Benghazi’s lawyers, Libya’s revolutionaries

Benghazi–As anti-government rebels struggle to hold onto some of Libya’s key coastal towns, the three-week-old uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s rule has turned into a bloody armed conflict. Hundreds of fighters, composed of young volunteers and defectors from the military and security brigades, continue their push westward against an army of Qadhafi loyalists willing to use all means of deadly force to remain in power. In recent days, images of fighters bearing combat weapons on the frontlines have come to represent the uprising, while those who initially spearheaded the revolt–professionals, youth activists and human rights workers–are gradually disappearing from the forefront of mainstream coverage.

The fate of Libya’s revolution will likely be decided on the battlefield, but its birth was made possible by the longstanding efforts of Benghazi’s lawyers and human rights advocates. Many continue to play a central role in the interim political structures that have been formed to lead the revolution.  

The North Benghazi Courthouse is an austere-looking, graffiti-covered building on the Mediterranean waterfront that has become the political headquarters of the anti-Qadhafi forces. Inside, Salwa al-Deghali, a member of the newly-formed Provisional National Council, paces tirelessly through the hallways. A lawyer by profession, she now spends her days giving interviews, organizing press conferences and running from one meeting to the next. Her colleague and fellow council member, Fathi Terbil, well-known for representing the families of 1200 prisoners who were massacred at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison in 1996, sits in an office coordinating a protest by the victims’ families outside. Meanwhile, in an adjacent building that has been converted into the revolution’s media center, law professor Najla al-Mangoushi helps publish Benghazi’s first independent newspaper.

 “I’m a lawyer. I know how to bring cases before court. But I’m not an experienced politician,” says al-Deghali. “We have never had any real organizational experience in Libya, through parties or independent professional associations. Suddenly, we have an entire city to run.”

Under Qadhafi, Libyan civil institutions remained under tight state control. The Benghazi Bar Association, in which al-Deghali played an active role, was no exception. Over the past year, members had been campaigning for legal reforms and an end to corruption within the association. Their efforts crystallized around a campaign to oust the former association head, a Qadhafi loyalist who stayed on well past his legally-mandated term.

Nervous about the wave of popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world, Qadhafi met with Benghazi lawyers in early February to discuss the standoff. He tried to placate them with promises of reform, and the head of the bar association was dismissed one week before the uprising. But by then it was too late. “We might have been satisfied with this in the past, but after Tunisia and Egypt, we knew we could ask for more,” says al-Deghali. “And once they started firing on protesters, we knew there was no going back,” she adds.

Perhaps more than any other group, lawyers have played a leading role in demanding political reforms over the past few years. With years of accumulated experience pressuring the regime both inside the courts and on the streets, these barristers were instrumental in paving the way for the Libyan uprising.

Like al-Deghali, Terbil was no stranger to political activism. He represented the Abu Salim families in their legal battle to uncover the truth about the mass killings at the prison and the disappearance of the bodies. Since 2009, Terbil joined the families in organizing weekly demonstrations, which soon began taking up other causes such as the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

When a call was made over Facebook for a “Day of Rage” on 17 February against the Libyan regime, the Abu Salim families and Benghazi lawyers were among the first to heed the call.

But Terbil was arrested even before the protests were scheduled to begin. “The authorities detained me on 15 February, two days before the demonstration. That’s when many of the Abu Salim families and people who knew me came out to protest my arrest in front of the courthouse,” he said.

Two days later, the “Day of Rage” went on as scheduled with a higher turnout than expected. “I went to the 17 February protest thinking I would either take a bullet or be imprisoned, like in previous demonstrations,” said Hana al-Gallal, who teaches human rights law at Gar Younis University and is now a media liaison between the foreign press and rebel authorities in Benghazi. “But this time,” she added, “it was different. The fact that Benghazi fell within three days was beyond our wildest dreams.”

Now, many lawyers have risen to positions of authority in the interim city and national councils, a role as challenging as it is empowering. “For years we had no Constitution. We just had a Green Book. Now we are starting from scratch,” says al-Deghali. Asked about the kind of Libyan society they seek to build, the lawyers espouse ideals of freedom, human rights and democracy that they have spent years defending. But they have no illusions that translating these ideals into practice will be an easy task.

“Qadhafi’s regime left us with no real institutions and a lot of mutual fear. The revolution allowed us to discover the dreams that we share in common, and it will give us an opportunity to build a democratic society,” says al-Gallal. But the process of building anew may have to wait for the time being as the Provisional National Council does not seem poised–nor does it have a mandate–to formulate a long-term political vision for the country. Its priority for the moment is to gain official recognition from the international community as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people and to bring Gaddafi’s crumbling regime to an end.

For many of the lawyers, organizing a revolution has come with responsibilities they could hardly have imagined bearing just a few weeks ago. The work hours are long, the tasks multiply by the day, and the personal risks are very high. A few have received death threats and most have had their cell phones blocked.

Although Benghazi has remained securely in the hands of rebel forces for two weeks now, some still worry that the situation is precarious. In addition to growing casualties on the frontlines, there is fear of infiltration by pro-Qadhafi elements. “Those of us inside this building are in a constant state of worry–we haven’t been able to experience the joy that has overtaken Benghazi’s streets since the regime fell here,” says al-Deghali.

Like many of her comrades, al-Mangoushi–a single mother of two children–credits Benghazi’s history of human rights activism with laying the ground for the revolution, but maintains that it was the sacrifices of courageous protesters on the street that pushed Libya’s revolt to the point of no return. “The courage of ordinary people is the real reason behind our success today. Without them we could not have done anything.”

It’s perhaps appropriate that a courthouse, in front of which lawyers fought for legal justice and reform, now stands as a symbol of a free Benghazi. But moving forward, Benghazi’s lawyers-turned-revolutionaries will face tough challenges in preserving what is won and–if they defeat Qadhafi–forging a new political order after the guns fall silent.

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