Qaddafi holds no sway over these Libyans

In eastern Libya, local youths – some in uniform, some with guns slung over their shoulders – and tribes that have dropped their support for Qaddafi appear to be running the show.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
A man who identified himself as being against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi directs traffic on the main road in Msaead, east of Libya, on Feb. 23.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

At the Saloum crossing from Egypt into Libya, there was clear evidence of the revolutionary upheaval afoot in Muammar Qaddafi’s country.

On one side, a dozen journalists were trying to get into a country that’s been off limits to genuine reporting for decades. After a few hours of Egyptian bureaucracy, the reporters were waved through to the Libyan side – where there was no evidence of bureaucracy or Qaddafi’s regime at all.

A young man in a borrowed uniform without insignia, asked for names and employers, but didn’t even ask to see passports. A middle-aged woman with an air of authority and AK-47 on her shoulder – but no uniform – kept an eye on the flow of traffic.

On the other side, thousands of Egyptian migrant workers were pouring out of Libya, fleeing what they fear is a looming bloodbath after Col. Qaddafi called his own people “rats” and “cockroaches” in a national address on Tuesday.

Today at least, that fear wasn’t realized. While there were reports of violence in Tripoli and a few other western Libyan cities, in the eastern third or so of the country, where Qaddafi’s writ no longer reaches, it was largely peaceful.

It’s this eastern part of the country that’s thrown itself open to press and stands in stark contrast with the Tunisian border. There, with the Libyan capital of Tripoli little more than 100 miles away, a significant number of security forces and paramilitaries remain on Qaddafi’s side.

Around here, local youths and tribes that have dropped their support for Qaddafi appear to be running the show. There were loud and friendly welcomes when local Libyans realized reporters were arriving, in a place where talking to the press a few weeks ago carried the risk of a visit from the secret police, or worse.

At the few checkpoints along the 90-minute drive to Tobruk, the first major city west of Egypt, there were relaxed locals and at least two were handing out bottled water with best wishes to all and sundry.

“The military is splitting up into bits, some that support Qaddafi and some that don’t,” says a young man in Tobruk. “But here, the tribes and the youth and some of the military have everything under control. There’s no looting.”

While losing control of a third of a country in a little over a week was stunning, Qaddafi and his loyalists are still doing everything they can to hang on to power. Internet service remains cut off, and in large parts of the country cellphone service appears to be down.

Qaddafi must now be planning to take back places like Tobruk and Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city where whole military units abandoned his regime.

Benghazi, like Tobruk, was largely at peace today. But those fleeing Egyptians at the border are a reminder of Qaddafi’s reputation for violent reprisals.

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