- - Thursday, February 16, 2012

BENGHAZI, Libya — On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Feb. 17 revolution, residents here say that while they are thrilled their former dictator is gone, there hasn’t been enough of an effort to purge his supporters from the leadership.

“The question is whether the regime has fallen or is it still there,” said Abdel Salam El Sherif, 33, a lawyer and political activist in the city considered the cradle of the uprising that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi late last year.

For the past two days, locals celebrated the anniversary by honking horns on cars adorned with the pre-Gadhafi red, black and green flags, cruising on the same roads where security forces gunned down several protesters one year ago.

After Libya’s second-largest city drove Gadhafi’s men west and liberated the eastern half of the country, Benghazi was a ghost town amid the uncertain revolutionary environment. People stayed indoors and locked their businesses behind solid green shutters — the color of Gadhafi’s flag.

Now the city bustles with life, and the shutters, when closed, have been repainted as the tri-color flag.

Starting Wednesday, security forces were put on alert, flooding the downtown area and access points to the city with armed men.

The city has been relatively safe since the NATO airstrikes began last March, but last week tensions rose after one of Gadhafi’s sons, El-Saadi, who escaped to Niger as rebels took Tripoli, called into a Saudi TV news channel and warned of an imminent uprising against the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

“The increased numbers of security men is to send a message to families that the celebrations this week will be safe,” said Ahmed Binasser, 43, a car parts salesman and former rebel fighter. “We’re also concerned about the threats El-Saadi made. Basically, we want to be prepared for any situation.”

Mr. Binasser was a member of the local Zawiya Martyrs Brigade, one of the toughest militias during the revolution. He and others were stationed Thursday at an intersection near downtown Benghazi, dressed in full camouflage uniform and a defense ministry badge.

Unlike other Libyan rebel brigades, all of the fighters in the east have come under control of the defense ministry. Closer to the dock area, a dozen men in uniform and civilian clothing, armed with AK-47s and the larger Belgium FN-FAL rifle, lined the streets.

Halili Aguri, 20, and Tarek Shetawi, 31, said their Libya Al-Hurra (“Free Libya“) Brigade signed on with the ministry in April.

“All the rebels in Benghazi have signed up with the ministry, and around 1,000 graduated a training course yesterday,” Mr. Aguri said.

On Sunday, the NTC announced on its veteran’s affairs website that it completed its first, post-revolutionary phase of its plan to absorb the diverse militias into a new national army, signing up 5,000 men.

The transitional government now is offering jobs in the army or the police force to revolutionary fighters, in addition to post-graduate education abroad.

The situation in the east contradicts news of other militias reportedly taking revenge against those they consider to have supported Gadhafi.

On Thursday, Amnesty International released a report on “widespread and serious abuses, including war crimes, by a multitude of militias against suspected Gadhafi loyalists, with cases of people being unlawfully detained and tortured — sometimes to death.”

Since January, Amnesty International has visited 10 prisons in central and western Libya where detainees said they had been tortured or ill-treated. At least 12 people held by militias have died since September after being tortured, the group said.

Despite the apparent calm in Benghazi, however, its citizens are far from happy with the country’s progress since they evicted Gadhafi. Last month a group of protesters attacked the NTC office in Benghazi, forcing Chairman Mustafa Abduljalil and other NTC members to flee out the back door.

Gadhafi is dead but the system he created and its people are still there,” said Mr. El Sharif. “The NTC has lost its credibility with the people.”

Because Gadhafi neglected eastern Libya, especially Benghazi, for decades, the locals have an innate mistrust of Tripoli that has not abated since the regime’s downfall. Many complain about the presence of former regime members in and around the transitional government.

“It’s hard for people to accept those who supported Gadhafi or who worked in the regime but many people had no alternative when supporting a family,” said Fathi Baja, an NTC founding member and head of the political committee that draws up national and international policy for the council.

“We have 15 guidelines to keep former Gadhafi people out of the leadership that affects around 2,000 people. Many Libyans think this is too few, but we don’t want to make the same mistake as the Americans did when they banned Baath party members from the new Iraqi government.”

Despite his experience in writing policy, former political science professor Zahi Mogherbi was marginalized from the NTC because around five years ago, he had drafted constitutional reforms alongside the dictator’s hated son, Seif Al-Islam. The reforms were rejected at the time but the taint has remained.

“I was well-known in the opposition to Gadhafi but a lot of us felt that our window of opportunity was to work within the regime,” Mr. Mogherbi said. “No one thought in his wildest dreams that a revolution would take down Gadhafi. So we thought the only way to do reform was to do it from within.”

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