'Liberated' from Gaddafi, Libyan city of Tobruk constructs committees for order

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
By Andrew England
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 1:24 PM

TOBRUK, LIBYA - Two men, one in a camouflage jacket and cap, the other in civilian clothes, man a makeshift checkpoint outside an oil terminal on the outskirts of this coastal city in Libya's northeast.

At the entrance to the facility, another group of men, also in plain clothes, stand guard, checking the credentials of anybody who wants to enter. All are civilians and belong to committees the city's residents have formed since Tobruk was "liberated" from the grip of Moammar Gaddafi's regime as a popular uprising swept across his wealthy, oil-producing country.

In Tobruk, there are about 20 committees, whose responsibilities include controlling traffic on the city's now unusually quiet streets, guarding public buildings and ensuring food supplies. In the main square, where a group of young men gather around tents and continue to hold a protest against Gaddafi's 41-year rule, one of the group pushes through the crowd to announce that he is part of the protesters' media committee. Nearby are the gutted remains of an abandoned police station that was at the heart of the battle for the city.

"Nobody is controlling the people other than themselves," said Hassan Abdulrazig, a member of one of the people's committees. Yet the committees claim to have already taken some significant decisions. The oil terminal is working, but it is no longer exporting, residents say.

Why? "Because [Gaddafi] could bomb it," Abdulrazig said.

Mohammed Saleh, another committee member, offers a different explanation.

"The money goes to the central bank. If we still use this for export, this means the money goes to [Gaddafi], and we want to stop that," Saleh said.

The mantra of "people power" is being repeated across eastern Libya, a traditional hotbed of resistance to Gaddafi that residents say they have "liberated" after enduring some of the worst violence of the uprising.

In Tobruk, one of the first towns to fall into the hands of the people after demonstrators overpowered the police following two days of violence, life is returning to a semblance of normalcy. Banks opened for the first time Thursday, and people say they have seen no shortages of food or medicine.

Over the past two days, the committees launched a campaign through tribal leaders and local radio stations, which a week ago were tightly controlled by the government but have joined the revolution, to persuade civilians to return weapons looted from police stations.

Committee members say 90 percent of the weapons, including up to 250 rocket-propelled grenades and 300 Kalashnikov rifles, have been returned. The local army commander, Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud, apparently defected to the protesters on Feb. 19 after seeing the brutal crackdown by security forces in Benghazi, the main city in the east.

Now Mahmoud, who is described as trusted and who refused to allow the army to participate in the violence, is involved in all key committee decisions. The returned weapons were distributed to the army and to the civilians who have taken over the role of police to secure neighbourhoods, schools, the oil refinery and other important buildings, the residents say.

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