The Magazine

What I Saw at the Revolution

With a Libyan conservative in free Benghazi

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Time and again, when I interview Libyans about the situation, they return to the events of the revolution, recounting them as if they can’t quite believe what happened. Salwa Bugaighis, one of a few women on the council, told me, “On the 18th and 19th, people were just watching us demonstrate, though they came closer and closer. On the 21st, the army went over to our side.” She explained that now that the council is in touch with the United States, they are being asked for an almost daily schedule of what they will do post-regime change. The United States wants to avoid chaos. And the council wants to move toward a real government.

“We know it is not democracy. Nobody on this council will be in the next government,” she promised. Bugaighis explained that part of the reason for the power vacuum is that there were no political parties in Qaddafi’s Libya. Libya has barely any experience with multiparty politics—just one parliamentary election, in 1952. After the country gained its independence from Italy in 1951, it promptly got rid of parties on the ground that they would be de-stabilizing. After January 1952, the government nominated all candidates for the lower house of parliament.

Right now some members of the council are not publicly named, either because they are living in areas still controlled by Qaddafi or because their families are. But they have organized a Crisis Management Team, headed by Mahmoud Jibril, which will be the executive branch of this fledgling government, while Mustafa Abdul Jalil will be the equivalent of the head of parliament. Or something like that.

“Most of them have no experience with the outside world,” El Senussi says. “Sometimes their words touch your heart. Other times they make mistakes. It is not their fault.”

El Senussi worries about the writing of a constitution, to make sure that the newborn “Revolution of the 17th of February,” as it is known here, isn’t hijacked by a new strongman or by Islamists. A committee of the council is working on a constitution, but behind closed doors; El Senussi would like to see more transparency, both in this process and in general. Amina Megheirbi, a professor of English at Garyounis University, struck a common theme among the revolutionary activists I met, saying the Transitional National Council “is an emergency situation, not an ideal situation. Everybody wants to do it the right way.” 

El Senussi wants to meet with the council to urge them to use Libya’s 1951 independence constitution—a United Nations-aided document—as the basis for a new constitution, minus the monarchy. Since “Libya is a creation of the U.N.,” he says, the council will have more chance of gaining international recognition and support if it works from a U.N.-approved document. Currently, only France, Italy, Qatar, Kuwait, Gambia, and the Maldives have recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya, though John McCain has urged the United States to follow suit.

One of El Senussi’s cousins, Ahmed Zubair El Senussi, 77, is a council member representing the interests of political prisoners, of whom he was one for 31 years. But on the whole the Senussi family—which even today owns large amounts of land in Egypt, a charitable trust in Saudi Arabia, and had property returned to them in Benghazi a few years ago—has been sidelined in the dialogue on Libya’s future.

I first encountered El Senussi through his March 17 op-ed in the Washington Times, “The Libyan Tea Party.” He wrote of the inspiring bravery of the revolutionaries:

I’ve met young people in their teens and twenties who left behind comfortable lives in London and Manchester, England, to go to North Africa and fight for the liberation of our country. These young heroes are motivated by and have grown up accustomed to Western notions of freedom, equality and opportunity and want to be part of the movement that brings those universal values to Libya.

I wrote him at the email address listed about my plan to visit Libya, and El Senussi offered to take me with him on his next trip.

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