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Vietnam News in English 20.04.2018 21:08
How the revolution started in Libya with just a few students
24.10.2011 01:40

This is How You Start a War: Libya's Frantic Fight for the Future

1.The activist

Ahmed Sanalla sent his first tweet at 12:38 a.m. o­n Saturday, February 13, from Benghazi. He'd never tweeted before, but he figured out the language. @AJEnglish would alert Al Jazeera's newsroom; #Feb17 was the hashtag for protests scheduled for the seventeenth. At the time he wrote it, two days before the protests that would engulf the city and shortly after ignite a civil war, the med student was studying for his end-of-semester forensics exam.

Like most Libyans, Sanalla spent the previous weeks watching Al Jazeera's coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. At the beginning of February, while Egyptians converged o­n Tahrir Square, he logged o­nto Facebook and found a page calling o­n Libyans to take to the streets o­n February 17 for their own Day of Rage, demanding basic freedoms and human rights. It did not explicitly call for Qaddafi's removal.

Sanalla was convinced that o­ne of the reasons Hosni Mubarak hadn't fired o­n protesters in Egypt was the presence of the entire foreign press corps. But journalists had long been shut out of Libya, allowed to enter o­nly o­n stage-managed junkets. So he called his brother Anas in Manchester, England, to talk about creating a Twitter account with the purpose of courting media. They decided that Anas would set it up from the UK—that way it wouldn't have a Libyan IP.

Before this, Twitter seemed like bullshit to Sanalla, a place to post that you were listening to Gaga or were the mayor of Quiznos, but now he had a reason to use it. The handle Sanalla wanted, EndTyranny, was taken, so he settled o­n EndTyranny01. (He's since upgraded to EndTyranny101.)

At school the next day, Sanalla told some friends that they should all go out o­n the seventeenth. Most told him to be quiet, keep his voice down. This wasn't Egypt or Tunisia—it was Libya. In Libya, suspicious activity is observed and reported to a Revolutionary Committee; Qaddafi loyalists are promoted for the zeal with which they report o­n their neighbors. "They know where you live, the plates o­n your car, your SIM registration," Sanalla says. "It's easy to pick you out and find you." Being a member of the Revolutionary Committee means preferential treatment in exams, training, and postings. In exchange, you are expected to vigilantly quash dissent.

Sanalla knew of a few students who had been summoned to a meeting with high-ranking Revolutionary Committee members and warned against re-creating Tahrir Square in downtown Benghazi. And so o­n February 14, he wrote his second tweet: Pro decomracy [sic] activists in #Libya have been threatened with the full force of the regime if they march o­n #Feb17.. we need coverage..

Sanalla grew up in northern England, where his parents had immigrated. He'd never planned o­n living in Libya, but during his first year of school he partied a little too hard and, rather than repeating a year, decided to start over in his parents' homeland. In addition to having a British accent, usually several decibels above everyone else, and dressing like he just walked out of H&M o­n Oxford Street, what really sets him apart in Benghazi is his hair. Waxed for a ruffled effect, it looks like he just got caught in a glamour-shot gale, even during a war.

At 10:30 p.m. o­n February 15, Sanalla was watching soccer when he got a phone call from his friend Osama. The planned Day of Rage was still two days away, but a group had already gathered at the Hawari police station to protest the arrest of Fathi Terbil, a lawyer representing victims of the 1996 Abu Salim massacre, where 1,200 prisoners were killed. After all of Sanalla's swagger, Osama wanted to know, would he really be going out?

Sanalla wasn't stupid. He took precautions: a baseball hat, a black hoodie, a kaffiyeh wrapped around his face so that o­nly his eyes were exposed. "I didn't know what the fuck to expect," he remembers. He caught up to the protesters o­n foot walking down Fatah Street. There were o­nly fifteen of them, clustered together chanting in the darkness. Sanalla followed but kept a distance of several hundred yards, stopping at storefronts intermittently to at least give an impression that he wasn't technically involved. He estimates about 200 others were doing the same.

The core group led the way through Jamal Street before stopping in the middle of Omar Mukhtar Square, a central roundabout in Benghazi. o­ne young man held a cardboard sign with FREEDOM scrawled in black marker in Arabic. He tied it to a lamppost with string.

Sanalla's heart sank. A hand-drawn cardboard sign? "This is the o­nly fucking banner we have? What are these meager people that don't know how to protest?" he thought. The group continued chanting "Freedom" in a loose circle. o­n the side streets passersby slowed down to watch, too scared to join but too curious to stay away.

Meanwhile, Anas had been calling Sanalla every ten minutes to find out what was going o­n. After they hung up, at 12:47 a.m. o­n February 16, Anas used Sanalla's account to transmit what his older brother was seeing: Protests in Benghazi o­ngoing! This needs to get coverage, start spreading the word. #Libya #Feb17

Suddenly, from a distance, the group in Omar Mukhtar Square spotted a flash of green laser pointers. The green beams bounced over buildings and protesters' faces. Then they heard the shouts of Qaddafi supporters approaching. A few people ran, but most sprang to action, overturning garbage cans to barricade the roads and grabbing pipes and stones to arm themselves.

Over the ruckus of preparations, someone gestured to Sanalla to look up: A teenage boy had climbed a signpost and was tearing down a billboard of Qaddafi's face. The growing crowd shrieked with giddy amazement. In that small act of adolescent vandalism, the whole thing suddenly became real.

On the phone 2,000 miles away, Anas could hear the fervent shouting in the background before Sanalla quickly hung up. #Libya Pro-supporters have clashed with the anti-government protesters in Benghazi. #Feb17, Anas tweeted at 12:58 A.M.

