Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article mischaracterized Moammar Gaddafi as the president of Libya. Gaddafi is Libya's de facto leader and chief of state. This version has been corrected.

Residents of eastern Libyan city try to fill void in cradle of revolt

Residents and former Gaddafi soldiers celebrate in a military compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Residents and former Gaddafi soldiers celebrate in a military compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. (Suhaib Salem)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Here in this eastern Libyan city where the nationwide uprising against Moammar Gaddafi was born, there is no government. Motivated by fury after 41 years of oppression, the people rose up this week and ousted their local rulers.

But now, residents are determined to prevent chaos from filling the void. At the main courthouse, the city's educated professionals - lawyers, political scientists, teachers and doctors - have spontaneously formed a management committee to run Benghazi in the absence of the state.

Led by a female lawyer who has barely slept all week, the committee has moved with remarkable speed. It has organized street cleaning, traffic control and a program to consolidate the city's weaponry. The group has also created a security force, one it will need if Gaddafi's men should try to return.

"We don't know where we're going," said Ahmed el Gallal, 42, a Benghazi businessman. "But we know what we're moving away from."

Benghazi, which has long been a thorn in Gaddafi's side because of the city's rebellious nature, is fast becoming a model for what Libya's citizens hope to build in their country if their autocratic leader should fall.

While Gaddafi derided his opponents Thursday as drug-addicted Islamic extremists, the picture here is of neighbors who are stepping up to build the society that many have long sought but until this week could not have imagined would be possible so soon.

Similar scenes are playing out in other eastern towns and cities, even as Gaddafi clings to power in Tripoli, the distant capital to the west.

"Gaddafi hoped people would take weapons and chaos would take this city. We're not going to let that happen," said Abu Ahmed, a businessman and retired psychologist with a degree from Michigan State University. "We want a state of law, human rights, democracy. . . . People are fed up of this criminal regime."

Ahmed's wife, Um Ahmed, is leading the city's management committee. The couple did not want their full names published, for fear of retribution.

The committee has sprung into action so quickly because its members had been closely watching democratic revolutions unfold in two of Libya's immediate neighbors, with the hope that something similar would happen here.

"We learned from the events in Tunisia and Egypt," said Um Ahmed, her eyes heavy with exhaustion and her short brown hair pushed behind her ears.

On Thursday, evidence of the committee's work was all around.

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