In The East, Plans For A Post-Gadhafi Libya

Although the battle is still raging in Libya, the people in the eastern part of the country are already making plans for the new society they hope to have if and when Moammar Gadhafi falls. But after 40 years of dictatorship, there is a steep learning curve. NPR's Peter Kenyon takes a look at how younger and older generations are approaching the problem.

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Even before reports of today's intensified attacks on Gadhafi forces, people in the rebel-held eastern part of the country were planning for what a post-Gadhafi Libya might look like.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Benghazi.

PETER KENYON: Sometimes it seems that day-to-day survival is all the rebels have time for. In fact, Benghazi is buzzing with grassroots energy.

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KENYON: From seminars on crisis management to environmental and medical initiatives, Libyans are throwing themselves into the mix wherever they can fit. It's semi-improvised and highly inefficient, but just listening to 20-year-old medical student Aya Kharuba, there's no doubting that she grasps the importance and the enormity of what needs to be done.

Ms. AYA KHARUBA (Medical Student): We have a very big responsibility to build our country for the first time in our life. So we can here just to learn how can we do that in the right now. Now we have to build everything from the beginning. It's a new world for us.

KENYON: It's a world of pitfalls as well as opportunities. Western commentators worry almost daily about who or what might fill a post-Gadhafi power vacuum. They might be surprised to learn that the people trying their hand at political architecture here worry about the same things.

Mr. ZAHI MOGHERBI (Political Scientist): I'm sure that we, the Libyan people, will not accept any kind of dictatorship anymore, Islamic, Liberal or Leftist.

KENYON: Political scientist Zahi Mogherbi is part of a group of intellectuals and academics racing to lay out options for a viable new Libyan government. One possibility is a temporary constitution and a one-year transition to elections, avoiding the rush to the polls next door in Egypt.

When it comes to religion, Mogherbi believes Libyans by nature will tend to look not the glory days of Islam's past, but to a newer model.

Mr. MOGHERBI: Turkey represent us with a different model of Islam, which is not the Iranian model, nor the Saudi model, but the model which you find co-exists between religion and secular state.

KENYON: Mogherbi's group is leaning toward a parliamentary political system despite some doubts about its stability. No one wants a strong presidential system in a country where the current term limit is 42 years and counting.

Mogherbi says the American contribution will be clear. A bill of rights which he sees as the best long-term protection against radicalism.

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But the intellectuals have learned by now that they don't have the national-building field to themselves. Parents all over Benghazi have been amazed by their children, from dispirited students on the couch, they are now everywhere, sweeping the streets in the morning, volunteering with all manner of organizations in the afternoon, and debating democratic theory at night.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ABU NAJA (February 17 Youth Movement): My young sister is only 16 years old. She is establishing a association now and she's doing a very good work.

KENYON: Mohammad Abu Naja heads the February 17 youth movement which has channeled young revolutionary fervor into a whirlwind civil society-building mission. He says his group elbowed its way into some of the early transitional council meetings and impressed the rebel leaders with their sharp questions.

Since then contacts have dwindled, but he says they see one of their main tasks as keeping a watchful eye on who would get how much power in the new Libya. The answer he hopes likes in checks and balances on government power.

Mr. ABU NAJA: We're trying to find a way how the young people can ensure that this revolution will reflect their dreams. We're very concerned about this, and, you know, when you build a very strong civil society it will make a balance with the government. The government can't just do whatever they want to do.

KENYON: At 34, Naja is a bit older than many of his young colleagues, but he missed eight years of his youth in a Gadhafi prison where he says like many Libyans, he lost hope.

Mr. ABU NAJA: Just something died inside me, you know. And for five years after I got out from jail I felt very unhappy, you know. The second day of the revolution, event the first day, it was — I'm still not believing. But the second day suddenly - I felt just I was alive again. Something new happened, just like a revolution from inside.

KENYON: People young and old here say it's that rebirth of purpose. The unexpected conviction that ordinary Libyans can have a say in what comes next, that the aging regime in Tripoli is desperately trying to crush.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Benghazi.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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