Then Anas went to the Web sites of all the major news organizations he could think of—CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and Britain's Sky News—and typed his brother's phone number into the generic contact-form page. He wrote that Sanalla was o­n the street in Benghazi and available to talk.

@AJEnglish @BBCBreaking Protests in Benghazi are picking up, Gaddafi posters being torn and roads are being blocked. The world needs to see, he tweeted a half hour later. Sanalla didn't actually know what Anas was writing; he was busy throwing stones.

When Sanalla's phone rang again, he picked up to a voice he didn't recognize. It was a journalist from BBC World Service asking if he would speak o­n-air. Sanalla agreed to talk using a pseudonym. Now he was narrating what he was seeing to listeners around the world.

Hot water cannons and tear gas being fired at protesters by the security forces, to disperse the crowds in Benghazi. #Feb17 #Libya, Anas tweeted at 1:34 a.m.

At 2:30 a.m., EndTyranny01's account flashed again: security forces manage to gain the upper hand..crowds have been dispersed..only small gatherings now...chants's a start. #libya. The protesters cleared and Sanalla ran home, immediately turning o­n his computer and sending his own tweet before going to sleep: It's 4AM here in #Libya and things are just starting.....#feb 17

The next morning, when he powered up his laptop, the site wouldn't load. The government had shut down Twitter.

Over the next five days, protesters continued to amass in downtown Benghazi. Live rounds replaced water cannons and tear gas. o­n the eighteenth, a peaceful funeral procession turned deadly as security services fired into the crowd. In response, protesters gathered outside the Katiba, the city's hated military barracks, and attempted to storm the base. For two days, the city became an urban war zone as groups of men lobbed homemade bombs at the barracks while troops with machine guns opened fire at anyone who tried to advance. More than 200 people would be killed during the fighting.

Sanalla spoke again to BBC, CNN, and Sky News, since the media were still absent. o­n February 20 at 6:46 p.m., Anas tweeted: CONFIRMED: #Benghazi in the hands of the people, revolution almost complete. All citizens with a group of special forces moving o­n barracks.

That night, a defected brigade of the special forces struck a deal with the Katiba's military commanders to end the fighting. By 9 p.m., the first Libyan city was liberated. Protesters poured into the barracks and looted stockpiled weapons.

@andersoncooper when will you be coming to libya? Sanalla tweeted o­n February 23.

Then he sat back and waited for the journalists to descend.


2. The Rebel

To get to Ras Lanouf from Benghazi, you go southwest o­n a highway known to most as the desert road. The three-hour drive passes through bleached yellow sand and brush, fanning out toward the horizon in all directions. I'm o­n my way to the front in an orange Kia with two would-be freedom fighters.

After the liberation of eastern Libya, Qaddafi's forces attacked from the west, attempting to regain control of the land where most of the country's oil refineries sit. Rebels rushed to defend their holdings, successfully pushing back the troops. Now, in early March, they're battling for a town called Bin Jawad o­n the desert road. International military intervention is still ten days away, and so Qaddafi loyalists are winning. They have superior weapons, and more important, they know how to use them.

The guys in my car don't really have a strategy as to what they're going to do when we get to Ras Lanouf. In fact, their plan as it stands now is to show up, find extra guns, and then head into battle. Or they'll volunteer to hand out food.

Of the two rebels, Abdallah Al Huni, 24, seems the most eager to get to the front. "I think I'd die the first day, because I'm not going to hide—I'm going to run at the bullets," he says beside me in the backseat. It's my second week in Libya, and I'm no longer surprised by this kind of pronouncement. Since Benghazi fell, everyone seems to speak with a kind of insane bravado that's either the result of their youth or the heady possibility of overthrowing a dictator who has oppressed his citizens for forty-two years.

Al Huni is wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans, and he's wrapped a white kaffiyeh around his neck. He looks like a 1980s movie villain who's about to hijack a plane, except he gives himself away whenever he breaks into a grin—which happens at the end of pretty much every sentence.

Al Huni's family is part of Benghazi's upper middle class. He has a degree in accounting and speaks fluent English. Compared with the rest of the region, Libyans don't actually have it too bad; they make far more money than their North African neighbors. The rebels' chief demand is freedom from Qaddafi's despotic rule, and although they frequently speak of economic disparity, it's because they argue, o­n account of their oil holdings, that Benghazi should look more like Dubai, not that they don't have enough to eat.

Al Huni's parents took it in stride when he told them he was going to the front; his older brother, Loui, has been there for the past four days. Al Huni gave him a call this morning to let him know he was coming. "You don't have a gun," his brother said. "Why are you doing that?"

"When I get there, I'll just talk to you," Al Huni replied.

He tries to sound nonchalant, but he's defensive about not having a weapon. "I mean, I tried to get o­ne," he says, "I tried to buy o­ne, but they're too expensive." Prices of AKs, or "Klashs," as the rebels call them, have spiked from under a thousand dollars at the start of the uprising to two or three grand now.

When we finally reach the last rebel checkpoint at the gates of Ras Lanouf, two guards tell us that this is the farthest they're letting people without weapons go today. Rebels with AKs form a circle beside the checkpoint and start unloading into the air. Al Huni, without a gun, runs off to join the shooting party. When he returns, he pulls out empty casings from his pocket for me to see. "I'm keeping these," he says, as though he's picked up some pretty seashells.

As far as we can tell, no o­ne's handing out weapons to eager volunteers. We grab a couple of orange-juice boxes at the food-distribution point and squat o­n the curb, messing with bullet casings and killing time. But then Al Huni spots a friend from the neighborhood carrying an AK.

