Pro-democracy activists set up makeshift command centres to co-ordinate revolt [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]
BENGHAZI, LIBYA --- In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, life has entered a new stage of revolutionary normal. Shops have re-opened next to burnt-out regime headquarters; the main justice fbuilding still stands, but its rooms are occupied by opposition media centres, and courtrooms have become kitchens.
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Several hundred kilometres to the west, military units still loyal to long time leader Muammar Gaddafi guard the roads, detaining journalists and preventing approach to Tripoli, the capital.
But if any concerns remained about whether the opposition's de facto capital was truly in anti-Gaddafi hands, they melted at the appearance of a child leaning out the window of a passing car wearing an afro wig with a red cap on top.
"Look at my son – Gaddafi!" said the man in the driver's seat.
Along streets where it once would have been unthinkable to question Colonel Gaddafi, whose rule is now in its 42nd year, spray-painted graffiti covers nearly every wall. Atop a gutted former security headquarters where the opposition now collects turned-in weapons, a huge, red, green and black flag flies – the first banner of post-colonial Libyan independence, which protesters have adopted as a symbol of a second independence from Gaddafi's rule.
Next door stands Benghazi's main courthouse. Its exterior remains covered in graffiti but comparatively unscathed. This is the new headquarters and nerve centre for Libya's opposition. A week after the city fell to the protesters following bloody fighting with the local military garrison, it now features an organised civilian security team at the main entrance, a kitchen and an internet centre where Ahmed Sanalla and a small crew of tech-minded men lean over laptops.
The top-floor internet centre began operating on Tuesday, explains Sanalla, a dual British and Libyan citizen who has spent the past four years studying medicine at Benghazi's Garyounis University.
|Graffiti marks the walls in Benghazi [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]
Ahmed Sheikh, a 42-year-old computer engineer who works in civil aviation, rigged the room's internet system. A cable leads from a large satellite dish on the roof through a hole in the wall to a receiver, which then connects to wireless routers. Most of the laptops connect directly to the routers by Ethernet cables, though on Saturday afternoon, the connection was hampered by heavy wind, intermittent rain and cloudy skies.
"You're getting two kilobytes a second, it's worthless," Sanalla told one of the other men trying to upload videos to YouTube.
At another laptop, 26-year-old Ahmed Yacoub was setting up an Arabic-language Wordpress blog: "The Voice of the February 17 Revolution" – named after the “day of rage” when the protests in Libya began to turn into a violent uprising.
Yacoub, who studies media and programming at Garyounis, said he and other f gained "courage and guidance" from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Egyptians have been assisting the Libyan uprising, not only by ferrying aid across the liberated eastern border between the two countries, but by carrying media out of the internet blackout in Libya to upload in Egyptian border towns and by sharing tactical advice on how to confront a repressive government crackdown, Sanalla said.
Between the onset of heavy fighting on the 17th and the 21st, he said, protesters in Benghazi were suffering under a total internet blackout. Then Sheikh came and arranged his ad-hoc system. On Saturday, they had just arranged to make phone calls through the satellite connection and could now conduct Skype phone calls with the outside world. Sanalla had been reaching out to international media organisations such as CNN and the BBC using the program’s chat capability.
Much of the information about the Libyan uprising that reached the West in recent weeks came from Libyan expatriates who were phoning, emailing or instant messaging with family and friends inside the country. Often, the Libyans abroad would relay incomplete or exaggerated news, as when false reports spread that protesters in Benghazi had found hundreds of political prisoners held underground for decades (in fact, a dozen or so were released, and their internment was several times smaller than had been reported, Sanalla said.)
|Much of the equipment is donated [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]
"Some of it was well exaggerated," he said. But in his mind, if it helped the uprising's cause. It was an acceptable distortion.
"It put more pressure on the international people, it made it even more horrific."
At the burned-out building next door, where the opposition militia is collecting weapons from citizens, a revolutionary media cell has set up its headquarters. On the second floor, in three cinderblock rooms lit by bare light bulbs, a dozen men and women co-ordinate the effort. In one room, men sit around computers arranged on fold-out tables, collecting videos and photographs from anyone who comes in, screening them for importance and using some for emotional slideshows overlaid with dramatic music. The activists there say they have around 40 gigabytes of data so far.
In an adjacent room sits a large, industrial printer taken from an architect's office that produces the opposition's large banners. Mohammed al-Zawam, a 25-year-old media assistant, held one up: In the revolt's red, green and black colours, it called for free elections and "equality for all".
Much of the equipment, food and medical aid powering and sustaining the uprising in Benghazi and elsewhere have been donated. The media cell consists of young men who brought their own laptops and desktops in the days after the Benghazi military garrison finally fell. Libyans have come out to volunteer and give their services, and the altruism has even extended to foreign journalists, who have often received room and board for free while covering the unrest.
"It's important for those outside to know who we are and why we are doing this," Sheikh said.
'Big boss remains in power'
While the corniche road in central Benghazi, a city of around 750,000, can't rival revolutionary Cairo's Tahrir Square for sheer enormity, the city has taken on a similar sense of excitement and communal sentiment, intermingled with mourning, since protesters took control.
Activists told us they have marvelled at young people suddenly picking up brooms to clean the streets. In the square facing the courthouse, crowds gathered all day to sing and chant slogans, cheering as Sanalla and others dropped a giant revolutionary flag from the rooftop.
|Many brought their own computers [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]
Near the water's edge, medical tents arranged by the Red Crescent and Egyptian volunteers swayed in the stiff, wet wind blowing off the white-capped Mediterranean. Nearby, children climbed on army tanks decorated in graffiti, and a wall of posters and notes commemorated those who had died in the protests.
Despite the euphoria, the opposition's battle is not yet won. The "big boss," as one Libyan called Gaddafi, remains in power, and western towns that have risen against him are separated from Benghazi and the east by Sirte – Gaddafi's birthplace, which remains under his control.
Some activists say they are waiting for the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya's skies, giving them the security to march onto Tripoli and oust Gaddafi.
In the meantime, Benghazi's men on Saturday were queueing outside revolutionary headquarters to sign up for the opposition's new army, and around 300km down the road to Sirte, in the west, returning journalists reported that they had been stopped and briefly detained by a military unit still loyal to Gaddafi.
The journalists had been released, but the soldiers had confiscated their equipment. They had blocked the road with half a dozen jeeps, mounted with anti-aircraft guns. The soldiers wore body armour and appeared confident and calm, the reporters said.
They didn't look like men going anywhere.