Libya: Amid celebrations, residents make sure city runs normally

TOBRUK, LIBYA—The eighth day of the Libyan revolution was composed in roughly equal parts of this — banner-waving protesters marching in the streets, men in kaffiyehs firing automatic rifles into the sand-ridden sky and good people pitching in to get important work done.

That at least was more or less the combination of revolutionary activities that played out Friday in this storied port city overlooking the Mediterranean Sea from the North African coast, roughly 200 kilometres west of Libya’s border with Egypt.

“Libyans want the regime to fall,” several thousand demonstrators chanted in Tobruk’s Shohadat Square following their Friday prayers.

Periodic bursts of automatic weapons fire resounded through the plaza, where local people launched their uprising against the 41-year rule of dictator Moammar Gadhafi on Feb. 17, just as their compatriots did in other towns and cities across Libya.

More protesters peered down from the roofs of buildings overlooking the plaza, including the blackened two-storey façades of the police station and city hall, which were among many government buildings torched in the first days of the uprising here.

Meanwhile, an orange garbage truck lurched along the square’s perimeter, with a pair of municipal sanitation workers bringing up the rear on foot, as if there were no revolution underway in Libya or as if even revolutions require regular garbage pickup, which they probably do.

“We haven’t been paid since the revolution began,” said one of the garbagemen, Ashraf Douad, 24. “But we expect to be paid soon.”

Here’s hoping he’s right — and welcome to popular insurrection, Libya-style, at least as it is practised here in the country’s northeast, where the police and the military have sided with the revolutionaries and where you might almost think the dictator had fallen already.

The protesters still march through the streets, as if in celebration of victory, while the revolution’s less familiar faces and its unsung heroes make sure the hospitals are functioning, the gas stations stay open, the streets are swept clean — more or less — and the buses run.

“Everything is working fine,” said Abdul Hamid Hassam Asad, 36, a local businessman, one of many local residents who now volunteer their time to help run the city government here.

The main municipal offices were burnt down in the first days of the uprising, so a temporary city hall has been set up in a sports centre on Fatah St. The complex also serves as a distribution point for emergency supplies, including medicine.

The officials who formerly ran the city, population about 300,000, were directly appointed by the central government in Tripoli and followed orders that came from there.

“It was a system you will never see anywhere else in the world,” said Asad, a dark-haired man with a serious demeanour, clad in a brown suede jacket and a rose-coloured shirt. “It confused even us.”

After the Libyan uprising began, Gadhafi’s appointees here either fled for Tripoli, the capital, or joined the local revolution.  “Those who left are very few,” said Hasham al-Tayap, 41, another volunteer at the sports centre.  Like many others here, al-Tayap described a Tobruk transformed by the insurrection still unfolding in its midst.

“Now we are united,” he said. “We were not like that before, but now we are.”  Municipal workers have continued to carry out their duties, without a break, in spite of the massive changes now unfolding around them.  The petroleum refinery and the seaport that form the basis of Tobruk’s economy are also working almost normally, as if nothing unusual were going on.

In the western part of the country, Gadhafi is fighting a ruthless struggle to maintain his four-decade grip on power, but many people here in the east — perhaps most — believe their revolution cannot be turned back now.

“It’s very hard to imagine — impossible,” said al-Tayap.  The city’as main hospital, the Batnan Medical Centre, received upwards of 60 people hit by gunshots in the early days of the uprising here. Four people died.  Now the centre is operating more or less normally, said its director, Dr. Said Hamat, 45.

There are some shortages, he said, but supplies are being trucked in from neighbouring Egypt.  He said the hospital staff, including all its doctors and nurses, have faithfully reported for work since the eight-day-old revolution began.  They have already been paid for this month.

“For the next month, nobody knows,” said Hamat. “If the situation is prolonged, of course we are worried.”  But the revolutionary garbagemen of Tobruk are still working without pay. It’s a fair bet the nurses and doctors will too.

Leave a Reply