By Ahmed Ruhayem.
Benghazi, 13 February 2103:
A significant number of residents in Benghazi appears determined to go out onto the streets of the city on 15 February in support of Cyrenaica federalists’ demands for greater political and economic powers for the East.
The date commemorates the early uprising in Benghazi. It was supposed to start on 17 February, but locals, impatient to get rid of the Qaddafi regime, started two days earlier.
The Libya Herald has spoken to a number of local who plan to join the rally. Many say that attendance is not so much about support for federalism. Rather, it is about waving the flag for Benghazi and the east of the country, demanding investment, jobs and more attention to the cradle of the revolution.
Long-time opponent of the Qaddafi and civil society activist, Fathia Gadoura says she is planning on being in front of the North District Court of Benghazi on 15 February, as she was during the 17 February 2011 revolution. Mother of four university students, she says, “I am not a federalist but the members of General National Congress need to know that there are still people out there who say ‘No! No! No!’ and who are not easily bought by cash handouts.
“Nothing has been accomplished, no security, no infrastructure, no housing. It’s been two years. When someone tells you they need a house and shelter and you give them handouts, that does not solve the problem. It just postpones it. We have heard of huge budgets being allocated but it seems there are no priorities. Instead there are serious mistakes and no accountability.
Much of her resentment is focussed against the General National Congress.
“The Congress has done nothing. In fact the National Transitional Council with much less authority did much more for all of Libya during the revolution.”
Tarek el-Ghyriane, a young SME consultant who works between Benghazi and Tripoli says he is certainly going out on 15 February. His resentment too is against the GNC.
“I am not a federalist, but it has been two years and the country has not seen any progress. Unfortunately, the political parties in the GNC are competing with each other and have forgotten their main tasks — appointing an interim government, Constitutional Commission and running a Constitutional referendum. The GNC should not be in the business of handouts and Zeidan’s government should avoid corruption by steering clear of large contracts.”
Another reason for his dissatisfaction is the security situation.
“People are afraid to speak their minds. People want to see accountability and justice, starting with the cleansing the judiciary. Where evidence exists, people want murderers and public funds thieves to stand trail, such as Abdullah Al-Senussi and members of the NTC accused of fund misappropriation by NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Moreover, the courts should stop using Qaddafi’s laws that are still victimizing people today, particularly Qaddafi’s property law.”
Fadwa Ghaith who heads the Deposit Library at Benghazi University will also be out on 15 February. She calls herself a “federalist” but for her the concept is the way that most people outside Libya understand it. For her, federalism is about decentralisation. She is not rooted to the idea that it has to be a return to three historic provinces of Libya. Her principle protest, however, is about security.
“The prime reason I am going out is to support the police and army. We don’t want to have any more multiple security organs, where someone can have his own small army. I am a federalist and want to see the Libyan government decentralised — but not necessarily based on the three traditional regions, because there are fears that may divide Libya. I want federal Libya, based on multiple provinces. We are fed up with having to go to Tripoli for everything. For example, maintenance at Benghazi University has stopped since the revolution because of some corrupt practices. It is not clear where the problem lies, but local administrators say they can’t do anything without Tripoli’s permission. Decentralisation will make local government administrators and service provides more accountable.”
An industrial engineer who worked with Brown & Root, Moutaz Aldeib says he is not a federalist but is planning on going out because he believes in the demands of those behind the 15 February protest.
“The business lobby in Tripoli wouldn’t even allow for an NOC branch to open up in Benghazi. I am for the return of institutions established in Benghazi such as the NOC, the Central Bank and Libyan Airlines. If we get institutions back and decentralisation through financially and administratively independent provinces then we don’t need Benghazi as second capital of Libya.”
Aldeib also expresses growing dissatisfaction with the GNC.
“The Zeidan government is good but the GNC has been incompetent. It has only had two tasks; to appoint a government and set up the Constitutional Commission. They did not decide [on whether to appoint or elect] the constitutional committee until the 15 February [anniversary] approached. It was the same with the injured revolutionaries whom they ignored until they showed up inside the GNC – and then Magarief says all your demands will be met immediately. It seems the GNC only performs under pressure.”
Ahmed al-Obeidi, a father of three who returned to Benghazi in 2006 after more than 20 years living in Canada, says that he too will be out on 15 February.
“I don’t want my children to have to live in Tripoli in order to have the best education, appropriate health services or ease of travel. Tripoli only affords this because most of Libya’s oil revenues end up there. I don’t want my kids to grow up and look for jobs in Tripoli and pay significant part of their wages as rent. I don’t want my kids to lose the connection with their family and eastern Libyan culture. That does not mean that I don’t want my kids to see the world, to study aboard. What I want is for them to find here in Benghazi everything Libya can offer, not having to live in Tripoli. I am a federalist and believe that the closer the decision maker is to his people the better he is able to serve them.”
Some would-be demonstrators are, however, apprehensive about Friday’s protests.
Ahmed Tahar is a dentistry technician whose sons participated in the 17 February Revolution. He says he is going to join the demonstrations but has not yet decided whether his wife and daughters should accompany him as they did during the revolution two years ago. He is worried that some people might try to cause trouble.
“These past days, some leaflets by Qaddafi supports hav turned up in various places of Benghazi. I am sure that the Qaddafi supporters don’t represent a threat to the city but I’m concerned about others who might carry out violence and blame Qaddafi supporters.
“Criminal gangs don’t want to see a country of law and order while the Muslim Brotherhood are looking for ways to crash the federalists. We need proper police like in the time of the King Idris — a police force without thugs and Qaddafi cronies.”
Oman al-Drisey, young computer engineer working in the family business is also concerned about going out on Friday.
“The federalists’ demands are clear and have been stated publicly, but the 15 February demonstration now includes other political groupings that may have conflicting demands. This may cause friction at the demonstration and could get out of hand. Also, there is confusion over who will be provide security at the square. If, as some people are saying, Ansar Al-Sharia will be responsible for security it will most certainly lead to violence.”
Al-Drisey adds that last year’s Arab Spring celebrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya went without incidents. “This year both Tunisia and Egypt had problems and there could be trouble in Libya.
“There is an invisible force at play. Qatar and two-thirds of the members of General National Congress can not be trusted,” he claims.
There are others in Benghazi, however, who are firmly against Friday’s protests, not because they do not want more investment in the city but because they do not agree with federalism or fear that the protests could be infiltrated by groups and individuals opposed to the revolution and who are intent of causing trouble.
Benghazi members of the Libyan League of Ulema have said they will not be taking part because of concerns that it will send a message of disunity and fears of “infiltration by saboteurs”.
But the event is expected to attract massive numbers. A number of residents who a week ago told the Libya Herald they would not be attending either because of opposition to federalism or concerns about safety now say they will.
The turnout is expected to be politically decisive.
“Power in Libya still lies on the streets of Benghazi,” said Omar Jaouda, a businessmen from Benghazi who lives and works in Tripoli. The government and Congress would be looking to see how many turn up, he said.
The more that turn up on 15 February, he believed, the more concessions they will make to Benghazi and the east in the following days.