By Ahmed Ruhayem.
Benghazi, 16 February 2013:
Yesterday’s rally in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square was peaceful and good humoured, in marked contrast the fears . . .[restrict]expressed about it beforehand. That in part was because preparations were well organised by local authorities in advance. There was, and still is, a strong security presence in many Benghazi’s streets, although one disturbing aspect of this security has been the presence of many under-aged youths in civilian clothing carrying arms.
Likewise emergency services went into action in case of clashes or violence. There were 16 ambulances on standby, six provided by the Red Crescent society. “A private clinic near Freedom Square was converted to be a First Aid emergency site and there were number of small medical tents ready for any mishaps that might take place because of the large crowd expected”, said Ameer al-Ammari, a Red Crescent volunteer leader.
Part of the reason for the good humour of the crowds was that they were determined to show that Benghazi is not the problem place it had been labeled as, and partly because they were sure they have largely won their case for greater attention.
Mohamed al-Anizy, one of those who called for 15 February 2013 rally back on 8 December, told the Libya Herald yesterday: “Our hope today is for Benghazi to both celebrate and confirm its demands. We hope to refute the impression of Benghazi as not a safe city. Yesterday [Thursday], 25 civil society organisations met and announced that they were giving the local council, GNC and Zeidan’s government until 31 March to meet our demands — which they have already agreed to in principle.”
Mohamed al-Barnawi and Abuzaid al-Sheki know many of the leading personalities who frequented Tahrir Square during the revolution and are themselves well known. They made and served tea during the evening demonstrations throughout the war. On the day of Qaddafi’s capture and death they served thousands of cups of tea. Barnawi was very happy yesterday. “I am standing here like no other time before,” he said. “I feel proud with the breath of real freedom in my lungs. We are here for the demands of Benghazi but also want peace for Benghazi and Libya.”
One of the demonstrators, the father of Rami Shaib, writer and singer of what became one the revolution’s anthems “We will not surrender”, told the Libya Herald that yesterday’s event was thrilling.
“I’m dancing with happiness, this is unlike the days of Qaddafi celebrations when people acted with hypocrisy. My son came back from aboard to contribute to the revolution. As an engineer he helped establish Libya Alhurra TV and his song caused Europeans and even President Obama to sympathize with the Libyan struggle and admire what was happening.”
Security in the city was very much on the minds of some of those present. One of the early attendees in Tahrir Square, Wageh Rajab, held a picture of Benghazi CID head Abdelsalem Al-Mihdawi who was kidnapped on 2 January.
“It has been 45 days,” says Wageh. “No government official or civil society activist paid visits or made public statements of support. This applies to all the assassination victims in Benghazi. Only the family members and friends donated money to have a few large street posters and 2000 small posters calling for the safe return of Abdelsalem. The government should combine all the armed groups under one umbrella rather than waste money buying vehicles and paying salaries for each separate security organ.”
An American filmmaker also at the rally, Matthew Millan, directed the short film “We Win or We Die” about a local Libyan hero, Mahdi Ziu, who played a key role in the fall of Qaddafi’s qatiba. “Benghazi is going through the rudimentary post revolution depression, there is still no infrastructure and it will take sometime,” said Millan. “I lived in Libya for a year starting in April 2011. I walked all around the streets of Benghazi. It’s a safe city. I’m pretty sure Benghazi will again be the beautiful city it once was. It needs time.”
Another of the participants at the rally, Mustafa Gumam was 18 years old when the revolution broke out and with his friend headed westwards towards Sirte in the days just after the fall of the Qaddafi qatiba. “I got hit by shrapnel in my leg, then joined 17 February forces and now am with the Libyan Shield forces. I don’t want to spend my life as soldier. I want the government to find solutions for us youngsters. The government should not focus on catching illegal migrant workers from Egypt and Sudan. Rather they should focus on cleansing their own ranks from power seekers.”
Rida Bey was also at the rally. He observed that “what is happening today is what always happens in Libya: everyone demanding his civic rights. Real democracies have laws and constitutions. That is what the Libyan revolution was all about – real democracy. Today nobody tells Libyans what to do or what to be. A positive development is that Benghazi does not have to wait 40 or more years before the powers in Tripoli ask her what she wants.”
In the view of professional photographer Alaa el-Dursi there were two different groups of people at the rally – those celebrating the second anniversary of the revolution and those demanding rights. “For me I’m celebrating and don’t completely agree with the demands. For example, I believe that feasibility studies should be conducted to identify the best location for all public institutions and before holding people accountable there should be a functioning judiciary. I don’t believe in the word ‘cleansing’. It gives the impression that someone is guilty. I would rather have people who worked within the Qaddafi regime leave their posts, albeit for a few years.”
Not everyone was happy about the party mood at the rally. As the crowd began to gather for the event, Mohamed Baywo, a senior Al-Watan Party member, noted: “There is an attempt to manipulate the crowd. This is supposed to be a demonstration day, not a song and dance. But it is still early and the people are just being to show up.”
As it happened, less than an hour later the crowds started chanting “Benghazi is maltreated” and calling for the city’s demands to be met. Many of the protestors called for resignation of the Army Chief of Staff, Yousef Mangoush. At one point, those on stage called for a member of the local council to appear. Nobody showed up! The chanting continued into the night. [/restrict]