In Libya's rebel capital, celebration turns to contemplation of future

Libya's rebel government, the National Transition Council, now faces a far greater task than governing Benghazi.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
People celebrate the fall of Tripoli near the court house in Benghazi, Libya, on Aug. 22.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

A day after the rebels battling the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi surged unexpectedly into Tripoli, the raucous celebrations in the rebels' de facto capital of Benghazi has receded into contemplation of what comes next.

“For sure we are going to face some difficulties,” says Fathi El Turki, who nevertheless says he has hope that revenge violence could be avoided. But he has little faith in the rebel leadership – the National Transitional Council, which has been governing rebel-controlled Benghazi for months.

Now that Mr. Qaddafi’s rule has all but expired, the NTC will have a much larger responsibility: steering the country through a fraught transition into elections, while preventing Libya from fracturing into further violence. Western governments from France to Britain to the US, which spearheaded the five-month NATO siege on Libya, have thrown their weight behind the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people and the one best positioned to usher in democracy.

Mr. Turki says he believes the NTC, which has vowed to move its headquarters to Tripoli in the coming days, is “not up to the task. But I believe all people will support them just to pass through this period.”

'It's over, believe me'

Benghazi’s Liberation Square, the site of wild celebration last night when residents heard the news that two of Qaddafi’s sons had been captured by the rebels, was calm Monday. A group of men sat in the late afternoon sun, enjoying the cool breeze from the Mediterranean as they waited to break the Ramadan fast.

They said they were optimistic about the next few weeks and months.

The rebels’ quick advance into Tripoli gave businessman Yousif Boufana hope that Qaddafi’s regime would be finished off without much further bloodshed. “It’s over, believe me. Everyone who belongs to Qaddafi will surrender,” he said.

Others chimed in to say that the country would unite instead of splintering along tribal lines as Qaddafi’s regime fell. And they said they trusted the NTC to guide the nation until a government can be elected.

“We support them. All Libyans support them,” said Jumma Warlfly, a teacher. The council is strong enough to prevent violence, he said.

'The next stage will be the hardest'

But others expressed concern about the NTC, whose credibility was stretched last month when its military commander, Gen. Abdel Fatah Younis, was assassinated in rebel custody under murky circumstances – an incident that has yet to be explained to residents' satisfaction.

NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil sought to set a tone of reconciliation for the country in a statement today, and also brace ecstatic Libyans for the hard road ahead.

“Libyans must realize that the coming period will not be a bed of roses. We face many challenges and we have many responsibilities," he said. "Beginning with healing the wounds and putting our hands in one another’s. All this in loyalty to the blood of our martyrs. And to the principles that this revolution was created for: creating safety, security, peace, and prosperity. These principles can only be achieved through reconciliation, forbearance, and tolerance.

“All of this will be done after we put the finishing touches and we identify those who are responsible for acts in Libya," he said, urging against revenge killings. “Therefore I call upon all Libyans to practice self-control and to protect the lives and properties of others.”

One woman in Benghazi, who asked to remain anonymous because of uncertain circumstances, was unimpressed. She said that the NTC's reputation had been further damaged when Mr. Jalil announced today that Qaddafi's son Mohammed had escaped after being captured by rebels – an announcement that aroused anger from some in Benghazi.

She said she no longer had faith that Jalil could lead Libya through the transition.

“We respect him as a man, but we don't think of him as a leader. I don't think he can run the next period because we need a powerful man," she said. "We need a leader, someone who's going to take us through the next stage. Because the next stage will be the hardest for the Libyan people.”

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