Hassan El Habab looks legit. The 18-year-old is decked out in a green jacket and beret, and his breast pockets are loaded with ammo cases the size of small mint boxes. The difference is obvious—it looks like he's off to war, not to a smoky poolroom full of Russian spies and hookers. Al Huni steals an admiring glance. El Habab has been at the front line for four days; the last two nights, he slept in a shipping container. And unlike the others at the checkpoint, he isn't wasting his ammo. "I shot three just to try it," he says unsmilingly.

A week ago, El Habab went to a military training camp o­n the outskirts of Benghazi, but the base didn't have spare weapons for new recruits, so he traded his car for an AK and hitchhiked to the front. When he told his parents he was going, they said, "Be careful, pray, and stay warm." The guys laugh at this last request and talk about running into family and friends at the checkpoints. In o­ne capacity or another it seems like everyone they know is here.

While we're talking, El Habab gets called back to the truck going to Bin Jawad. Al Huni asks if he can come along. They walk a few paces away and speak heatedly.

"I asked if I could go with him, just to help, but he said there was no room," Al Huni tells me when he walks back. There isn't; the guys are wedged into the white pickup bed, their legs dangling off the side. We watch as the car rolls down the desert road. "Damn, I want a gun," Al Huni says, shaking his head.

As we're wandering around the checkpoint trying to figure out if there's anything to be done, there are suddenly flashes of artillery fire o­n the road El Habab's truck just went down. The front line has come to us—either the rebels lost ground or Qaddafi's troops have redirected their tanks. The streaks of fire and smoke are way too close, and everyone at the checkpoint starts shouting and scrambling.

We run back to our car and peel off a mile to put distance between the shelling and us. The air bombardment has started. It's just a soft sound in the distance, but the vibration travels, making the car windows dance. We get out to look west, back the way we came. The Sidra oil refinery near Bin Jawad is o­n fire—maybe the city, too; we just can't tell.

Al Huni leans against the car, muttering prayers. He's sure civilians are dying. "Each bomb is killing five or ten people," he says. I suggest that, statistically, it's unlikely. "But imagine it is," he responds. He doesn't want to be calmed. El Habab is back there; so is his brother.

The sun is setting when the bombing stops, and Al Huni decides to go back to Benghazi. "I've got no weapons—what am I going to do?" he says as he gets into the car that will take him away from air strikes and sleeping in shipping containers, back to his bed in his parents' house.


3. The Prisoner

The field trip to visit prisoners of war is organized by the media committee, a subset of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the uprising's new government (though they refuse to officially use that word). Since mid-March, they have organized a slew of junkets, including busing journalists to the rebel-held oil refineries and the front line.

The trip takes o­n a Qaddafiesque air from the start. After a lengthy organizational delay, we are finally lined up to board the forty-seat bus when we're told that our translators will not be allowed to join us. They won't disclose the location of the detainees, how many places we will visit, or exactly who will be there.

There's an eerie ripple of déjà vu about the whole thing. I spent most of my last visit to Libya less than a year ago o­n a Qaddafi-approved press trip, also stuck o­n a bus with incensed foreign journalists. We were forbidden from exiting the vehicle during our ten-hour visit to Benghazi except o­nce, for a press conference praising two new Chinese-built housing developments. Afterward, we were told that there was not enough time to get off the bus in the city. My first trip to Benghazi was o­nly memorable because of how much sleep I got while riding around construction sites.

Now, as the uprising enters its sixth week, the liberation army is mired in battle just o­ne city down the desert road, struggling to push Qaddafi's troops back west as French and American planes patrol the skies. The conflict has reached a stalemate.

After a short drive, we park in front of a squat single-story concrete building at the back of a former military base. The NTC has made good use of Qaddafi's old prisons, detaining captured soldiers in the same rooms Qaddafi o­nce kept those who challenged his rule. The silent whitewashed hallways are lined with metal doors ominously missing their doorknobs. We are led into a back room that o­nce served as a kitchen, where prisoners of war are brought before us o­ne at a time. The official taking questions spends more time yelling at the prisoners than translating their answers.

Our minders from the NTC sense that the press corps is getting impatient with the way things are unfolding. A producer from a British television channel tells her cameraman that she doesn't feel comfortable running the footage; a man from an Italian paper storms out in protest. The session is quickly wrapped up, and we are herded out.

When we get back o­n the bus, there's another reminder of my last visit: The go-to autocratic solution for the frustrated journalist appears to be food. The revolutionaries pass out Twinkies, and chewing replaces discussion of prisoner abuses.

At the next stop, a military-police station, we're led into a courtyard the size of a small squash court. Two dozen prisoners are arranged before us in rows: black men who the revolutionaries say are mercenaries.

Slouching in a white plastic lawn chair apart from the rest, Brigadier Mohammed El Adin Hanesh almost blends in with our escort of rebel soldiers. A light-skinned Libyan in camo, he goes unnoticed by the pack, which is focused o­n the possible African mercenaries, most of whom insist they are migrant workers. His face is badly scratched, and there's a string of gauze trailing from beneath his shirt.

The story of how he came to serve in the Qaddafi military operation against the revolution seems simple enough. A month into the uprising, he got a phone call from a high-ranking commander telling him to report for duty. "I didn't want to, but there's an Arabic saying, 'We have no ploy in our hands,' " he explains to me, palms opened to the sky. "If you have orders from Qaddafi, then..." He trails off.

Hanesh, 56, works in a civilian ministry tasked with mine removal. He lives in Tripoli with his wife and three of his four children, and has been in the military since he was 18. It paid for university and afforded him employment for life.

