Amid the stinging acrid smoke and triumphal yells of the protestors who had just occupied the base of Benghazi’s Islamist Ansar Al Sharia militia last weekend, a big man in a yellow polo shirt pressed through the crowd. Mistaking me for an American, he introduced himself as a politics professor, Ehad El-Fawsi, then apologized on behalf of his city for the death of “my” ambassador. “He was a good man.”
Encounters like these are a frequent occurrence for the few westerners still in Benghazi following the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and three fellow diplomats on September 11.
The narrative from Washington briefings paints this eastern Libyan port city as a den of jihadists, but the reality on the ground is very different. There is real sorrow at the death of Stevens, who had made the city his second home. “People feel responsible. He was so good, he was so interested in what civil society was doing,” said Hana Al Galal, a prominent civil rights activist, who had been due to meet Stevens the day after he died.
She, like many others, fears that the triumph of last year’s Arab Spring revolution in throwing off the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi may be eclipsed by militants ushering in a new one. “Everybody is rallying against extremists, against all brigades,” she told me. “We are not going to go from darkness to darkness.”
And rally they did. Last Friday, after a protest they dubbed “Save Benghazi,” thousands of mostly young male protestors decided they had had enough, and marched on the militia bases. I watched the first assault, on the local headquarters of the Shahouda Abu Salem militia, and it was an extraordinary experience. Hundreds of local teenagers forced the gates of a compound surrounded by crumbling apartments from the city’s colonial Italian past. Militiamen, still clutching their guns, were manhandled into the street.
Ansar Al Sharia, the Islamist unit blamed by Libya’s de facto president Mohammed Magarief for involvement in the assault on the US consulate, was the next to go. Once the bearded militiamen were respected for bringing security to Benghazi; in more recent times they were feared, booming through the streets in their black-flagged jeeps.
After the attack on Stevens, Ansar’s adherents braced themselves for retaliation, deploying anti-aircraft guns deployed against fearfully anticipated U.S. drone strikes. But they had no answer to the thousands of protestors who marched down a narrow street to the front of the militia’s main compound. The militiamen fired a volley of shots over the heads of the protestors, then fled. In minutes, their compound was ablaze, inspiring scenes at once triumphant and farcical.
By the time this correspondent got inside, a handful of red-capped military policemen had arrived, to be embraced by the protestors. A lone fire truck was dousing one blaze even as cheering looters set fire to its neighbor. “It’s like in the revolution,” said one military police colonel, Mohammed Ben Eisa. “We're taking orders from the people.”