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In Libya’s rebel base, a mix of hope and fear

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BENGHAZI, Libya — On one Saturday, residents saw a burning airplane fall over their city as tanks shelled their homes.

Eight days later, they were kept up all night by celebratory gunfire and rocket blasts as rumors circulated, falsely, that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s home town had fallen to the rebel army.

Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the stronghold of the uprising that first swept the nation six weeks ago, is suspended in a delicate balance between exuberance and apprehension.

The city is home to a cadre of highly educated, professional and cosmopolitan leaders who speak confidently of a democratic state to come, and cultivate international partners to help bring that state to fruition. Gaddafi, they swear, will fall in a week or so and a glorious new Libya will rise.

But 100 miles to the south, a ragged collection of untrained civilians struggles in an uneven battle to keep government tanks at bay. Since midweek, as Gaddafi’s forces have crept closer to Ajdabiya and its key highway junctions, Benghazi residents have gone to bed wondering whether they will wake to a city under siege.

“I just want a normal life,” said Mohammad el-Sayed, 27, a lecturer at Benghazi’s Technical Engineering College, as he drove down a road where light poles and highway overpasses bore the scars of missile attacks. “I want this to be over. We just want everything to be stable.”

But the only thing certain in Benghazi is that nothing is certain. With a battle line that races erratically backward and forward up the coastal road, even fighters returning from the front cannot say for sure what is happening there.

Spokesmen for the rebels give news conferences almost daily to a crush of journalists hungry for facts. But for the opposition’s fledgling interim government, solid information is hard to come by. The officials try to answer questions about how the new Transitional National Council plans to develop the education system, infrastructure and a viable economy, while at the same time hoping each day that there will still be a country to develop. Libyans will win their independence, they declare, while at the same time acknowledging that the rebel army is in danger of annihilation without help from NATO.

“They’re doing the most with the least,” said Ahmed Hnesh, 29, a Libyan American resident of Falls Church who came here in February to help with the uprising. “They’re creating a state from scratch.”

In this city, whole neighborhoods are left unpaved, and building projects begun decades ago linger on in a state of half-constructed abandon.

Benghazi residents are used to their crumbling infrastructure. What is new for them is the strange juxtaposition of urgency and idleness the rebellion has wrought.

All around the city, newly minted fighters zoom by in pickup trucks hastily fitted with antitank artillery and swathed in the red, black and green flag of Libyan independence. They seem to have a sense of purpose, if not a clear idea of how to carry that purpose out.

Meanwhile, teachers, students, architects and traders sleep late and wonder when their schools and companies will reopen. On many blocks, only a few stores are open; the rest have metal gates pulled down while their owners wait for more tranquil times.

And amid the triumphant freedom anthems on the radio, the effigies of Gaddafi hanging in front of the courthouse, the “Game Over” and “No More Dictator” tags spray-painted on downtown buildings, a sense of foreboding lingers.

Gaddafi’s forces are not only in the tanks down the road. Some still live among the people of Benghazi. They are the neighbors who were once members of Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Committees, which helped promote their leader and kept tabs on those who didn’t.

“We know who was on these committees,” Sayed said. “Now, of course, they are saying they support the revolution, but we don’t know.”

Sniper attacks two weeks ago on a Benghazi radio personality and a cartoonist, both outspoken promoters of the revolution, are attributed to Gaddafi loyalists.

Such violence is one reason that few women walk the streets. Another is the random firing of automatic weapons by young revolutionaries who are overly excited to be picking up a gun for the first time.

“All the women are home; they don’t feel safe right now,” said Ahmad Mohammad, 32, a businessman whose work has dried up since the uprising began in mid-February. “People are very afraid, very disturbed. . . . The feeling right now is it’s not safe, and people are afraid of what will happen tomorrow.”

But at the same time, he has hope for better days. “We have a saying in Arabic: When it’s been tight,” he said, squeezing his fists together, “it will open wide.” He let his hands relax and fall away from each other. “And it will be good, inshallah.”

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