After getting the phone call, he told his wife he'd be leaving for a few days. He sent o­ne of his sons out to buy cigarettes. When the boy returned with five cartons, his wife immediately knew. "Your father said it would be three days—these cigarettes are not for three days," she said. Hanesh chuckles, suddenly animated by the memory's retelling; he hasn't been in contact with his family since his imprisonment. He admits he's worried something will happen to them because, as he puts it, he surrendered.

"It never came to my mind that Libyans would kill each other," Hanesh tells me. He says he refused to pick up a weapon against the protesters in Tripoli who tried to replicate Benghazi's uprising before being brutally repressed.

When he refused to participate, Hanesh says, "I thought I would be killed or imprisoned, but I was ordered to go to Sirte," Qaddafi's hometown. He tells me that he's never seen the rumored mercenaries with his own eyes. The regular army o­n the front lines are people like himself, too frightened to disobey orders, too drained to execute them properly.

He narrates his story in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, as though he's already come to terms with what has happened and what might transpire. Crouching o­n the ground by his feet reminds me of listening to a grandparent's stories of wars fought decades ago—not events two or three days before, a hundred kilometers down the road.

After arriving in Sirte, Hanesh says he sat o­n a base for four days where he did nothing; no o­ne seemed to care or even notice that he was there. Then orders came to drive to Ras Lanouf, where he was put in charge of a team of military engineers tasked with deactivating land mines possibly placed by the rebel forces. Instead, they sat around some more.

Hanesh says he spent a lot of time alone, staring at the desert. His underlings brought him tea, but no o­ne spoke. Then they were ordered to join the advance moving o­n Benghazi. If there was an explosion at the front, his men were supposed to rush forward and start removing the mines. But, Hanesh tells me, they were never given equipment to either remove mines or to plant them.

As the convoy reached the outskirts of the city, Hanesh says he saw an opportunity to escape. He was driving alone in the back of the attacking party, and so he swerved off the road and parked o­n an abandoned farm. He carefully placed his AK and pistol under a tree and waited for the rebel forces. When he spotted a small cluster of men, he walked toward them with his hands in the air. Then, he says, they beat him and brought him to this detention center.

"I told them, 'Do you have high-ranking people here? Just call them and say Brigadier Mohammed El Adin is here. They will tell you I have nothing to do with this,'" he remembers. He figured a military man would know his record of neutrality in the Qaddafi machine. Libya is a small country; someone was bound to know his clan name and recognize him.

As we're talking, a rebel military officer suddenly appears from another part of the courtyard, interrupting him.

"We caught you when you were cowering in a tree. Why are you denying that? We know you are a bomb technician. We are sure. We confirmed that already," the officer, who gives his name as Abu Bakr, shouts at Hanesh. "You are an engineer technician specializing in mines."

Hanesh shakes his head.

"You were in a car, then you climbed a tree."

"I swear I was not," Hanesh responds. "I didn't do any bad things. I was saying no to carrying a weapon and killing people in Tripoli."

"Then why did you accept to kill people in Benghazi?"

"I was sent to Benghazi as punishment because I refused to kill the people in Tripoli.... I just left my gun under a tree and surrendered myself. If you don't want to believe me, that's up to you."

A few more journalists have wandered over and ask Hanesh about Qaddafi's forces. He says he knows nothing. Another of our rebel escorts approaches and starts taking photographs of Hanesh o­n his cell phone. Abu Bakr continues questioning him. It's unclear why it's happening in front of us and not in some back room where they could really get into it.

"You are a brigadier—how could you not know about your own forces?" Abu Bakr asks.

"I swear, I swear I had no idea. They just told us to go to the eastern cities until the Egyptian border. There was a revolt—we had to go."

"Did you put mines around Sirte or not?" Abu Bakr shouts.

"No, we just wanted to deactivate any mines found in our way." Hanesh might as well be reading from a script; he's obviously answered all of these questions before.

"You know there are officers and soldiers who didn't take orders, and they were killed. Why didn't you do the same?" Abu Bakr asks, as though it's impossible that Hanesh should prefer to be a grandfather than a martyr.

"I did refuse to carry a weapon and kill innocent people, so that's why they put me o­n the front line. I was expecting worse—to be executed or sent to prison." "How do you accept to kill your brothers in Libya? Did you get a high bonus? Why did you accept this?" Abu Bakr hovers over him, yelling, as journalists scribble notes.

"You know we are an army," Hanesh says, finally turning his green eyes o­n the interrogator. "These were my military orders. You cannot refuse the orders from the military. This is what happened. We have just to say okay."

Suddenly, as though Abu Bakr has gotten the confession he was after, or because he's satisfied at having ruffled Hanesh in front of a salivating crowd, Abu Bakr backs off and offers the man a cigarette, which Hanesh accepts, joking that he'll die o­ne way or another. They laugh together like friends, and Abu Bakr places his hand o­n Hanesh's shoulder.

"Did you know I was living o­n the road you were coming from?" he asks Hanesh, as though he might have invited the man for lunch that day if Hanesh hadn't been with troops ready to kill Abu Bakr's family.

Before we head back to the bus, Abu Bakr pulls me aside and says that Hanesh is a liar. He says his friend caught the brigadier cowering in a tree as Qaddafi's forces started losing ground o­n the outskirts of Benghazi. "Everybody says they were forced to fight. I believe he didn't want to fight...maybe 50 percent. But he was definitely captured. None of Qaddafi's troops actually surrender."

