberate the country from its dictator, it really has only three options: annihilate Gadhafi's forces in a massive bombing campaign; send in ground forces; or equip the rebels with heavy weapons. The rebels have ruled out peace negotiations with Gadhafi.

For the international community, the intervention in the Libyan conflict is about defending the fundamental values of freedom, human rights and self-determination. But the question is: Are all those who have a say in Benghazi just as interested in freedom, human rights and self-determination?

An Opportunist?

The first time that General Younis participated in a revolution was in 1969, in an uprising against the king. He was a 24-year-old army officer at the time, and he successfully took control of Benghazi's radio station. The revolution ushered Colonel Gadhafi into power, a man who calls himself "king of the traditional kings of Africa."

Younis rose to the rank of general. For 41 years, he headed Libya's special forces, from the end of one revolution to the beginning of the next. He was a rare constant in a country ruled by a paranoid leader, one who saw enemies everywhere. For the last three and a half years, Younis was also the interior minister, and many saw him as the country's second most powerful man behind Gadhafi. He says, however, that he was never a politician and that for four and a half months, he refused to assume the post. He only gave in, he says, on the condition that he would never fire upon his own people.

Still, there are many who do not trust Younis, particularly younger Libyans, who view him as an opportunist who waited six days before switching sides. But maybe Younis did indeed have too much of Gadhafi. Maybe he really does want to become a hero in this war of liberation?

Younis recounts how he sent a letter to Gadhafi in January warning him about unrest in the country and about the anger triggered by sharp rises in food prices. He says Gadhafi sent the letter back to him with the text crossed out in red pen. A warning letter -- that was Younis' form of protest.

Now Younis is a revolutionary for the second time -- but, this time, he says he's fighting for democracy. When asked the kind of democracy he envisions, Younis says: "I dream of a genuine democracy in which we Libyans can lead a five-star life. Libya earns $150 million (€106 million) with its oil -- in a single day. And just look around at the condition Benghazi is in!"

Fighting Could Drag On for Months

Younis believes that establishing a democracy in Libya won't be all that difficult. "We have no political parties, no diverse ethnicities or different religious beliefs," he says, "so it will be entirely unproblematic." Once his dream has been achieved, he adds, he intends to withdraw from public life and spend his time reading books.

It could be some time before Younis can make a dent in his reading list, however. The stakes are infinitely high for Gadhafi. He's not going to give up any time soon and fighting could drag on for months.

For the time being, it seems unlikely that Gadhafi's troops will be able to capture Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. But it's just as unlikely that the rebels will take Tripoli. Indeed, if the capital's inhabitants do not rise up, this will be a long war.

Still, Younis is optimistic. "In two or three weeks," he says, "the balance of power will tip in our favor." He speaks of reinforcement lines, positions and snipers -- all while trying to emit that calming aura of military professionalism. He fears nothing more than a sudden halt to the air attacks because he believes it would cause the resistance to crumble.

But, as long as they continue, he claims that Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte will be captured in at most 10 days, and that Tripoli will follow soon thereafter. Younis only believes the fighting will end once Gadhafi has either died or fled, perhaps to northern Chad. He puts the chances of the latter occurring at about 75 percent.

What happens after that is anyone's guess. Libya is a political no man's land. There are no parties or unions, and the highest form of political organization are soccer clubs. The only thing this country can draw on is the ruling elite in the leadership circle surrounding Gadhafi and his children.

A Growing Climate of Fear in Benghazi

Indeed, after six weeks of revolution, the tone is no longer being set by the youths, lawyers and professors that were there at the beginning, but also an increasing number of defectors from the old regime. Most of these men, in their ironed shirts and ties, were ministers, ambassadors, military officers or businessmen, and many of them had ties to Saif al-Islam, one of Gadhafi's sons. They all had good lives under the Gadhafi regime, and now that want to salvage what's left. Since the air strikes began, it's been clear that the end is coming for Gadhafi. So they are pushing their way to the forefront.

