Outside the court house in Benghazi, the epicentre of the revolt, activists from the Libyan Youth (LYM) Movement mingle freely with the large crowds that daily gather here to learn about the developments on the military frontlines or to express their solidarity with a popular uprising that is targeting the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi.
Like their counterparts in Egypt who successfully toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, the Libyan Youth Movement February 17th, its full name, has similar goals. Its chief stated objectives are - Freedom, Democracy and Regime Change.
Taking a cue from the Egyptian movement, many of the LYM activists are tech-savvy. The LYM has a Facebook Page and a Twitter account, and is now collecting donations online to serve their cause. Activists insist that they wanted to lead a peaceful movement for fundamental political change, but have been forced to take up arms, because the “murderous regime” of Mr. Qadhafi left them with no other choice.
Similar to the Egyptian national flag, which united most shades of opinion in Egypt, the protesters in Libya have plastered the city with the red-black and green flag of the pre-Qadhafi era.
In the large patches of concrete in front and on either sides of the courthouse, the atmosphere like Cairo’s Tahrir square is festive, though not necessarily celebratory. Intellectuals, writers, technocrats, businessmen, trainee doctors and lawyers throng this space. On Friday after prayers hundreds of thousands stage an organised presence here. A big stage, tastefully decorated, has been set up, and giant mobile generators provide electricity. Fire tenders with fire fighters in orange jackets are in toe, as are ambulances from Red Crescent, positioned neatly on the adjoining road, to tackle medical emergencies just in case things go wrong. Besides, there is graffiti and posters all over, reflective of the modern aspirations of a new Libya that is currently struggling to emerge.
But, it is here that comparisons with the Egyptian revolt end. Unlike Egypt, the peaceful protests in Libya have quickly transformed into a full-blown armed struggle. The fear of ruthless state violence unleashed by a vengeful Qadhafi- regime stalks most, as it dawns on people that there is no middle-ground left between them and the regime. “It is either us or Mr. Qadhafi’s family which is the core of the regime. Either we win or we die,” says Hossam, an anti-regime protester.
With bad new coming from the battlefront in recent days, the possibility of external elements hijacking what has so been a broadly indigenous movement has become real. The protesters outside the courthouse have now been frantically calling for a no-fly zone imposed by the big powers. They have emotionally welcomed the French decision on Thursday to recognise the opposition as the legitimate Libyan government. On Friday, anti-regime activists were calling not just for a no-fly zone but for much more - such as aerial attacks by foreign planes, on regime targets, including Mr. Qadhafi’s palace in Tripoli.
While its desperation is understandable, in seeking a significant foreign military role, the opposition may be flirting with the long term danger of allowing former colonial powers, to stage an influential politico-economic return to their favourite North African backyard.
Currently, an uneasy calm prevails over Benghazi, after regime forces have taken over large parts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, only 370 kilometers away, and threaten to make further military gains along the Libya’s coastal oil heartland. At night bursts of gunfire, can be heard in the city, but whose citizens’ army, regardless, is gearing up for a bloody combat with the regime.