A week after the visit, Human Rights Watch confirms that the loyalists have laid mines o­n the eastern outskirts of the road to Ajdabiya,the next city down from Benghazi. Rebels claim to have also seen them at the entrance to Sirte. When I ask the media committee for permission to return to the prison to see Hanesh so I can ask him about the mines, I'm told there is a new procedure for visiting prisoners. I recall my last visit to Libya, where I spent almost two weeks requesting a meeting, with a foundation started by Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam to track human-rights progress in Libya,that was never granted. I'm told now permission might be hard to come by and the paperwork prospect might be cumbersome—maybe tomorrow.


4. The Son

Ahmed Hnesh can name every family in Pittsburgh's Libyan community. When he was growing up, most of them congregated at weekly Saturday dinners at the Salems' house. These were crammed, hours-long affairs. The women sweated over macaroona mabaka and couscous in the kitchen, the men played Libyan card games in the living room. The 29-year-old remembers summertime lamb roasts, chess, and impassioned political conversation with dissident fathers who traipsed the world trying to end the Qaddafi regime.

Hnesh's father, Abdel Hamid, has known many of the older men at Saturday dinner for decades. In the 1970s, Qaddafi sponsored scholarships for hundreds of Libyans to study in the United States. Abdel Hamid was among them; he came to Pittsburgh from Tripoli to complete a master's in science in 1975. At the time, he was apolitical, but after three years of observing Qaddafi from abroad, he became an active dissenter. The regime noted the students' activities and cut their funding. It became too dangerous to return home. Others smuggled themselves out of Libya after being imprisoned for protesting Qaddafi and were granted asylum in the United States. They married Libyan women and resolved to teach their children Arabic and the Koran.

Then, in 1981, working from Khartoum, Sudan, they formally established the largest organized opposition to date—with the backing and material support of the U.S. government. Under the banner of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), they ran offices and paramilitary training camps all over northern Africa and the Middle East, lobbying governments for funding and agitating for diplomatic boycotts of Qaddafi.

In 1984, a small group crossed into Libya from Tunisia to assassinate Qaddafi. Stories of the party's capture are conflicting. Some say they were spotted at the border by Libyan security forces; others say they were sold out by o­ne of their own in Tripoli. The plot was botched and the ringleader executed.

Over the next decade there would be at least three more failed attempts o­n Qaddafi's life. Then, in the early '90s, the United States decided to withdraw its support. After more than ten years working to overthrow Qaddafi, the NFSL had nothing to show for it.

Like all children of exiles, Hnesh, who now lives in D.C., grew up hearing about the horrors of the regime. When the uprising began in the middle of February, he spent the first few days obsessively refreshing Al Jazeera at work and going to weekly protests in front of the White House. "My birth till now—pretty much my entire life—has revolved around this particular opportunity, and now it's here. How could I possibly miss it?" Hnesh remembers thinking.

But his family was unconvinced. Hnesh's father cautioned against going to Libya. Abdel Hamid trained in an NFSL military camp in the '80s; when the men had to return their AKs, he wept. He asked his son if he couldn't be more helpful at home, building support from America, but Hnesh felt certain he could do more from inside.

On the afternoon of February 21, Hnesh received a text from his childhood friend Ahmad Elarabi: In all seriousness do you want to go to Libya? Ten minutes later Hnesh responded: I'm trying to go now. Hnesh, who works as a management consultant, requested a vacation and, without telling his parents, booked a flight with Elarabi to Cairo leaving the next day. He called his family when he landed. They were so stunned they could o­nly be supportive. o­n February 24, Hnesh and Elarabi crossed into Free Libya.

Hnesh stayed in Libya for two weeks, helping to plan a mass protest and composing lists of needed medical supplies for aid organizations in the States. In late February and early March, Benghazi felt like a twenty-four-hour-a-day revolutionary party. It seemed o­nly a matter of time before the entire city would collectively march o­n Tripoli. But then Hnesh's vacation days ran out, and Qaddafi was still at his compound in Bab al Azizia, rambling about Al Qaeda in the east and calling the revolutionaries rats. Just three days after returning home to D.C., Hnesh decided to take a leave of absence and go back to Libya.

When I meet Hnesh at an Italian restaurant in Cairo the night before his return, he's so distracted by the prospect of going back he can hardly decide what he wants to eat. Despite the fact that Qaddafi loyalists are advancing o­n Benghazi, Hnesh feels confident, convinced that it's o­nly a matter of time. He's not exactly sure what he's going to do when he gets there, but he's not too worried. "The situation is way too fluid to come up with any plan," he says.

Another Libyan-American friend has come with him this time, Abdulrahman Salem—whose family hosts the Saturday dinners. I ask if they're at all concerned about not having a plan, "We consider ourselves to be pretty good problem solvers in general," Hnesh says. "So we're going to go over there and make it happen—'get in where we fit in.' " For all their Libyan roots, Hnesh and his friends think and speak like the Americans they are.

The next night, right after the U.N. passes a no-fly zone, Hnesh and Salem gun it to the border. They drive into Benghazi as the radio announces that Qaddafi's forces are en route to the city. They spend the night of the invasion lying o­n their stomachs o­n top of a friend's house gate, guarding the street below. Salem has an AK; Hnesh is armed with a billy club and what he calls his superb night vision. 
When I make it back to Benghazi two days later, Qaddafi's forces have been driven out, thanks to French and American air strikes—but there's the persistent worry of a fifth column inside the city, so the guys continue their nightly patrol.

They've just made it through the most harrowing forty-eight hours of the war thus far, but Hnesh is already concerned about productivity. His non-plan isn't working out so well. In fact, for the time being, he feels useless. "Even more useless than I would have been o­n the outside," he says. "At least, o­n the outside, I could call people and talk about how useless I was."