The National Libyan Transitional Council established in the revolution's early days is supposed to be replaced by a government. For now, there are people who refer to themselves as ministers without being able to explain who actually appointed them. The rebels have press spokesmen, who in turn have their own deputies. In the media center in Benghazi, one man runs around wearing his father's military decoration on his chest; another hands out business cards with gold filigree. The revolution has spawned a seemingly endless network of both real and imagined functionaries, and few know what they do or whether they wield any actual influence.

"The new ministers should take on tasks according to their abilities, but I'm not currently in a position to say exactly what that should look like," says Ahmed Khalifa, a rebel spokesman with light hair and a gold-buttoned blazer. Each day at the media center in Benghazi, Khalifa reads out the numbers of dead, wounded and captured, along with the names of the places that have been taken.

These ministers, Khalifa says, are to be experts -- professors, lawyers and business people -- from across the country, but will also include Libyans from abroad, who are now returning home. The names, though, remain secret: "It would be suicide to publicize them now," Khalifa explains. He has no answer, though, when asked what exactly a secret government should do. As to the qualitative difference between a self-appointed national council and a self-appointed government, he says, "the National Council had more general qualifications, while the government is more specialized."

Straight from the Soviet Revolutionaries

Not long later, however, it is said that there won't be a government after all. Instead, the National Council will be transformed into a "crisis management council."

Meanwhile, a quasi-president and quasi-prime minister are in place, both jockeying for position. The new prime minister is Mahmoud Jibril, whose job it is to lead the new government that may or may not exist. Jibril has spent much time traveling abroad, having met Bernard-Henri Lévy and Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and Egyptian military leaders in Cairo. The other man, the one people call "our new president" is Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of the National Council.

The one thing that unites these two men is that both were long-time supporters of the regime -- Jibril as an economic functionary and Abdel-Jalil as justice minister.

Abdel-Jalil wears a red wool cap and the lapels of his woolen coat bears pins in the colors of the revolution. The soldiers guarding his door wear cobbled-together uniforms and cartridge belts. A prayer rug is folded on the table and the prayer bump on Abdel-Jalil's forehead identifies him as a devout Muslim. He is unshaven, his eyes narrowed in exhaustion, and is currently giving interviews at 10-minute intervals. The sentences he speaks could have been lifted directly from a Soviet revolutionary handbook. "The National Council is legitimized by the local committees made up of revolutionaries in the liberated cities and villages," he declares.

To hear Abdel-Jalil talk, it sounds like the rebels gaining full control of the country is only a matter of technical details. He met with a UN special envoy and, Abdel-Jalil says, nearly every country in the world has established contact with him. He believes his forces will take Tripoli within a matter of weeks, and says leaders are in the process of getting an idea where immediate action must be taken -- in terms of health care, infrastructure and the reconstruction of destroyed buildings. So far they've achieved little, and city administration, schools, universities and oil production have all ground to a halt.

Asked when elections will be held, the president replies, "We're not concerned with these details."

Great Contacts with the WHO

Next to Abdel-Jalil sits a man in a chocolate-colored suit named Ali al-Essawi, 44, a former economic minister and most recently ambassador to India. He now calls himself foreign minister, although it's not entirely clear why -- perhaps because he's the only one here who speaks English. He says he's in excellent contact with the World Health Organization.

Most of those now calling the shots here are sons of the former regime and it's worth asking what kind of state they want to create. Is it possible for democracy to prevail after 41 years where politics were forbidden? Or will the revolution fail in the end, even if it succeeds in toppling Gadhafi? And perhaps the greatest danger of all: Could this country, cobbled together by force under Gadhafi, end up disintegrating back into its component parts, into tribes, criminal gangs, warlords and Jihad groups, well-armed with Western weapons?

