BENGHAZI, Libya – They work 18-hour days in two dingy courthouse buildings streaked with graffiti that ridicule Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. When they enter, they wipe their shoes on his portrait.
These are the lawyers, businessmen, college professors and political defectors risking their lives to lead the eastern rebellion against Gadhafi. Thirty-seven days ago, they demonstrated at the courthouse for political rights, and in four days of street fighting overran Gadhafi’s Revolutionary Legion, which has terrorized Libya’s second-largest city.
Suddenly the rebel leaders had to fight a war and build a new government in a region starved of resources by Tripoli. They found themselves riding a revolution they have been unable to fully control.
“You’re talking about people with no experience in running a government, and overnight we had to build a new country and figure out how to run it,” said Zahi Mogherbi, a retired political science professor who advises the Provisional National Council.
Their goal, they say, is to replace Gadhafi with a unified nation with Tripoli as its capital. They do not seek an Islamic emirate or Shariah (Islamic law), they say. They envision free elections, a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, a free press and a democratic government that guarantees free speech.
But the rebel leadership acknowledges that it has done a poor job of organizing itself and presenting a coherent message to the world. Like the enthusiastic but inexperienced rebel fighters, the political leaders have suffered from good intentions undermined by shoddy execution.
Officials who deserted Gadhafi, expatriates and longtime opponents of the Libyan leader jostle for power. The area is short of cash and fuel. Its fighting force is disorganized and suspicious of its leadership.
“The process is still pretty chaotic. The Provisional National Council has dropped the ball in many places,” said Ali Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics professor who handles economics for a “crisis management committee” formed this week to bring order to Benghazi.
One of the council’s main goals is to convince the world that its members are not nihilistic Islamic radicals, as Gadhafi claims.
The students, oil engineers, bank clerks and jobless young men fighting Gadhafi’s tanks with outdated weapons represent a generation that has known only Gadhafi’s regime. Many young fighters are hooked on Facebook, YouTube, Britney Spears and lowbrow American TV shows such as “American Idol” and “Pimp My Ride.” Some say they want to emigrate to the United States.
The leading voices at the Benghazi courthouse are the Gheriani brothers of Michigan: Mustafa and Essam. Both are tall, balding and urbane. Fluent in the American argot and passionate about the revolution, they are affable but often exaggerate the rebels’ progress while discounting Gadhafi’s military gains.
Mustafa lived in Fenton, Mich., for 30 years with his American wife and two sons, ran a successful construction company, and lost a school board election before returning to Benghazi for the rebellion. He has a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Western Michigan University. Essam earned a master’s in psychology from Michigan State.
Both men say they and other rebel leaders will be targeted for death if Gadhafi prevails.
“Gadhafi can stand on my grave,” Essam said, “but he will never rule me as a living person.”
The nominal opposition leader is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gadhafi’s former justice minister, who has a $400,000 bounty on his head after defecting last month. The soft-spoken and uncharismatic Jalil, who maintains a low profile, engaged in an early power struggle with Abdelhafed Ghoga, a cocky human rights lawyer who announced that he, not Jalil, was in charge. The two men eventually made up and Ghoga became council vice president and chief spokesman.
Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, Gadhafi’s interior minister and special-forces commander before he defected, is supposed to lead rebel forces. Younis has failed to bring order to the rebels, many of whom despise him.
“Some people still don’t trust him,” especially young fighters, Mogherbi said.
The council faces a crippling gasoline and fuel shortage, according to Benghazi executives of the biggest state-owned oil company.
Cash flow is another concern, although Tarhouni said the rebels had money in safes at the national bank branch in Benghazi. They also have more than $1 billion worth of Libyan bank notes printed in Britain and sent to Benghazi, he said.