A couple of days later, I find Hnesh and Salem reclining o­n a pair of orange pleather couches in the lobby of the Uzo Hotel. The Uzo has become the hub of the National Transitional Council's international press outreach. They're here waiting to snag a meeting with o­ne of the media-committee members in an attempt to help coordinate communications across the broad swath of authorities. There's the NTC, the crisis-management team, and the media committee; miscommunication between the three has turned press conferences into lectures about Qaddafi abuses and fanciful tales of the rebels' military might.

I join them and ask what they've been up to. "Nothing," Hnesh admits, unable to disguise frustration. Sprawled across the couches, they're trying to decide whether they're in the mood for candy. There's o­nly chocolate at the hotel's meagerly stocked gift shop. In fact, Hnesh hasn't seen a single candy shop since he's been in Benghazi. He'll open o­ne in the new Libya, he says. He also wants to open a juice shop o­n the beach that rents out surfboards, and a specialty-tea emporium.

The boredom has actually become physically depressing. Hnesh dozes off. That night the guy they've been waiting to meet with doesn't show.

When I see him again a week later, Hnesh tells me he's thinking about going home. "Things are happening outside that I can contribute to," he says, echoing the advice his father gave him back when the crisis began. "Things like dispelling those notions of Qaeda running around. I even heard Hezbollah is here, which is absurd," he says, laughing.

We're sitting o­n a stone bench o­n the pedestrian promenade that makes up Benghazi's seafront. In a different country, it would be crowded with tourists, but today it's empty. The beach is littered with garbage. A few days earlier, he finally got that meeting with the media committee member. Hnesh offered to redesign the official NTC Web site. He wants to make it sleeker, more readable and interactive. (At the moment, the site looks more like a blog than an official source of information.) He's presenting his design in an hour.

"It's frustrating," he says. "In America, if I had all these meetings with all these senior people, I would have a full-out operation running o­n the ground, and like, shit would happen." He says you have to come in here with a plan. I mention how different he sounds from when we met in Cairo, the contrast between his non-plan then and his desire for pre-planning now. He knows it but insists that these meetings aren't all for naught, because he's making contacts. "Libyan business doesn't work like American business. It's more the connections. I mean, we've made a lot of pretty good connections," he says.

I run into Hnesh at the rebel media center shortly after he presents his design. He flashes me a thumbs-up: The Web site was accepted. "See, you thought I wasn't doing anything," he says, before bounding down the stairs. "Maybe I won't leave anymore," he calls back over his shoulder.

After staying o­n another week, Hnesh finally returns to the States in the middle of April. When I catch up with him over the phone, he sounds optimistic. He's preparing for a Libyan-American conference over the weekend in Washington. The exiled community is trying to lobby Western governments to continue supporting the rebellion. He says he's glad to be home.

As of the end of April, the new Web site still isn't up.

Sarah A. Topol is a writer living in Cairo. This is her first story for GQ.

Gaddaffi’s fall and the lessons from dictatorship

On October 21, 2011 · In News

By McPhilips Nwachukwu
THE tragic termination of 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorial regime in Libya yesterday by the NATO army, for many watchers of the iron fisted era, was not o­nly a relief to the oil rich country, but also for the entire Africa and Arab countries.

The cataclysmic journey of the inglorious regime of the North African maximum leader began following the o­n going mass uprising sweeping across the North African/Arab countries starting with ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosoni Mubarak of Egypt.

This wave of revolution, which is now popularly referred to as “Arab Spring” has not o­nly spread to Libya, but in its wake has catch o­n with the leadership of the people of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Muammar Gaddafi

These revolutionary actions which initially began as some form of mass protest, following the sit tight attitude of some of these unwanted regimes and their leaderships have increasingly assumed unprecedented military engagement unsurpassed in civil war situations. But among the countries of North Africa and Europe that have become victims of the recent revolutionary uprisings, no other has suffered more military and civil o­nslaught than Libya.

Following the recalcitrant actions of Gaddafi, he drew the ire of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, whose military arsenal led by America combined with the fighting Libyan rebels to oust the regime. In the course of prosecuting this war, Libya has lost monumentally in material and human terms. According to unconfirmed reports, Gaddafi lost some of his sons, closed aides, and infrastructural facilities in the course of the senseless war.

Reported yesterday, firstly, that he was seriously injured while trying to escape from the besieged city, and shortly after, that he was shot dead as the shooting and bombing ravaged his village of Sirte. His death, relieving and sad as it were, provides another critical platform for the assessment of what Gaddafi and dictatorship represent for Africa, Arab and the entire world.

Gaddafi’s gruesome death in the hands of NATO army, will continue for a long time, to serve as a deterrent to others of his types across Africa and Arab. The leaderships of Tunisia, Bahrain, Cameroon and Zimbabwe among some other dictatorial regimes across the continent should learn to leave the stage while the ovation is loudest.

Reviewing the death of Gaddafi, fiery Nigerian critic, political scientist and poet, Odia Ofeimun reasoned that the late Gaddafi, though an authoritarian built his country. Ofeimun said: “He was very authoritarian, but he built his country. He should not have allowed the war in the first place. By allowing the war to take place, it meant that he wanted the work he did for his country to be destroyed. He built his country. Libya has the highest human development index in the whole of Africa.”

But the tragedy that befell Gaddafi in Ofeimun’s view remains his obduratic addiction to power. He asked: “How can a man, who has stayed in office for 40 years, also want his sons to take over from him?”

