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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Repatriated Youth

A few of the repatriated

Abdal Kareem

"How are they going to get all these guns off the street?”

Mohamed El Senussi, a grand-nephew of Libya’s first and only king, may be the only Burkean conservative in Benghazi’s newly dubbed “Freedom Square.”

It’s April 8, our first day in Benghazi, and we’re walking around Free Libya’s ground zero, the square in front of the seaside courthouse, slightly dazed by the endless options before us. We catch a women’s demonstration, receive cappuccinos from an impromptu food stand that provides free sandwiches and drinks, pick up leaflets from booths representing a variety of newborn magazines (Libya may be the only country in the world where publishing is a growth industry), and shop at pushcarts cashing in on the local passion for the red, green, and black of the flag of Libyan independence on articles ranging from the expected buttons, baseball caps, and T-shirts to espresso cups, which make sense once you realize the average Libyan consumes 10 to 15 cups a day.

And, yes, maybe one in a hundred men is carrying an assault rifle. When Qaddafi’s forces abandoned Ben-ghazi after the massive demonstrations of February 17 and 18, they left a weapons stockpile open. They also freed the common criminals from the jail. Supposedly Qaddafi hoped citizens would use the weapons to kill each other. Under Qaddafi, of course, only the regime had guns. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

So far, social solidarity has triumphed. Ahmed Gebreel, the foreign policy adviser to Mustafa Abdul Jalil, one of the two chiefs of the Transitional National Council ruling Free Libya, tells me that ordinary crime is down. Essan Gheriani, a U.S.-educated psychologist in the revolution’s inner circle, says that once the fighting ends, people may be allowed to keep one weapon each, as long as it’s registered.

During our 16-day trip, El Senussi is just about the only one here, including foreign diplomats, who doesn’t give in to the euphoria that grips much of the population of eastern Libya. I drink the Kool-Aid. The atmosphere in Benghazi is electric, and I’ve never met so many people eager to take responsibility for their own lives and do something for their fellow citizens. Senator John McCain will say at a Benghazi press conference on April 22 that his 24 hours here has been “one of the most exciting and inspiring days of my life,” and I believe him. (I met the senator briefly through the thoughtfulness of his national security adviser, sometime Standard contributor Christian Brose.) But El Senussi is cautious, skeptical, worried about what comes next.

He hates Qaddafi—his family were the biggest losers from the 1969 coup in which Qaddafi and other junior military officers seized power from King Idris—but he is not a man of sudden enthusiasms.

A genial, cultivated, 55-year-old Cairene who wears elegant Western suits and sportswear, El Senussi was born in Benghazi and attended kindergarten here, but his father died when he was two, and his mother took him to Cairo. Over the decades of Qaddafi’s seemingly impregnable rule, El Senussi refused to take out Egyptian citizenship. He clings proudly to a weatherbeaten Egyptian travel document that states his nationality as Libyan.

Yet El Senussi was never involved with the ineffectual Libyan opposition parties that tried to overthrow Qaddafi from outside the country.

“My great-uncle, King Idris, said to me, ‘We Senussis should only live in Libya if the people want us there. Otherwise we should live in Saudi Arabia.’ ” And indeed, next to no resistance was put up even by King Idris’s circle when Qaddafi deposed him. But throughout a career devoted mainly to managing substantial family properties in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, El Senussi has watched Libyan politics with an eagle eye.

On a two-day road trip from Cairo, El Senussi and I talk about the Transitional National Council, the 31-member, self-appointed group of lawyers, former cabinet ministers, and military men who are governing Free Libya. The council originated in a group of Benghazi lawyers who were trying to unionize this winter. When one of their number, Fathi Terbel, was jailed by the Qaddafi government, they planned the tamest of responses, a standing protest on February 17 in front of the courthouse. Qaddafi’s forces responded immediately with lethal violence. By the end of the 18th, youthful protesters had turned the objective of the demonstrations to regime change. And Qaddafi’s forces fled—leaving the lawyers, much to their surprise, in control.

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