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In Libya, building a revolution from scratch

Mustafa Gheriani was a construction contractor shuttling between the United States and Libya when the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi broke out.

world Updated: Mar 24, 2011 22:33 IST

Mustafa Gheriani was a construction contractor shuttling between the United States and Libya when the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi broke out.

Iman Bughaeis was teaching dentistry at Benghazi's University.

Now they are part of the Libyan rebel movement's administration, trying to bring some order to what at first sight seems a like a state of near anarchy in their headquarters in a dilapidated courthouse on Benghazi's seafront.

The uprising erupted spontaneously and the opposition is having to build its structure from scratch -- no easy task in a country where authority and organisation had been kept in the grip of Gaddafi loyalists for four decades.

"We are learning as we go. Our political experience is one month and one week," said Bughaeis, who teaches orthodontics and earned her degree at Newcastle University in Britain.

She stepped forward to help as the Feb. 17 opposition began to coalesce.

"We didn't have anything. To start work in this environment was very hard."

She is now helping the opposition cope with the international media, an important role as foreign governments weigh up their relationship with the rebels.

Gheriani has emerged as one of the main spokesmen. He said he was in Benghazi when the first protests broke out and he joined them.

"We thought it would just last a day or two then Gaddafi would put it down. But in a few days the east was liberated. People just started to show up at the courthouse."

He was speaking in the rebel headquarters, whose peeling walls are festooned with cartoons and posters with anti-Gaddafi slogans. Many animated conversations take place in the corridors although communications are difficult, with mobile phones often out of action.

Armed fighters guard the doors and crowds of young men mill around outside.

Gheriani, 54, lives most of the time in Fenton, Michigan, with his American wife and family. He left Libya aged 18 to study and graduated from the University of West Michigan with a degree in engineerirng.

He runs a construction company and spends his time between Libya and the United States.

Once the Gaddafi authorities had surrendered in Benghazi, people came forward to organise the running of the city. Appointments were made on the spot, he said.

"We told a bank manager ... you are in charge of the banking system now. Make sure there's enough money. We need to make sure the flour got to the bakeries, that the mosques had supplies for those people without."

Most of the organisers came from an older generation who grew up before Gaddafi seized power in 1969 and had a good education. Many of the youths spearheading the uprising have little education or organizational skills due to Gaddafi's policies, he said.

One colleague who acted as translator at the first televised news conference quit after his wife, who was in Tripoli, was threatened so Gheriani stepped in.

"My wife said: what are you doing?" he said.

First, a city council was set up to to keep the city functioning.

"We tried to find skilled people and work from there. People were picked for their skills. And they built their own teams. Then the outside world said "who is the political face"

Political direction
Thus a 31-member National Council was set up to give the movement a political direction. France recognised it and momentum gathered pace as the Libyan diplomats overseas switched sides and exiles returned.

"We thought Tripoli would fall," Gheriani said.

But now the revolution has stalled. Tripoli has is still Gaddfai's hands and there is little movement on the eastern front line at Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) to the south.

The opposition on Wednesday picked Mahmoud Jebril -- a disillusioned former senior economics planner for the Gaddafi government -- to head an interim government and appoint a shadow cabinet.

They hope it will win international recognition, although officials stress partition of Libya is not their goal.

Educated technocrats and figures with an international profile look likely to form the backbone of the interim government.

Ali Tahrouni, a US-based academic and exile opposition figure, returned to Benghazi days after the protests and is now in charge of finance and economics for the interim government.

He also stressed the difficulty of starting from scratch.

Under Gaddafi, there was a total vacuum, he said.

"He targeted everything that was organised. The army, trade unions, even charities and sports clubs."

So if the movement appeared to stumble, he said: "They are good people in a great time."

Gheriani said the need to build institutions and structure from the ground up made Libya a different revolution to those in Tunisia and Egypt, which toppled long-running strongmen earler this year.

A free Libya could also tap its oil wealth to rebuild and spread about the wealth that has largely been kept in the hands
of Gaddafi and his family and his cronies.

"Thank goodness we are not a poor country. There is enough capital available. We will not rely on people to give us money to build schools."

"I think we have a long road ahead of us. First of all we need a free Libya, then a strong constitution, freedom of speech. Then we start the difficult part. People have been denied a job, denied an education.. and rebuild a country."