Another scholar, professor of political economy and Director General of the Centre for Black African Arts and Civilisation, CBAAC, Tunde Babawale sees Gaddafi’s death as a “ relief not o­nly to Libyans but also, the whole of Africa.”

Babawale said: “Gadahafi’s death should serve as a lesson to other African countries like Cameroon, Yemen, and Bahrain. The leadership of these countries must know that judgment day is a matter of time. And the lesson for all of us is that we should not celebrate anybody’s death, but learn from mistakes. It is also important that sustainable democracy should be put in place by the transitional council so that the villain of today should not become heroes of tomorrow.”


The Libyan revolution
By (about the author)

The Arab revolution is facing its first obstacle, in the shape of a tyrant, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who suffers from delusions of grandeur, awarding himself God-like status.   o­ne of the major differences between Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, is that the latter has not really got a national Army charged with protecting the people from external threats, but a collection of militias, with the o­nes best armed and trained those controlled by Gaddafi, his sons or his tribe. They are charged with protecting him, his sons and the rest of the gang.   Abdel Bari Atwan in Al-Quds Al-Arabi   Arabic newspaper identifies the problem "as that residing in the tribal nature of Libyan society with   Gaddafi   sitting o­n billions of dollars, which he is using to buy the loyalty and allegiance of powerful people and their followers,   and to pay mercenaries from neighbouring African countries."

However, even with such bribes, people o­n his side have shown no enthusiasm for supporting him, with many reports of desertions and massacres of those refusing to fight the Libyan opposition, and of pilots deliberately missing their targets, with others defecting to Malta rather than carry out orders to bomb peaceful protesters.   The morale of the pro-democracy revolutionaries, in contrast, is understandably high, for their causes of freedom, dignity and human rights are noble o­nes.

The temptation in the west to intervene militarily is strong but must be resisted at all costs.   The west would claim that their intervention would be for humanitarian reasons, to see an end to the despotic regime, and to prevent the tyrant from killing his own people.   Some would argue that the real reason is to end uncertainty that is driving the price of oil ever higher, and to ensure some influence o­n events and o­n whoever replaces the dictator, and thus protect their interests as they see them. The people of Libya would also like to see a swift end to this gangster-form of rule that has enslaved them all these years.   They want a future where they can live a dignified life, with their aspirations to be free and their human rights respected.   The west, having been caught hesitating in their support for the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, responded rightly, in my opinion, in quickly supporting the revolutionaries in Libya. The use of the UN and the International Criminal Court to isolate Gaddafi and his cronies, and to indict those responsible for war crimes, combined with freezing the assets of members of the regime, are all good things, and may hasten his downfall.   Let us not spoil it all by overegging the pudding with military intervention.

Al-Quds Al-Arabi Arabic newspaper quotes Sheik Imam Salem Jabir in his Friday sermon (4 March) in the Benghazi Mosque saying: "We do not want military intervention.   We do not want foreign intervention, we have enough men to see our battle to victory----We are o­ne tribe in the north, south, and east and west; we all belong to o­ne tribe.   Its name is Libya and its capital is Tripoli"

Aljazeera Arabic quotes a report in the British Financial Times of the arrests of eight armed British Special Forces soldiers by the revolutionaries in Libya.   They claimed that "they are escorting a diplomat o­n his way to negotiate with the rebels their needs in their fight with Gaddafi's forces".   The report continues: "this has angered the rebels who emphasized that they have not requested such assistance and who now fear that this will be used by Gaddafi as evidence of their collusion with foreign governments thus garnering support for his forces."

The capacity of the west to shoot itself in the foot should not be underestimated.  

Military intervention would have the opposite effect to what is intended, and the urge to do so should be strongly suppressed. It would undermine the legitimacy of the revolution; it would give Gaddafi and his mercenaries the rallying cry of fighting the invaders that are coming to occupy Libya and control its resources. The spectre of the disaster that was the Iraq war will loom large and will be exploited by the regime. The effect would be to strengthen the regime, thus prolonging the suffering of the Libyan people, and would undermine the genuine interests of ordinary people in the west and the US.   Gaddafi's claims at present of blaming al-Qaida, drugs and everybody except his tyrannical rule can be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic.   Please do not give him a credible cause by intervening militarily.   The Arab revolution, started in Tunisia, is unstoppable; it was never going to be easy and the setback in Libya will be overcome by the Libyan people o­n their way to a better future.   They, above all else, need to own this revolution.

The chains induced by fear imprisoning the Arab people have been broken by the revolutionary young, and the tide of pent up yearning to be free is triumphant. The Libyan difficulty is no more than a minor setback o­n that road o­n which the Arab masses have embarked.   There will be more obstacles o­n the way, but make no mistake, these will be overcome and the Arabs will be free.

Libya’s stalled revolution
Libyan rebels in Ras Lanuf, 11 March Some rebel forces have been compelled to retreat

For a short while following the Day of Rage announced by opponents of the Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi in mid-February, it seemed that the regime's time was coming to an end and that Libyans would soon follow the examples of Tunisia and Egypt in toppling their long-serving leader.

But now there appears to be no rapid end to the conflict in sight, writes Mohamed Madi of BBC Monitoring.

Q: How has the uprising developed?

The protests against Col Gaddafi's 42-year-long rule began peacefully but soon escalated into violent confrontation, giving the Libyan revolt a more bloody character than those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Within a few days o­ne town after another slipped from the Libyan leader's grip, from Tobruk, Darna, al-Bayda, Benghazi and Ajdabiya in the east, to Zintan and Zawiya in the west. After a brief hiatus, important oil towns such as Ras Lanuf fell to rebels advancing from Benghazi and pledging to march o­n to Col Gaddafi's home town of Sirte and, ultimately, the capital Tripoli.

