Tara Todras-Whitehill)/AP
Libyans wave the former royal flag of Libya in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya, Saturday. Not all areas of Libya are as dangerous as Tripoli. Some in Benghazi say it is safe, citing open banks, a spirit of volunteerism, and even a transitional government.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Across 'liberated' eastern Libya, volunteerism and a pulling together

In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, one member of the transitional city council says that 'we have surprised even ourselves' as residents have stepped forward to maintain order.

The shrinking footprint of forces loyal to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi has spirits high in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city and one that is already free from his rule.

As US officials struggle to understand the quickly unfolding events, a predominant concern is that chaos and civil war could emerge after Mr. Qaddafi’s one-man rule is dispatched – if he doesn’t manage to sow it himself first.

But Umm Ahmed, head of the management committee for Benghazi’s new transitional city council, has a message for Washington: Don’t worry.

“Yes, there are no police, no institutions. Law and order as defined doesn’t exist,” she says. “But in practice, Benghazi is incredibly safe. Safer than it was under Qaddafi. People are all volunteering, the banks are opening. We surprised even ourselves.”

President Obama, citing Qaddafi’s use of “wanton violence” against his own people, issued an executive order Friday freezing the assets in the US of the Libyan government and Qaddafi’s family, less than an hour after the last US diplomat was evacuated from Tripoli. The UN is considering sanctions of its own in New York today.

Qaddafi is still reportedly holed up in his Tripoli stronghold of Bab al-Aziziya, a neighborhood filled with his friends, clansmen, and thousands of soldiers who answer to his sons. He has remained defiant, barking threats and insisting that all true Libyans love him. There were reports today from the capital that he’s distributing weapons to his supporters.

Though his rule seems finished, his rhetoric and actions are strong indications that there will be more blood to pay before this revolution succeeds.

Benghazi residents band together

But across 'liberated' eastern Libya, a spirit of volunteerism and pulling together is evident. At the “Voice of Free Libya,” the country’s first uncensored radio station in decades, people working there tell of strangers showing up with baskets of food. In the courthouse, an old man scrubs toilets – his way of doing something for the country, he says.

Jalal Galaal, a businessman who’s acting to bring together the city council and local interests, says businessmen and government officials started showing up last week at the courthouse – a focal point for protesters – asking what should be done.

“The guy who runs the gas pumping station that feeds the power plants here showed up and said 'I need help,' ” says Mr. Galaal. “We simply told him to get his people together and come up with a list. Wahda Bank said it needed protection. I think we sent a few guards, but once they saw things were safe here, they mostly organized things for themselves.”

He says it’s all evidence that fears of tribal divisions coming to the fore and Libya coming apart are false. “We’ve been direct and consistent with our message,” he says. “Benghazi is an important city and a proud city. But we want one Libya with Tripoli as its capital.”

That message is a response to Qaddafi’s attempts to paint the uprising as variously committed to breaking up Libya into a series of Islamic emirates, or as funded by drug lords, or as part of a joint Al Qaeda and US plot to destroy the country.

City councils try to connect

The Benghazi council, whose members were chosen from local notables – lawyers, businessmen, an engineer who knows something about the city’s infrastructure – is now trying to link up with other temporary governments that have sprung up in at least a half dozen other Libyan cities, Umm Ahmed and other council members say.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, Qaddafi’s former Justice minister and the first member of his regime to publicly break with him last week, was in Benghazi today to talk about future plans with the council. The idea is to appoint one member from each of the existing councils to act as a sort of transitional government-in-waiting, and at least give the international community someone to talk to in the interim.

“The interim group is just here to protect the uprising – none of us have political aspirations,” Umm Ahmed says.

Of course, there have been problems. There’s a 14th seat slated on the council for a representative of the Libyan military. But as of today, it was unfilled, with doubts among Libyans about which members of Qaddafi’s military have too much blood on their hands, and apparent jockeying among officers to establish themselves as preeminent.

And some of the youths who participated in the violent battles to wrest control of the Benghazi Barracks and state security headquarters from Qaddafi’s forces last week are suspicious about what’s going on inside the courthouse.

To be sure, the outcome in Libya is not a guaranteed transition to democracy. But so far, the uprising has been nothing like a coup, and the country has been infused with a spirit of unity.

“No one here is trying to hijack their revolution,” says Mustafa Gherani, who’s working with the council. “Our role is to make sure there’s food in the warehouses, the electricity keeps working, and the trash gets picked up until Tripoli falls. Then, hopefully, a constitution will be written with a separation of powers and a guarantee that no one will be above the law again.”

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