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The Libya-rators

Ann Marlowe

Ask the women here whom they most admire, and you get mostly shrugs. One teacher said, “No woman is famous in Libya. Only Aisha.” That’s Aisha Khadafy, hated daughter of the dear leader, who has the manufactured public image of a superwoman and, in an Orwellian twist, runs a “human rights” organization.

Dr. Iman Bugaighis, a dental professor and prominent activist, later explained how the state trampled identity. “We were not allowed to say the names of cabinet ministers, just their positions,” she said. “We were not allowed to say the names of the football players, just their numbers. We had very well-known women in the ’60s and in the first few years after the coup. But then they were not mentioned.”

Moammar Khadafy, a dictator as bizarre as he is oppressive, wanted to make sure that his was the only name everyone knew. The rest were erased. Libya is a nation that had no heroes.

Here, in this decrepit coastal city of less than 1 million, 120 miles from the stalemated front lines, the “February 17th Revolution” is about more than freedom — it’s about people’s very identity. There are heroes now: Photos of slain freedom fighters are everywhere, along with the portrait of Omar Mukhtar, who led the resistance against the Italians before World War II.

Bugaighis said she saw some high school students sitting together revising their history textbooks.

“We have to rewrite our history,” she said. “The kids are doing it already.”

They have to put the names back in.

In Benghazi, headquarters of the revolution, the trauma of Khadafy’s violent response to demonstrations lingers even amid a general euphoria. The current issue of Berenice Post, a weekly young women’s magazine in English and Arabic that is one of many publications that have sprung up in recent weeks, has an article by “Bint Barga” describing the night of Feb. 17: “I saw dismembered bodies; organs out of their bodies. The sight of these young men screaming of pain in agony as the hospitals in town got filled. Bullets were being pulled out of these men with no anesthesia.”

But aside from the occasional war-damaged building and the omnipresent young men with assault rifles, Benghazi is marked more by revolution than war. The area in front of Benghazi’s Transitional Council headquarters — the courthouse, or makama — has become a fairground, rather like a rock festival, with booths offering pamphlets, selling hats, bracelets, buttons, espresso cups, and bumper stickers with the independence flag of Libya the uprising has adopted. The flag — a red, black and green triband with a white crescent — was the official symbol of Libya after it gained independence after World War II. Khadafy, who overthrew Libya’s king in a 1969 coup, replaced it with a flag of his own design — all green, like his “Green Book,” modeled after Mao’s “Little Red Book” which taught his people to reject capitalism and representative democracy.

A food cart offers free snacks and espresso drinks (Libyans are coffee-addicted) and revolutionary songs boom from a powerful outdoor system. Adding to the festive air, the local government has continued to pay employees’ salaries — almost all Libyans work for the state, directly or indirectly — even while most people stayed home from work. And mobile phone calls are free within the regional Lybiana network, which had been hacked to remove it from Khadafy’s control.

There’s a sense of a new beginning here, even new possibilities for behavior. As I placed an order for a lemon juice at a juice bar, an elderly man insisted on picking up the tab (about $1). When I bought a revolutionary T-shirt as a gift for my brother, the vendor pressed one in my size on me. The US is popular here, second only to France. When asked where I’m from (“min New York”), the response is inevitably positive, a thumbs-up or “America good.” This although the US shelled Benghazi on April 15, 1986, in retaliation for the Libyan bombing of a Berlin nightclub that killed an American soldier. More than 30 people were killed in the bombing.

This generosity is not only Arab hospitality to foreigners mixed with gratitude toward journalists assumed to be supporting the revolution. There’s a solidarity among Libyans, and a sense of responsibility for each other, that’s easing the tensions of regime change. Food stores are often reducing prices to cost only and giving free groceries to families that have been rendered destitute by the war.

There are signs urging people to keep Benghazi clean, and the trash cans are actually being used, though they are overwhelmed. Most of the foreign workers who did the dirty work here fled when the war began, and trash pick-up is done by young volunteers, theoretically twice a week.

With a corniche on the coast, and a large lake just inland, Benghazi could be a lovely place. It is even now in parts, if you squint. But the lake water is visibly filthy and pedestrian access to it difficult. The city streets are lined with topiary trees, but the sidewalks are in bad shape. The buildings facing the sea are crumbling. I visited friends of a friend in a seven-story apartment building in the best downtown neighborhood, but the elevator was long since broken.

