In the Former Rebel Capital: Benghazi Protests Libya's New Regime

  • Share
  • Read Later
Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

Calling for transparency, people protest in the city centre of Benghazi against the National Transitional Council and its head, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, on Dec. 16, 2011

In mid-February, protests in Libya in front of the Benghazi courthouse swelled into a revolution and civil war that brought down Muammar Gaddafi. Now, blocks away, Libyans are again demonstrating in Benghazi. But this time they are directing their ire at the country's new rulers, complaining that they are continuing in the deposed dictator's path. Citing the failure to purge Gaddafi loyalists from the government and the lack of accountability from their leaders, Benghazi residents believe that the National Transitional Council (NTC) — formed to replace the ousted leader's regime — has not addressed their concerns.

In Sharjah Square on Thursday night, Dec. 15, hundreds of people gathered to loudly deliver a number of demands. (The next day, the crowd was much larger, estimated at 3,000 to 4,000 people.) Men with bullhorns shouted their complaints, and the crowd roared with approval. Behind them, a 20-ft. (6 m) sign affixed to a building listed their grievances under the title "Demands to Correct the Revolution." "We did not fight the revolution so Gaddafi's cronies could keep their positions," complains Said Buhibla, 31. "They still control the ministries. They control the embassies abroad. The NTC must purify the government of Gaddafi supporters."

It is a demand the NTC will find difficult to meet. Gaddafi had staffed senior ministerial positions with supporters of his 1969 revolution. Libya's international isolation prevented the emergence of a new generation of Western-trained Libyan professionals. Beginning in the late 1970s, Gaddafi tangled with the West and hunted dissidents in European countries, leading many to largely close their borders to Libyan students. Almost a decade of sanctions for Libya's involvement in the downing of a civilian airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland — including a flight ban — made it virtually impossible for Libyan students to study in Western universities. Those with the experience necessary to manage large bureaucracies and deal with technical issues were often associated with Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, who for much of the past decade was viewed as the country's leading reformer. Among them were the NTC's former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and Shukri Ghanem, Gaddafi's last Oil Minister. Today there are few trained Libyan specialists who can meet the protesters' demands.

"Gaps have emerged between a Tripoli-based NTC and the people," explains a 60-year-old physician who gave his name as only Muhammad. "Benghazi is not well represented [in the NTC]." His complaint is echoed by many in eastern Libya. The February revolt was spearheaded by easterners, and the NTC was based in Benghazi before moving westward to the capital of Tripoli after Gaddafi's fall in September. Many had hoped the new leadership would rectify the deposed leader's long neglect of Benghazi, Libya's second city. Gaddafi had lavished industry and infrastructure projects on his birthplace of Sirt and the remote desert region of Sabha, where he completed his high school studies. As luxury hotels sprouted there, roads in residential Benghazi remained unpaved. Sewage is pumped into a downtown lagoon. The city's residents fear their early sacrifices for the revolution have been forgotten.

Many in Benghazi are also impatient with the NTC's pace of reforms. They complain not only that their hopes for an economic windfall have failed to materialize but also that the situation has actually deteriorated. "We expected the NTC to use the country's oil wealth to give us jobs now that the government is no longer sending our money to Africa like Gaddafi did," says Abd al-Basit al-Fituri, a clerk at the local courthouse. "But all we see is that the banks are still closed and that we can't even get our money out. The situation is worse now than it was before."

A major complaint is the lack of transparency. "We don't know where our money is going. We don't know how the NTC is choosing new members," grumbles Mohamed Bayu, 30. "The NTC must stand up and say what it stands for." Government officials admit that the protesters have a point. An NTC official explains how a key ministry left no paper trail detailing its transactions. "We don't have a single document tracing where the money went. How much things were bought and sold for. It is all in phone calls and conversations. That is not the democratic way. That is not even the Gaddafi way," says the official, who requested anonymity because he was speaking about a sensitive topic. He is equally critical when discussing new NTC appointments. "We don't know how the new members were chosen, what the criteria used to select them was. I see only judges and lawyers and people good at lying," he says, sighing as he flips through a recently leaked list of new NTC members.

"People were willing to be patient with the NTC's blunders while Gaddafi was in power. But now things have changed," explains Benghazi political-science professor Salah al-Sanussi. "They have failed to answer the demands of the people, and violence against the politicians is possible."

Even NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil is feeling the heat. Long admired by many Libyans for his probity and willingness to stand up to Gaddafi, under whom he served as Justice Minister, Abdel-Jalil is now facing criticism that would have been unthinkable just months ago. "He thinks we are foolish," says Muftah Kusabat, 43, cradling his 4-year-old son. "We will change him by force. He doesn't know what Benghazi means. But he will find out." Later, after an Abdel-Jalil supporter stopped his pickup truck in front of the square and denounced the attacks against the NTC leader, a crowd swarmed his vehicle and tried to remove him by force.

It was a scene virtually unseen in eastern Libya since the NTC was formed in February. But with few changes apparent in post-Gaddafi Libya, protests are likely to continue until the council institutes the reforms Libyans are demanding.