A key city in western Libya appeared to have been taken completely out of Muammar Qaddafi’s grasp today, as opposition forces in Libya's 'liberated' east made initial, symbolic steps toward creating a new transitional government.
Zawiya, about 50 miles west of Libya's capital, Tripoli, has been the scene of vicious fighting in recent days. Residents told the Monitor by phone that the center of the city has been cleared of Qaddafi’s loyalists, and opposition forces have even seized a few tanks. This account meshed with reporting from the Associated Press, which has a reporter on the ground in Zawiya.
Yesterday, Misurata, another strategic western town, fell and Qaddafi’s writ now seems mostly confined to Tripoli and his hometown of Sirte. Between the two locations, he appears to have at least 10,000 heavily armed men under his command, and they’ve already shown a willingness to use heavy machine gunfire and anti-aircraft guns on lightly armed protesters.
Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, two neighboring countries that drove out their dictators with relatively little bloodshed, Qaddafi’s Libya doesn’t have true functioning state institutions. While in those two countries a long-time ruling elite remains largely in control of state bureaucracies (angering many democracy protesters) when Qaddafi goes, there will be an enormous vacuum.
Libya’s constitution? Qaddafi’s own “Green Book,” a rambling screed about something called democratic socialism. Here in Benghazi and the rest of the east, the book -- required reading for all schoolchildren -- has already been pulled from the bookshelves and in most cases burned.
Today, a group of largely self-appointed leaders in eastern Libya tried to address that looming vacuum by declaring a symbolic transitional government. But the manner in which it was announced, and paucity of detail about it, are also indications of the challenges to come.
Former justice minister takes charge
On Saturday night, Mustafa Abd el-Jalil, Qaddafi’s former justice minister and the first government official to break with the regime when the uprising began, told Al Jazeera he would be named an interim prime minister of sorts. He was speaking from the eastern city of Al-Baida.
His role, he said, would be to talk to foreign governments and provide a transitional head of state when Qaddafi falls. He insisted his post would be temporary and said elections would be held within three months of the fall of Tripoli.
This morning, Libyans working with the transitional city council in Benghazi – which was declared in Libya's second-largest city last Friday – confirmed his comments were accurate. But then they backtracked, implying that it would all be sewn up by an afternoon press conference today.
The press conference happened, but Jalil wasn’t there. Instead, Abdelhafiz Ghogha, a lawyer who was arrested on Feb. 19 for supporting the uprising but who was released a few days later, said he had been named a spokesman for the Libyan “revolution,” and insisted there was no transitional government.
It all left the impression of strong internal disagreements among the people seeking to emerge as the leaders of what has been an almost entirely headless revolt so far.
“You have to patient with us,” says one official working with the Benghazi council. “There’s no history of this kind of political organizing here. There are people with different ideas, different opinions. But we’re finding compromise.”
Jalil seems to be broadly popular in the east of the country, praised for breaking with Qaddafi and for what Libyans say were efforts to make the justice system a little more independent and fair.
“He’s experienced and respected,” says Omar Edrissi, a doctor at Benghazi’s recently renamed “Martyrs Hospital” who worked 24-hour shifts tending to casualties during the worst of the fighting here a week ago. “Most importantly, his hands aren’t stained with blood.”
Anxiety tempers joy
There was a palpable shift in mood in Benghazi today, from optimism and joy at the prospect that Qaddafi would fall at any moment, to a growing anxiety that he continues to hang on to Tripoli.
At the courthouse that serves as the revolution's headquarters here, angry young men gathered at the entrance trying to push their way inside. Both here in Benghazi and in Al-Baida, untrained young men have been urging provisional leaders to send militias to join the fight in Tripoli. But it remains uncertain whether untrained militias could run the gauntlet of Sirte, a stronghold of Qaddafi loyalists.
People in the courthouse said they were worried about “spies” for Qaddafi infiltrating the site. And some were wondering if Qaddafi could make good on his threats of civil war.
In Tripoli and Zawiya, residents were getting a taste of what that could be like. Zawiya is said to be ringed by Qaddafi’s forces. In Tripoli, much of the city is gripped with panic as Qaddafi’s forces patrol the streets.
One woman reached by phone in Tripoli said she hasn’t left the house in a day and that people are being indiscriminately shot by Qaddafi’s forces, though this could not be independently confirmed.