Bugaighis explained the disrepair by saying, “He always hated us.” But even in Tripoli, which she said is better-maintained, Khadafy “did not care about showing off his country to foreigners. He thought he was better than us, that he was too good for us.”

This echoed the remarks of a female teacher I spoke with one night near the makama. Her husband, an engineer, was working at the lower pay of a teacher. “Khadafy brought engineers from outside. He said Libyans are no good.” Some of the hatred of the dictator comes from the sense that he was not proud of being Libyan, or of the Libyans.

And some comes from Khadafy’s propensity to jail people for nearly nothing. One night in the makama, a woman around 40 with a worn look saw me interviewing some young women and said she wanted to speak with me.

“All Libyans are calling for freedom and democracy,” Ehsan Ben Ali began, and then gave her personal history: Thrown out of university in 1977 for protest activity, she couldn’t work openly but set up a private school under someone else’s name. In 1985 she was arrested and jailed for a year. Then in 1995, her son, 18, was arrested for writing critically about the regime. He spent 11 years in jail. She or her son may have been Islamists, but her story is common to scores of people with different beliefs. Political prisoners are so common that they have their own representative on the Transitional Council — Ahmed Zubair El Sunussi, who spent 31 years in Khadafy’s jails for his relationship with the former king’s circle.

In this strange time most retail businesses are closed — but even in stable times, Khadafy’s feckless management of the economy is what has left most average Libyans angry.

Khadafy had the habit of appropriating private businesses and making the workers equal partners with the owners, no matter how unqualified they were. One Libyan man I met, now in his 70s, gave up on working when the imported eyeglass shop he started was shared with his employees.

Most urban Libyan families need two earners, because state-mandated salaries are so low. Three hundred fifty dinars ($250) a month, a teacher’s wage, doesn’t go far even with nearly free gas and cheap food. You need a car in Libya, especially in sprawling Benghazi, where public transport is confined to a few buses.

Despite equal pay for equal work — one of the few good results of socialism — Libyans readily acknowledge that women’s participation in the revolution has been less than that of, say, Egypt. Even the Transitional Council has just two or three women among its 31 members. (The number isn’t clear because many of the names are kept secret to avoid reprisals on families in unliberated areas.) This suggests an obstacle to Libya’s transition to a successful democracy.

The school teacher I met told me that while she and her friends did not go out to demonstrate in February (“that was for men, not for women”), they have supported the revolution. Her companion, another teacher (they did not want their names used), said, “We went in groups and brought clothes to the refugees. We support the revolution in making food, in emotional support.”

There is a question of what kind of government would replace Khadafy is he is overthrown — particularly because Islamic groups were about the only organized resistance to the Khadafy government for years.

In Benghazi, the revolution began with a demonstration in front of the makama on Feb. 17 — a “standing protest” with placards of mostly middle-aged people. The cause was the still un-investigated deaths of 1,200 to 1,800 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison, and it was called by their families and the lawyers representing them. But no one on the council is calling for an Islamic government and their website expressly calls for equal rights for women. “We were demonstrating for a constitution and human rights,” one lawyer said.

Whatever nation the revolutionaries hope to create, right now they’re more focused on what they hope to destroy. Whenever I tried to direct interview questions toward women’s issues, women brought them back to Khadafy. One of the schoolteachers interrupted her own account of a state-sponsored visit to Jordan to burst out, “The life of women in Libya was about mutariah whemia!” “Bogus projects” — ranging from costly, never-completed public works to endless reorganizations of the government — were ubiquitious and contributed to people’s feelings of humiliation and worthlessness.

Today, Libyans in the liberated areas burst with pride in their country. Perhaps because they won their freedom themselves, they are taking responsibility for themselves. I was in Iraq just after liberation in spring 2003, and the mood was very different, downbeat and apprehensive, with Iraqis complaining to Americans rather than doing for themselves. And after 17 trips to Afghanistan, I would never confuse Libya’s energetic, self-motivated citizens with the charmingly evasive Afghans. I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties in rooting democracy in Libya — not only the weak position of women in civil society, but the whole nation’s lack of experience with the rule of law. Yet I’ve never met people more uniformly eager to take their destiny into their own hands.

Maybe the best comment comes from Bugaighis. Last year her family returned to Libya after four abroad — she was getting her doctorate in orthodontics at Newcastle University — and her 10-year-old daughter would talk about how she didn’t like Libya and could consider herself English. She wanted to go back to Newcastle.

“But the other day she said to me, ‘Momma, I have to study hard, because I want to make Libya better than England.’ ”

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