Libyan rebels show defiance with souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs

BENGHAZI, LIBYA—Libyan rebels may be low on weapons needed to topple Moammar Gadhafi, but there is certainly no shortage of souvenirs available commemorating the revolution.

Roughly a dozen stands set up outside the courthouse in downtown Benghazi, the de facto capital of rebel-held eastern Libya, sell a dizzying array of hats, scarves, T-shirts, coffee mugs, pins, buttons, key chains, stickers, bracelets, car deodorizers, cassette tapes and CDs — all decked out in the red, black and green colours of the ubiquitous rebel flag.

The selection rivals what you would find at many souvenir shops outside professional sports games in the United States and provides a strange contrast to the fierce fighting occurring in other parts of Libya.

“I’m looking for something I can attach to my clothes to show the people that I’m with the rebels,” said Omar Suleiman, a 53-year-old doctor who was also browsing for a hat or a flag for his three kids.

The steady flow of customers to the stands near the courthouse and scattered elsewhere throughout the city is a testament to the revolutionary fervour that has swept eastern Libya, and also the power of capitalism.

Many of the men operating the souvenir tables said they set them up in early March, less than a month after the revolution started in mid-February.

“The people had a thirst to have something related to the revolution to show their quest for freedom,” said Abu Bilal, a 40-year-old Egyptian who lives in Benghazi and operates one of the stands near the courthouse.

Abu Bilal and other vendors said they source most of their goods from neighbouring Egypt. But some of them carry “Made in China” tags, a sensitive issue since China hasn’t been supportive of the international community’s attempt to help the rebels by enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.

“I think only the labels were made in China,” said Abu Bilal defensively when asked about a large pile of rebel flag key chains he was selling.

But questions about the origin of the goods doesn’t seem to have hurt sales.

“We buy stuff so that Gadhafi will leave,” said Mohammed Fouzay, a 17-year-old student who was shopping with his father and two brothers. He picked up a small rebel flag and a large “Free Libya” sticker that he planned to stick on the family car’s license plate to cover up references to Gadhafi’s regime.

Vendors also sell stickers that locals place on Libyan one dinar notes to cover up Gadhafi’s picture with that of Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan hero who fought against Italian occupation in the early 1900s and was eventually hanged. His stern, white-bearded image adorns many of the souvenirs for sale, as does his famous motto: “We won’t give up. We win or die.”

Which fate will greet the rebels is still uncertain, but profits, at least, seem assured.

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