Updated: Feb. 25, 2011, 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time
Benghazi is the last big city on the western edge of Libya's "free" east the swathe of territory along the country's azure Mediterranean coast running to the Egyptian border. The opposition claims the stretch is now firmly under its control. And despite the sporadic bursts of gunfire celebratory, many say the emerging committees of revolutionaries in Libya's second largest city say they are working hard to maintain calm as they wait for Muammar Gaddafi's capital, Tripoli, to fall. "Right now our main aim is to keep Benghazi functioning, prevent any chaos," says a Libyan-American company executive who is working with other activists in the city and declined to be named. "Once Tripoli falls, we can work on a constitution."
But there is a prevailing sense of unease that the worst is far from over, that Gaddafi may still come up with some violent surprises and that territory recently won could still be lost. "We don't know what's going to happen," says Jelaa Hospital's chief surgeon, standing outside a morgue full of still unidentified bodies. "Is it air raids? Missiles from the sea? People parachuting from the sky? No one knows." He offers only his first name, Abdallah. "We are expecting trouble."
The Libyan opposition's ability to defend the liberated east remains unclear. But in the face of a dictator who they say is far more brutal and heavily armed than the others deposed so far, many Libyans seem willing to go for a militant and violent counterstrategy. If Tripoli doesn't fall on its own, many here in free eastern Libya say they may have to force it to. "We think eventually he's out," the Libyan-American businessman says. If not, "the other cities that have been liberated will organize an army and go meet him." In some areas, there were already signs of preparation for that moment. One activist in Tobruk, which is closer to the Egyptian border, says a relative moved $75,000 worth of weapons mostly guns from the Egyptian desert into Libya to support the opposition. Says the CEO of one Libyan-American joint venture who asks not to be named: "In the event he goes crazy, we might need arms. We can defend ourselves, but we need arms. We literally started from scratch."
On Friday, as reports out of the capital had troops loyal to Gaddafi opening fire on protesters and on worshippers at Friday prayers, rumors out of Benghazi had hundreds of anti-regime adherents armed with guns bypassing Gaddafi strongholds through the desert to reach Tripoli and fight the dictator's mercenaries and remaining security. What little is emerging from Tripoli indicates much gunfire in the streets of the capital.
"I think he's thinking right now, It's me or no one," says the CEO. "Thank God he doesn't have nuclear weapons he would have used them." In fact, on Thursday night, a former Libyan official said that he believed that not only did Gaddafi possess chemical and biological weapons but the dictator would not hesitate to deploy them against his foes if he could. "We are requesting intervention from the international community to stop him," says Saad Abeidi, a retired oil-company bureaucrat. "If they come too late, we are finished." He adds, "We want a no-fly zone. He has all of the ammunition under his control."
"In the short term, help us with medical support," the CEO says. "But give us air cover." It wouldn't hurt to send an F-16 past Tripoli, he posits, "to show the thug that the world is watching."
Update: On Friday night, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order freezing assets in the United States of and doing business with Muammar Gaddafi and his children, senior officials of his regime and companies associated with it. Citing Gaddafi's reprisals against his opposition, Obama's Order explained that the "prolonged attacks,and the increased numbers of Libyans seeking refuge in other countries from the attacks, have caused a deterioration in the security of Libya and pose a serious risk to its stability, thereby constituting an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat."
It was just five days ago that patients flooded the wards of Jelaa Hospital, exhausting the 11 operating rooms and forcing doctors to perform triage, as protesters waged a fierce battle in the streets against forces loyal to Gaddafi. Now the flood of gunshot wounds has ended. A few of the city's banks have reopened. And uniformed traffic police direct the cars in the center of town.
But to regain normality, the people of free Libya have to get rid of Gaddafi. It is no easy task because, Libyans argue, their dictator isn't like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. "Worse than Hitler," "murderer" and "lunatic" are descriptions used with utter seriousness. After all, they say, this is a man who hanged dissenters during the holy month of Ramadan, executed 1,200 prisoners in a single day and blew up an airliner over Scotland. And so the newly liberated east contemplates waging war.
It is also wrestling with how to set up a real government. Unlike his authoritarian neighbor Mubarak, Gaddafi never allowed political parties even weak ones to function. He instilled fear in the hearts and minds of his citizens and, Libyans say, kept a closer watch than even the most intrusive parent. "The country was 100% closed like North Korea," says the CEO, who adds that Libyans were often too afraid to express dissent, even in the privacy of their homes. "Gaddafi made everyone paranoid. You were afraid to say something in front of your own kid. If you shake hands with a suspect, you become a suspect.
"People were so scared, they thought he must have half the population working for him as undercover agents," he says. Then he grins. "So this revolution surprised the heck out of us."
Rudimentary attempts at governance have started. Hundreds of volunteers have commandeered a ransacked internal-security building and the high court overlooking the Mediterranean in Benghazi. One group has set up a media wing to wage a "counterpropaganda" campaign against Gaddafi's state media. (It offers assistance to foreign journalists.) Another branch is managing the town's security. Other rooms in the building are filled with well-heeled lawyers, doctors and intellectuals plotting a direction to keep the cities in Libya's east functioning and united.
But the revolution has no obvious leaders. The closest thing that Libya has to Egypt's Facebook revolutionary hero Wael Ghonim is Fathi Tourgud, a prominent lawyer and activist who doesn't use Facebook or Twitter and who sometimes can barely use his phone because the government's repression has been so extreme. Tourgud represents more than the families of 400 prisoners massacred by Gaddafi's forces in 1996, and it was his arrest and interrogation on Feb. 15 that lit the spark for a planned day of protests on Feb. 17.
Tourgud is now a leading member of the group gathering each day at Benghazi's high court. It meets each day to hash out a strategy for the revolution. But it has yet to draft a constitution or lay out plans for a post-Gaddafi government. "The best thing is that Libya is a blank page," says the CEO, putting a positive spin on the situation. "Most of our population is so young, with no political ideology. This is the time for the U.S. and Europe to harness democracy or fall victim to more extremists. Libya is ripe for either one."
"Everyone is working in his role," says Iman Bugaighis, an orthodontist working on organizing the opposition. "It's better than it was in the first few days: the people are controlling the airport, and the banks are open. But we are waiting for Tripoli to be liberated. There are more than 1,000 km between here and Tripoli, and we're not doing any transitions until Tripoli is liberated."
The capital, however, remains in the dictator's grip. At Jelaa Hospital, head surgeon Abdallah says he has managed to communicate to some extent with doctors in Tripoli. "But people were so frightened because of the heavy bombardment, they were scared to talk on the phone," he says. It's unclear how many have died in the capital. How soon Tripoli falls if it falls is anybody's guess. Phone calls to the capital and rough TV footage reveal a city in the throes of violence. "We know Tripoli has taken a turn for the worse," says the CEO. "His thugs are in the streets with machine guns."
Until an ending is scripted, the people of Benghazi take heart from speculation and rumor. Air force pilots and navy ships that have defected to Malta have reportedly said they were sent to bomb Benghazi but refused. Other unconfirmed stories had pilots parachuting and sending their aircraft crashing just to avoid targeting the rebels. In one account, two pilots one for Gaddafi and one against engaged in a fistfight in midair before the anti-Gaddafi pilot won and diverted the plane. In more gruesome reports, military officers who refused to do their missions were supposedly executed in Tripoli's airport as well as in bases across the north. But these will merely be stories told to pass the time while the real drama and its all too serious conclusion continues to unfold.
With reporting by Michael Scherer/Washington.