BENGHAZI, Libya — A month into its life as the de facto capital of free Libya, the port city of Bengazhi has achieved a strange kind of normal. The cribs, garbage cans, and bed frames that were assembled into fortifications to block the advance of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces are disappearing off the city streets, as are the crates of Pepsi bottle Molotov cocktails. The teenagers who started manning these eccentric barricades last Sunday night are back in Freedom Square -- a pre-revolutionary name -- for their nightly ritual of prayers, hanging out along the boardwalk above the sea, and smoking. The scene among the makeshift tents, set up in the heady days of the revolution by everyone from soccer clubs to former political prisoners, is much as it was few weeks ago, except banners once imploring the international community to step in have been replaced by banners thanking the Americans, British, and above all the French. The crowds of mostly young men now exchange cell phone movies of Qaddafi forces' failed attack on the city.
It had been a close call. When I went out for dinner at a local restaurant a week ago, I found the patrons there in a panic: Benghazi's pro-rebel radio station had called all the young men to come and fight on the highway running west past the city's Garyounis University. Heavy shelling started early Saturday morning and continued all day as tanks supported by rocket launchers pushed into the city. It was Qaddafi's attempt to grab Benghazi, or as much of it as he could, before the international forces' airstrikes began. The logic was clear: crush the city and, in so doing, crush the revolution that started there. By the time the coalition attacks started on Sunday, large parts of the city had evacuated to the east.
But the panic ended as quickly as it began. By Monday afternoon, crowds of local tourists felt safe enough to come out of the city to survey the work of foreign intervention. Tank turrets had been thrown dozens of feet from the vehicles' smoking hulls. Men carried the charred remains of Qaddafi's fighters past discarded 10-foot-long wooden boxes of 1980s-vintage Soviet-made rockets. "We thought Benghazi would just be a memory," said a woman named Amina, attending the first big gathering in Freedom Square after the near-invasion. "We would tell the next generation 'this was Benghazi.'"
The paranoia, too, is receding. Saturday's attack was facilitated by local sleeper cells of Qaddafi's revolutionary councils who laid low in the city after being driven from power in February, hiding their arsenals in schools and empty houses. Somehow, they even managed to conceal tanks in the city, probably by camouflaging them with revolutionary flags, which joined the government army attacking from the west. Many here believe Qaddafi's short radio speeches contained coded messages for the loyalists, calling them to come out of hiding to join the fight. The bodies of some dead Qaddafi fighters displayed in the morgue after the battle wore military fatigues pulled over their civilian clothes, hardly a typical combat uniform. Much of this week, rumors of arrested fifth columnists circulated in the city.
But if Qaddafi's forces no longer run Benghazi, it is still not clear who does. "There is no government per se," Abdul Hafiz Gogha, the spokesman for the rebels' National Transitional Council, told journalists this week. The council, which was assembled in late February, is the closest thing to an authority in the city, and is reputed among Benghazi's tattered middle class and intelligentsia -- from which it is drawn -- to be honest and moderate. But Benghazi is home to nearly 700,000 people, and a month-old deliberative body is not the same thing as a city administration, let alone a national government. Among other things, Libya's monthly pay day -- on which this quasi-socialist state has for decades paid guaranteed salaries to the government-employed majority of its workforce -- is less than a week away; rumors abound that Qaddafi's people emptied the local banks on their way out of town.
It is not much clearer who is running the rebel army -- or even who is in it. On Thursday, the first officer many journalists had seen after weeks of fighting appeared at a press conference in Benghazi: Col. Ahmed Bani, an officer who had defected from Qaddafi's Air Force to join the rebels, announced himself as the spokesman for the new national army. He then explained that the Libyan rebels would have to build that army more or less from scratch; seeking to avoid the potential for a coup, Qaddafi had long ago disbanded the military in favor Praetorian Guard-like security brigades, a mixture of regime loyalists and mercenaries. "From now there is the idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals," Bani said. Then he asked the international community for weapons and ammunition to help the idea along.