Benghazi's Citizens Fill The Libyan Government Gap

In eastern Libya, Benghazi is a city on the edge — but the edge of what no one is exactly clear. On one hand, civil society is stepping in after the collapse of the state. But there are fears Gadhafi loyalists are trying to sabotage the fledgling government.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro, filling in for Steve Inskeep, who's in Cairo.

In Libya, the eastern city of Benghazi is now the seat of a rebel leadership that has declared itself the government for all of Libya. But the rebels are still struggling to organize themselves. And in the meantime, an emerging civil society is attempting to step into the vacuum.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Benghazi.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: This former English-language school has become a hub of sorts in this neighborhood in Benghazi. Young people bustle in and out of various rooms.

Amina Megheirbi is a university professor and an organizer here.

Professor AMINA MEGHEIRBI (English and Translation, Libyan University): The main institutions were not working now, you know. So what we are doing, we are trying to substitute these, you know. So all the efforts are needed, and everybody is trying to help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In one room, about 15 young men wait for their orders for the day. They've been lending a hand in the neighborhood, providing food and clothing to people in need, cleaning up schools and hospitals - whatever needs to get done.

In another room, young men and women are creating a newsletter that will go out to the community about what's happening. The Internet is still cut off in most of eastern Libya, and the phone network is spotty.

Megheirbi says Libyan society is a close-knit one, linked by family and tribal ties. So it's filling the vacuum left by the collapse of Gadhafi's state here.

Prof. MEGHEIRBI: Benghazi is so connected. People know each other. Like, something happens at the end of the town, just five minutes - give me five minutes, and someone will tell me about it. Things spread so fast. In the past, we used to say, whoa. This is not a good thing. There's no privacy. Everybody knows everything here. But it is turns to be something good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Despite the enthusiasm, the challenges remain enormous. No one has any real governing experience. And, for example, there's no formal system in place to get supplies out to people in need. Megheirbi says she contacts people she knows personally to make donations. It's a short-term solution to a long-term problem. As Gadhafi digs in in Tripoli, this is looking ever more likely to be a protracted fight.

Hanna el Gallal is a professor of law, and she sits on the newly-formed Education Committee. They have a tall order, she says.

Professor HANNA EL GALLAL (Law, University of Benghazi): Our education is controlled by Gadhafi, and it's all talking about his thoughts and beliefs. So now we're trying to clear our curriculum from all his words and his thinking. And also, like the faculty of law, we are trying to explain to the people what is constitution, what is pluralism. Because, you know, for 40 years we were not allowed to talk about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says they're trying to build a new Libya from the ground up.

Prof. EL GALLAL: From nothing, below nothing, from scratch. We have no institutions. And he was betting that we don't even have any nationalism or patriotism inside us, and kind of we did. We believed that, too. But suddenly, we surprised ourselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Underneath the surface here, though, there is fear about what comes next. Benghazi is a city on the edge - but of what, no one seems to know.

Mr. KHALID AL-HABOUNI (Zookeeper, Benghazi Zoo): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At Benghazi Zoo, the people who work there still take care of the over 200 animals, despite receiving no pay. They've been getting food for the lions and elephants and baboons from the group based at the English school. They have enough stores, they say, to last them about a month.

Khalid al-Habouni is one of the zookeepers. He takes us on a tour of the large, green, peaceful area. Like many men who work with animals, he has a gentle manner. He says he feels some of the beasts here are like his children.

Mr. AL-HABOUNI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, though, he's worries about the future. How will we manage things? How long can this go on? I have no idea what will happen, he says. I just hope it won't get worse. I don't care about politics, he tells me, I just want to be sure we can have a better life.

Security has been generally good in Benghazi, but that is changing. Yesterday, someone threw a homemade explosive at one of the hotels where journalists are staying in Benghazi. The likely suspect is a Gadhafi loyalist.

Mr. JALAL EL GALLAL (Rebel Spokesman): Most likely, people that still affiliated to him, trying to throw panic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it did, says Jalal el Gallal, who is a rebel spokesman based at the Ouzo Hotel.

Mr. EL GALLAL: Fear, anxiety, confusion, but you know what? The goal remains the same. He's out. It is over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But increasingly, many, though, in this jittery city wonder if that's really true.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Benghazi.

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