One of the few really steady jobs in liberated eastern Libya these days is that of caricaturist, and guys such as Adil Mansur are cleaning up. The 30-year-old history student has drawn posters of dictator Moammar Gadhafi as a dog, a snake and a hanging victim. Today he is producing a large image of rebel interim-government leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil as a mellow and saintly figure.
Another growth field is TV talk-show host. While the regime’s network still broadcasts hours of Col. Gadhafi and his deputies in empty rooms staring straight at the camera and shouting for hours about the crimes of Libya’s enemies, the rebel-controlled network instead offers local celebrity Mahmoud El Warfari, who stares straight at the camera in an empty room and shouts for hours about the crimes of Col. Gadhafi.
Subtlety is in short supply here these days. So is self-criticism: Of the 126 newspapers and more than 100 civil organizations that have sprung up in rebel-held east Libya since a Feb. 17 uprising began the fight against Col. Gadhafi’s control, only one or two offer much other than variations on “Down with Gadhafi” and “Up with the revolution.”
At first, this seemed fair enough. This is, after all, a country at war, and as long as this region’s young men are dying every day in a prolonged and bloody battle for the country’s freedom, a certain amount of cheerleading and patriotic vitriol seemed appropriate.
But now, as the conflict passed its five-month point Sunday, some people here in the rebel capital of Benghazi are starting to worry. The voices of rebel anger and pride, they fear, are starting to sound like mirror images of Col. Gadhafi’s jingoism – and since the schools have been shut down since Feb. 17, they’re worried that all this full-throated zealotry is giving kids the wrong idea.
“It’s been 42 years that we’ve all been hearing the same man yelling at us in the same voice, and now that he’s not here, it’s going to take some time to get used to the sort of world where you can speak with self-criticism or have a diversity of voices,” says Hana El-Gallal, an activist who is pushing for a more open and less homogeneous rebel administration.
Ms. El-Gallal was education minister in the rebels’ National Transitional Council (which Canada and 29 other countries now recognize as the legitimate governing body of Libya), and she pushed to have schools open on Sept. 5 – even if the makeshift government has no money – in large part so children can have something other than a constant diet of revolutionary propaganda.
Now she is part of a small circle of people who are trying to turn the 1.5 million people of eastern Libya and their transitional government from a radical movement into a normal community, complete with disagreements and the questioning of goals.
“We’ve been living in an information blackout and a propaganda state for our entire lives, and now we’re finally allowed to have opposition politics and disagreements within the government without risking our lives – it’s important to do that,” said Enas Al-Drisey, a 23-year-old physics graduate who founded the organization Take Back the Revolution as a voice that criticizes the internal workings of the NTC while still supporting its goals.
That kind of organization would have been unthinkable in Col. Gadhafi’s Libya, and older Libyans are still inured to the idea that theirs is a society without parties, factions or disagreements.
To dispel that notion, Ms. Al-Drisey helped create the newspaper The Reality, which she describes as “the first opposition newspaper.” It began two months ago by criticizing the NTC for turning a blind eye to the theft of food and medical supplies by civil servants – a practice which, she claims, came to a halt as a result of the paper’s muckraking.
While some older and more conservative Libyans have raised eyebrows, this dissent has, for the most part, been tolerated and even welcomed by the NTC.
“Despite the fact that they were kind of slow to do it, I would say that yes, they are turning into a proper government,” Ms. Al-Drisey said. “But there are still a lot of things to overcome. Why don’t they show that they can start fulfilling all the functions of government, and start moving more quickly? After all, they’ve had five months.”
It might take longer. While the NTC has impressed almost everyone by managing to turn eastern Libya into a peaceful and comparatively well-governed place while incorporating every opposition movement under its umbrella and overseeing a war, it still echoes many of the governing and communications methods of the old regime.
On one hand, it has run a surprisingly modern and well-organized media office – something that some fully-formed and well-established countries haven’t yet figured out how to do – right from the beginning.
On the other, it still sends a couple dozen of its female employees out onto the street every afternoon to wave revolutionary placards and whack photos of Col. Gadhafi with shoes in a not-very-impromptu protest.
“As long as Gadhafi’s still around, people are going to want to present a unified front,” Ms. El-Gallal said. “But we can’t put everything aside until the war is over. We have to start being a free society now.”