A City In Libya Takes Halting Steps To Democracy

BENGHAZI, Libya — Even at 9 a.m. on the seaside Corniche in front of the courthouse, the flaps on all the tents are closed, the trailer windows shaded, the privacy screens still erected for those who bedded down on mats on the broad sidewalks. Democracy sleeps late.

BENGHAZI, Libya — Even at 9 a.m. on the seaside Corniche in front of the courthouse, the flaps on all the tents are closed, the trailer windows shaded, the privacy screens still erected for those who bedded down on mats on the broad sidewalks. Democracy sleeps late.

As the fighting on the front line in eastern Libya settles into a stalemate 100 miles south of here, this city where the revolution against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi began in earnest on Feb. 17 has started to grapple with a daunting problem: building democracy in a society where there never was such a thing. Far out of the range of Colonel Qaddafi’s artillery and no longer worried about his air force, “Free Libya” is free to reinvent itself.

The courthouse on the Corniche is still singed inside and out from the populist fires that raged there. “We went inside the courts and suddenly there we were, in charge,” said Iman Bugaighis, a professor of orthodontics who was an early spokeswoman for the rebels.

Last Tuesday, crowds gathered outside the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, where the rebel government has been taking shape.

This is the epicenter of the rebel uprising, where public outrage at past injustices became armed resistance to present ones. Today, hundreds of pairs of eyes gaze over the Corniche, from fliers and posters plastered on the walls of the buildings on the seafront.

“Missing, missing, martyred, missing, missing, missing, martyred, martyred,” a guide reads from the descriptions under the faces, bearing the blank stares reserved for identity cards.

By late morning, the courthouse is crowded with people searching the walls for the faces of lost friends or bowing their heads before those they know have died. The Red Crescent Society lists 500 people still missing in Benghazi alone; it says 144 were killed.

Nearby, the former bar association building is filled with artists, musicians and activists, churning out posters, banners and revolutionary rock songs. Raw democracy is nothing if not creative. Latif Frajeni, 12, watched one day recently as his father, Mohammed, 50, taped up a revolutionary poem. Mr. Frajeni, a clerk at a stevedoring company, has written poetry before, but this is his first published work, if only on a wall.

Pride of place in the building is given to reproductions of the scurrilous anti-Qaddafi caricatures of a local artist, Kais al-Hilali. He was hunted down and assassinated after provoking the government by skewering Colonel Qaddafi on walls. In Mr. Hilali’s spirit, a doormat outside the building bears a version of the puffy face of the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution, as Colonel Qaddafi is officially known; visitors take care to pause and wipe their feet on it.

Along the Corniche, in front of the courts, scores of tents and trailers accommodate grass-roots efforts at democracy: one for law students, another for lawyers; one to report spies, another for some mothers and their daughters who have appointed themselves in charge of sweeping up the mess every morning.

Many of the tents are devoted to exposing past injustices, things once only whispered about. Democracy gets to speak out. The Al Ahly Sports Club tent commemorates the destruction of the city’s first division soccer team, after Benghazi fans booed Colonel Qaddafi’s son Saadi. Local people claim Saadi, a professional soccer player, was so terrible that his father must have purchased his position on a team.

The Abu Salim massacre tent documents what human rights advocates say were the mass murders of as many as 1,200 prisoners by guards in June 1996 after they protested poor conditions at Abu Salim, a notorious prison in Tripoli. This is a work in progress, as one by one family members bring in photographs of loved ones who died that day.

There is even a lost-property tent, mismatched flip-flops spilling out: sometimes the Corniche becomes so crowded, especially for Friday Prayer, that some people leave footwear behind.

Democracy is also messy. Despite repeated calls by the Transitional National Council to stop firing into the air because of the danger to innocent bystanders, every fresh piece of good news brings bursts of celebratory gunplay. “A lot of these guys don’t believe it,” said Dr. Salem Langhi, who treated eight wounded recently after a celebration. “They think the bullet’s headed into outer space.”

Once an almost elegant seafront city, Benghazi now is a mess on the Mediterranean. The volunteers may sweep up the Corniche every day, but elsewhere trash piles up.

“This is total freedom,” said Dr. Bugaighis, the orthodontics professor. “Before, somebody was in charge, really in charge, of everything. Now we can do whatever we want, and it means nobody is in charge and we are discovering the meaning and the borders of freedom.”

“We paid a high price, and we are in charge of this revolution,” she said. “Yes, there’s NATO in the sky, but what’s happening on the ground, we are doing that.” Her best moment so far was when she came across a committee of teenagers who were literally rewriting their Libyan history textbook.

“That really gave me hope,” she said.

On Wednesday, under the improbable rubric “Engineers for Revolution,” thousands gathered at a wedding hall here to exchange views and practical advice. Their wall-size logo showed the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb morphing into the green canopy of a tree.

“What’s happening now — everybody was astonished that it could ever happen,” said the newly appointed governor of Benghazi’s central bank, Ahmed S. el-Sharif. “We were thrown in the deep end and are learning how to swim. Before, there was no system, no administration; it was all a one-man show.”

Democracy could prove dangerous, Mr. Sharif acknowledged, but nothing compares to the threat that every Libyan lived under during Colonel Qaddafi’s 42 years in power.

Mr. Sharif said that people of his age group had worried that the young — the median age of Libyans is about 24 — would have been permanently ruined by years of government indoctrination and that when the moment of freedom came, they would not go for it.

Then he returned home one day to find his son Abdullah, 17, emptying the family’s pantry into boxes to distribute to the poor. His other son, Mohammad, 22, came out dressed in work clothes to take the family pickup and help clean up the neighborhood.

“I saw him as a lazy person, always sleeping late; we could never get him to take our own garbage out, and there he was,” he said. “It was amazing. I was so happy. I couldn’t keep the tears from my eyes.”

“Now, he’s on the front line.”

Libya’s new democrats may well have been part of an oil-rich state’s PlayStation 3 generation, but that also explains one of the most common slogans in graffiti around town: “Game Over.”

New York Times