How Libya's Second City Became the First to Revolt

  • Share
  • Read Later

Buildings at the entrance to a security-forces compound are seen burning in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011

Fathi Baja, 58, is old enough to remember Sept. 1, 1969, when, as a high school student, he joined the throngs of excited crowds pouring into the streets to chant their support for the dashing 27-year-old military officer named Muammar Gaddafi, who had just led a revolution to oust Libya's King. "We thought Gaddafi's revolution was for freedom and human rights," says Baja, a political-science professor at the University of Benghazi. Benghazi, Libya's second biggest city, is where last week's revolt first exploded. "But the four decades since then has been total chaos. It is not even a state," Baja says, speaking by phone on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 22, from Benghazi. "It is a brutal dictatorship."

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, Baja again joined a revolution — this time aimed at ousting Gaddafi, who has ruled for an astonishing 42 years. This time, he marched with his daughter Hamida, 17, who is the same age now as Baja was when Gaddafi rose to power. And this time, Baja is certain that the next generation will see true democracy, in contrast to the suffering under Gaddafi. "Gaddafi has stolen people's money, Libya's wealth," says Baja, whose two sons now live in Canada.

With his country in chaos and his control crumbling, Gaddafi vowed on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 22, to fight "to the last drop of blood." In a firebrand speech on Libyan state-run television that lasted more than an hour, he said, "I will be a martyr at the end" — perhaps an indication that he is already envisioning the end. As if writing his own political obituary, he appeared a second time, an isolated man in front of the bombed ruins of his house, in the compound on the western outskirts of Tripoli, which was struck by U.S. fighter jets in 1986 on the orders of then President Ronald Reagan. Gaddafi has kept that house in conscious disrepair as a symbol of his four-decade defiance of Western domination.

On Feb. 22, Baja and several other leading activists and professionals in Benghazi put the finishing touches on a manifesto for the revolution. It is the draft, he says, for a future Libya, stressing two major principles: national unity and democracy. "It will clarify the nature of this revolution," he says. "It is for the unity of all Libya, that is the one thing. The second is that this revolution is going towards the creation of modern Libya, freedom and democracy based on a pluralistic society, based on human rights, participation of all parts of Libya in creating their government and their institutions."

Baja describes how Benghazi's revolt began from a small, peaceful demonstration and exploded into an all-out revolt that then spread through eastern Libya and finally reached Tripoli.

It all began on Tuesday, Feb. 15 — the 60th anniversary of a massacre of Libyans by Italian colonial forces, a date normally marked with great solemnity in Libya. In Benghazi, the date was chosen to mark another occasion. In 1996, Libyan security forces opened fire on 1,200 inmates of the notorious Abu Salim prison in retaliation for an uprising in Benghazi against Gaddafi. The families of the prisoners chose that same day to demonstrate against the regime. The relatives have long refused to accept Gaddafi's offer of compensation in lieu of judicial process, and they have formed the nexus of the current revolt. (In late 2009, Saif al-Islam invited Human Rights Watch to report on the 1996 massacre, but the Benghazi families were barred from traveling to Tripoli to address a press conference.)

The families demonstrated peacefully in Benghazi on Feb. 15. However, things turned bad when security forces arrested Fathi Terbil, a young lawyer and activist. Within hours, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the police station in Benghazi to demand Terbil's release. Baja says, "From the beginning, it was a very peaceful demonstration, asking for human rights in Libya, and also to condemn what happened 60 years ago in Benghazi against our children and our men in the streets of Benghazi in front of the Italian consulate, and also condemning what happened in the jail of Abu Salim. It was a very, very peaceful demo. During this demo, the local police, with the brutal Revolutionary Committee, took one of the leaders of the youth, Fathi Terbil. We went that night and asked for them to release him peacefully. Then police started using violence against these demonstrations, shooting at them. Then it devolved into using force, killing people in the streets. And then the general strike started."

During the ensuing days, military assaults on protesters increased in Benghazi, the city of al-Baida and several other eastern cities before spreading to Tripoli. Sunday, Feb. 20, was the turning point in Benghazi. With the entire eastern portion of Libya in turmoil, soldiers began crossing over to protesters and handing in their weapons. Baja describes the extraordinary scenes of thousands of soldiers, encamped in five Benghazi military bases, simply abandoning their support for the government. "From Sunday, people began to take over the whole city, and the army with the remaining soldiers came to us with their weapons on Monday, to the civilian people, and gave their weapons over. Now we have formed a military committee for the city. There are also some people in the police to control the city. But the military is now completely under civilian leadership."

Having seized control of a city of more than 1 million people in less than a week, Baja and others have scrambled to form numerous committees to run Benghazi. "We have different committees now, and it is starting to work pretty well," he says. "There are committees to organize the people in the streets, how they live, committee to organize cleaning the roads and doing all the things in order for people to live their lives peacefully."