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Libya Rebels Draw on Benghazi Committees for ‘Win or Die’ Fight

Rebels Load Ammunition in Ajdabiya
Libyan rebels load machine-gun ammunition into a truck at the western gate in Ajdabiya on Saturday. Photographer: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

Ahmed Algallal, an importer of Kone OYJ lifts in Libya, spent 14 years in the U.K. because his father preferred exile to life under Muammar Qaddafi. “There won’t be another exile for me,” he said. “We win or die.”

Algallal, 42, is part of the patchwork for a new civil society taking shape in Benghazi. While he uses his contacts to secure food and medicine supplies for the front lines, students clean the streets, and teachers and longshoremen organize themselves in tents outside the old courthouse.

The rebels are drawing on the very system of grassroots bodies that Qaddafi outlined in his Green Book, a 1975 manifesto of his revolutionary philosophy. This time, instead of being a means to suppress political parties and keep tabs on local residents, the groups are delegating responsibility and solidifying their grip.

“Qaddafi’s efforts to mobilize citizens to govern themselves, while confined to rhetoric under his rule, has become a reality as the society mobilizes itself against him,” said Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Libyan rebels have launched the brunt of their attacks on Qaddafi’s forces from their stronghold of Benghazi, a city of 1 million people, and the efforts by the residents are helping to sustain the uprising against Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in the nation that holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.

‘Mechanism in Place’

Oil prices have climbed 29 percent since mid-February, when the Libyan uprising began, closing at $109.66 a barrel on April 15 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The Libyan revolt, now in its third month, is the deadliest of the dozen pro-democracy protest movements that shook the Arab world since mid-December, toppling the regimes in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, and threatening those of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

At least 12,000 people have been killed and 30,000 others injured, according to the National Transitional Council, the governing body for the rebels. The group is led by Mustafa Abd-Al-Jalil, a 58 year-old judge who was serving as justice minister when he defected in the early days.

“There was a social welfare net that already existed before the revolt started,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Analysis. “Even though in Benghazi they are now setting up this transitional government, the mechanism was already in place.”

Amid the violence, billboard signs in Benghazi appeal to civic mindedness, calling on the population to respect private and public property, refrain from firing weapons in the city and re-open bakeries and pharmacies.

No Failures

“Given everything, they are doing better than expected,” Marlowe said of the rebels’ National Transitional Council. “We haven’t seen a major failure.”

The 31-member council has pledged to guarantee the freedom of expression and to hold free and fair elections once Qaddafi is removed. Those would be the first ever in Libya.

Schools and universities in Benghazi are closed as thousands of families are displaced and because the rebels depend on volunteers to fight Qaddafi’s forces, which are locally referred to as the “Kata’ib,” meaning battalions.

“We may lose a school year, but God willing we will win our freedom and our future,” said Faten Belhoul, 15, who along with her younger sister is helping to clean Benghazi’s streets.

Front Line

As shops and banks re-open, posters of the dead or missing remind residents of the front line, which now lies about 200 kilometers to the south of Benghazi, as do the occasional bursts of machine guns fired in training or by fighters celebrating an advance.

Capturing the oil terminals and refineries that lie further along the coast, in Brega and Ras Lanuf, would allow the rebel government to resume oil exports and process crude into fuel products, said the council’s spokesman Abdul Hafiz Ghoga. In the meantime, the council is asking allies including Qatar to secure $2 billion in loans to pay for imports and salaries.

Oil exports from the rebel-held region stopped on April. 6, when Qaddafi’s troops attacked producing fields. International sanctions effectively prevent him from selling crude from the areas under his control in the center and the west, or accessing tens of billions of dollars held in accounts abroad.

Qaddafi’s portraits, present everywhere in the capital Tripoli, are nowhere in Benghazi. “Qaddafi, King of Africa’s Monkeys,” says a slogan mocking his official title of “King of Africa’s Kings.”

Cluster Bombs

The red-black-green flag of the revolt is flown on public buildings and squares, often in the company of the flags of NATO nations enforcing the no-fly zone that protects the rebel-held territory in the east as well as the marine route to supply the western enclave of Misrata, where Qaddafi is using banned cluster bombs, according to Human Rights Watch.

At Benghazi’s naval base, ammunition crates were piled up on April 17 on a pier waiting to be loaded on a tugboat destined for Misrata -- a 36 hour trip. “It’s our right to defend ourselves,” said the port commander, Colonel Almahdi Mohammed.

“Our focus is now the army, getting weapons, training volunteers,” said Salwa Bugaighis, an attorney and a member of the union of lawyers that led the revolt in its early days from the old courthouse of Benghazi. “We are doing fine on the economy and humanitarian fronts.”

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