But as the Libyan regime mobilised its forces and began to strike back with superior firepower, the rebels' westward advance ground to a halt and in some places, such as in Zawiya and Ras Lanuf, they were compelled to retreat.

More than three weeks after the protests erupted, neither the rebels nor the regime appear to have the capability to rapidly overwhelm the other. Consequently a stalemate has developed with no immediate end in sight.

Q: Why is there a stalemate?

Much of this appears to be down to Col Gaddafi's own design.

To minimize the risk of his army making a decisive move against him, he has structurally limited its capability to project force while boosting the power of his most loyal elite units.

Consequently, the Libyan army's long-range capability is extremely limited, and the air force is outdated and poorly trained.

But it faces armed rebel groupings that are untrained, unorganised and poorly-equipped, but appear to have greater numbers and stronger morale.

Q: Is the perceived east-west split affecting momentum?

The protesters in both the east and west have been at pains to point out their mutual support and admiration for each other, invalidating the regime's claim that the rebels want to undermine national unity. Additionally, as the uprisings in Zawiya, Misrata and parts of Tripoli, in the west have shown, anti-Gaddafi sentiment runs high throughout the country.

The traditional resentment among inhabitants from the east, especially in Benghazi city, stems from the limited investment by the state in the region. Despite being Libya's second largest city after Tripoli, Benghazi receives little attention and resources from the state.

The east of Libya also has a history of hostility towards authority. Libya's national resistance hero, Umar al-Mukhtar, fought against Italian resistance from the east and drew much of his support from Benghazi. It was also in the east that the Sanusi monarchy, which Col Gaddafi overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1969, was based.

Accordingly, it was from Benghazi that Col Gaddafi chose to launch his revolution, playing to the rebellious and unruly reputation of the city. It is a reputation that has come back to haunt him since the current revolt began there o­n 15 February.

However, the differences do not translate into animosity between the people of eastern and western Libya. Many of Libya's tribes have families in both areas and there are little cultural or historical cleavages between the people.

Q: How unified are the pro- and anti-Gaddafi sides?

The rebel movement is a hastily assembled and disparate body. There are no alternative political organisations or civil society institutions in Libya. Unauthorised meetings of more than a few people are banned, and even under the monarchy political parties were ineffectual and discredited. This has prevented the formation of any kind of organised opposition movement, at least inside the country.

Anti-Libyan protesters wave the pre-Gadhafi Libyan flag Anti-Gaddafi protesters united against the regime

The desire to topple the regime has been a unifying factor that has overshadowed any differences. The initial success of the rebels in pushing back government forces and then getting "liberated" areas back to some modicum of normality has surprised and encouraged many.

Exiled Libyans in Europe and America have been able to form opposition groups and lobbies abroad, though these are limited in their influence inside the country.

There have been numerous high-level defections from Col Gaddafi's regime, but there remains a hard-core of loyalists.

His sons, including the apparently reformist Saif-al-Islam, have rallied around their father, and for now he still seems to have the support of his hometown of Sirte and the desert stronghold of Sabha.

Q: What is the rebels' view of the West's statements about the conflict?

The rebels want to see greater international condemnation of Muammar Gaddafi. A popular refrain from protesters is to ask where are the UN and the Arab armies.

The question of the scope and nature of military intervention has become a pressing issue. The rebels are torn between accepting outside military help, which could spell a decisive end to the conflict, and the wish to topple Col Gaddafi o­n their own and therefore avoid being indebted to foreign powers.

Banners in Benghazi and chatter from the social media all indicate a very strong aversion to foreign forces o­n Libyan soil. There is also the fear that foreign intervention will play into Col Gaddafi's hands, as he has been adept at portraying himself as the defender of Libya from rapacious superpowers.

However, there does seem to be support for some types of intervention. Mindful of the fact that the Libyan leader's main advantage lies in his ability to project air power, protesters, rebel leaders and activists have called o­n the UN to immediately impose a no-fly zone over the whole of the country.

A petition to this effect posted o­n has so far garnered over 830,000 signatures. Rebel leader Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil has said that he would favour a direct strike o­n Col Gaddafi's Tripoli headquarters in Bab al-Aziziya.

Q: What happens if the rebels win?

It depends o­n the circumstances of the victory, but the most likely scenario is that there will be some kind of temporary constitution and a framework put in place for elections as has been the case in Egypt and Tunisia.

Due to the unpopularity of the regime it appears unlikely that the former Gaddafi ministers will take part in any new government. This poses a potential problem as there is a shortage of experienced officials who are not sullied by links to Col Gaddafi. The Libyan diaspora could have a crucial part to play in any interim period, as many are expected to return to rebuild the country should Col Gaddafi fall.

Q: What happens if Col Gaddafi wins?

Col Gaddafi has said that the outcome of the struggle will be all-or-nothing so it is expected that he will o­nly be able to remain in power through brute force rather than a process of negotiation.

In the event of Col Gaddafi prevailing, there are fears that there could be a purge of all individuals involved - or suspected of involvement - in the uprising, especially defectors from the regime. In the past, Col Gaddafi has publicly executed opponents and aired the footage o­n state TV.

Internationally, Col Gaddafi would find himself even more isolated than he was during the 1990s. The international community has all but forsaken him and is likely to impose heavy sanctions o­n Libya and seize Libyan assets abroad.

Another factor is the newly revolutionary status of two of Libya's neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt. Col Gaddafi explicitly supported both Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, which is unlikely to endear him to either country

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