Ahmed Khalifa, the revolution's spokesman, says all 30 of Libya's tribes have pledged their support to the National Council, with the exception of Gadhafi's tribe. "The Libyan people are united," he says. "We have as many supporters in Tripoli as we do here. There won't be a split between east and west, definitely not!" When it comes to the country's unity, Khalifa seems to speak in exclamation points. And it's impossible to find anyone who sees things differently.

Across the liberated east, rebel radio broadcasts spread both imagined victories and horror stories. First they said Khamis al-Gadhafi had been killed by a kamikaze pilot and that Ras Lanuf and Misrata were "80 percent" recaptured. Another broadcast reported 2,000 foreign workers from Egypt tied up and thrown into the harbor, while a conflicting report said the same people were used as human shields. A video currently in circulation claims to show members of the Khamis Brigade forcing African mercenary soldiers to eat meat from a dead dog. None of it can be verified.

On the Verge of Collapse

Six weeks after the revolution began, Benghazi, capital of free Libya, is descending into mistrust and fear. More stores have closed and most people no longer dare to give out their phone numbers. No one wants to say anything anymore beyond the revolution's set phrases -- nothing against the rebels and nothing against the government in Tripoli. One of many rumors says Gadhafi has spies within the National Council -- why else would it be the youth who are now being cut down?

A cartoonist and an actor who parodied Gadhafi at a demonstration are now dead. Mohammed Nabbous, who ran the rebels' television station, was shot by a sniper on March 19 in the middle of Benghazi, as he filmed the crash site where one of Gadhafi's fighter jets was shot down. Fathi Turbel, the lawyer whose arrest touched off the revolution as young people demonstrated for his release, has disappeared.

No one dares to go out at night, as rounds of machine gun fire thunder through the empty streets. National Council members are no longer seen in public and they're hard to reach for interviews. "There are death squads on both sides," says Nasser Buisier, who fled to the US when he was 17, but has returned for the revolution. Buisier's father is a former information minister, but was also a critic of Gadhafi, and his son doesn't have much that's positive to say about the new leadership. "Most of them never had to make sacrifices, they were part of the regime and I don't believe they want elections," Buisier says. He believes the National Council is on the verge of collapse and once that happens, he'd rather not be in Benghazi.

Buisier is heading back to the US, but is reluctant to say precisely when. He's afraid he's been blacklisted. He recently attended four funerals in a single day, for both rebels and regime supporters. Benghazi's central hospital admits five, sometimes 10, patients each day with gunshot wounds. Two pick-up trucks outfitted with machine guns guard the hospital entrance and photos of missing people adorn the walls.

'We Know Where They Are'

It is said that 8,000 people in Benghazi were government spies -- the rebels found their names in files kept by the secret police. Armed young men roam the streets at night, arresting regime supporters, but private acts of revenge take place as well.

Salah Sharif, a former prison guard, was found dead with half his head blown off. Officially, it was labeled suicide. "Of course he was killed," says a man who spent seven years in prison and suffered at Sharif's hands. "He specialized in torturing and interrogating people. Especially Islamists."

Around 100 regime loyalists have recently been imprisoned. Armed young men are searching houses and also arresting sub-Saharan Africans, anyone they assume to be mercenaries and all those they simply refer to as spies, locking them up in the same prisons once used to hold opposition members. They are then shown off to busloads of journalists. The prisoners sit in dark cells that stink of feces and urine. They say they're from Mali, Chad, Sudan, that they're construction workers and were dragged out of their houses.

The rebels' mood, exuberant and lighthearted in the beginning, has shifted. Their rhetoric is becoming increasingly tense and they dismiss any criticism as propaganda. One former air force commander -- now "spokesman for the revolutionary armed forces" -- says, "anyone who fights against our revolutionary army is fighting against the people and will be treated accordingly."

Another man, also a member of the National Council, talks about "enemies of the revolution" and declares that anyone who doesn't join the rebel side will get a taste of revolutionary justice: "We know where they are and we will find them."

These are the same threats, word for word, that Gadhafi uses to scare his opponents.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein and Josh Ward
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