In ‘Free Libya’: Hey, Who, Exactly, Is in Charge Here?

It’s easy to find the headquarters of the Libyan opposition in Benghazi, the country’s second city and the hotbed of the uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Just head down to the Corniche, the city’s Mediterranean waterfront, and follow the cheering crowds hanging Gaddafi in effigy to the city’s district courthouse, where the revolution began on Feb. 17 as a protest by the city’s lawyers and judges. But once inside the now battle-scarred and graffitied building, it’s hard to figure out who, exactly, is in charge.

Scores of newly minted revolutionary officials — middle-aged volunteers from the city’s professional and business classes — have many meetings but appear to make few decisions. They hold press conferences in what used to be a courtroom, while about a dozen opposition spokesmen roam the halls trying to be helpful but often offering conflicting information. Trucks full of eggs and baby formula arrive at the courthouse doors without an apparent system for delivering them to the needy and without clear reports of shortages. And though spirits are high, especially among the young volunteers sporting Che Guevara–style berets, the institutional vibe is more like that of a steering committee of a future liberal-arts college than of a guerrilla movement gearing up for a long fight. “The problem is that we don’t have anyone with any political experience whatsoever,” says Iman Bugahaighis, a professor of dentistry now acting as an unofficial spokesperson. “We didn’t have any institutions other than regime. That was part of Gaddafi’s plan: to make everyone loyal only to him.”

Perhaps sensing the vacuum, former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who resigned from the Gaddafi government only a week ago, told al-Jazeera television on Saturday that he’s in charge of a transitional government that will pave the way for elections in three months, that could possibly negotiate with the regime and that might even end up splitting the country between the opposition-controlled east and the government-controlled west. (He also told al-Jazeera that Gaddafi has chemical and nuclear weapons, a claim that military commanders sympathetic to the opposition told TIME was highly unlikely.)

But a new revolutionary committee that just announced its existence on Sunday undermined Abdel Jalil’s claim to leadership. Calling itself the National Libyan Council, its members claim to be an umbrella group representing the many local committees that spontaneously formed in the past 10 days to liberate the country city by city. However, a 30-minute question-and-answer session with the foreign press showed that the committee is still very much a work in progress, with its actual membership, selection criteria and most of its agenda yet to be announced. And though the National Libyan Council appeared to be working with Abdel Jalil, and may even include him, it made it clear that that the views expressed by the former Justice Minister — such as his apparent willingness to negotiate with the regime — did not necessarily represent the opposition. “These are personal opinions of Mr. Mustafa [Abdel Jalil],” said Ghoga. “The principle of negotiation with a human-rights violator is an issue for the whole council to discuss. In my personal opinion, there’s no room to negotiate.” Moreover, any discussion of elections or other constitutional matters was premature while Tripoli, the capital, remained in Gaddafi’s control. But at least one thing the National Libyan Council did agree upon, according to Ghoga, was that Libya should be united and free from Gaddafi. “The word is out,” he said. “Libya is one society and one nation. The capital is in Tripoli and it will always be in Tripoli.”

Though it’s understandable that Libya’s leaderless revolution is in some state of disarray a mere 10 days after it began, the consequences could be severe. The Gaddafi regime has enough of its security apparatus intact in Tripoli, and it seems sure enough of its survival that it invited a junket of foreign press to the capital on Saturday in an attempt to control some of the damage to its international reputation caused by reports that it systematically used deadly force against peaceful demonstrations. So now in Benghazi, the opposition is growing increasingly worried that the regime may launch a counterattack to retake liberated territory, order an aerial bombardment or activate sleeper cells to terrorize the city.

But the opposition has yet to detain former regime members or set up security checkpoints inside Benghazi. On Saturday, the opposition’s media center began issuing handwritten badges to foreign media and volunteers, but besides that and one metal detector at the courthouse, there’s very little to prevent trained intelligence operatives from dealing a major blow to the nascent opposition government. “We know we are infiltrated,” says Bugahaighis. “We might be assassinated at any time.”

Nor does there appear to be much in the way of a military strategy for completing the revolution, aside from hoping that Tripoli will liberate itself as Benghazi did. There was some debate among officials about whether or not the committee should start a military committee in order to coordinate the volunteer soldiers willing to travel to Tripoli, though it also appeared to want to leave such matters in the hands of army commanders who had sided with the revolution. “The army has been with the revolution since the beginning, so we have full confidence in it,” said Ghoga.

But it’s also not exactly clear who’s commanding the parts of the military that have turned against the regime or how significant a military force those units represent. In an interview with TIME on Friday at an air base on the outskirts of Benghazi, Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein said he was coordinating volunteers and soldiers to lead a large-scale march on Tripoli. But on Saturday, Brigadier General Mohamed Hassan Mahanna, who identified himself as the head of air defense in eastern Libya, said he had never heard of a Colonel Hussein. And in turn, it’s not clear how much of an air defense there actually is in eastern Libya. Another air force colonel told TIME that at the outbreak of the uprising, the regime moved most military aircraft from eastern Libya to Sert, Gaddafi’s hometown and a government stronghold on the central coast.

And yet, volunteers continue to show up at military bases around Benghazi, including a former army accounting office that’s now run by a ragtag band of volunteers wearing newly acquired green fatigues and wielding a few captured automatic weapons and the occasional shotgun and hunting rile. “Every day, kids come here and say, ‘Please let us go to Tripoli,’ and we’re just waiting for the orders to go,” says the newly appointed commanding officer, an air-force pilot. “We don’t need a plan,” says one of his men, a former mechanic. “We’ll liberate Tripoli with our hearts.”

Passage to Benghazi: How to Enter Libya

There’s a not-so secret password that gets foreign journalists coming from Egypt into Libya through customs and immigration without showing passports and through the neighborhood militia checkpoints on the coastal road from Tobruk west to Benghazi. Flash the “Victory” sign with two fingers, and as long as you are in Free Libya, the eastern half of the country controlled by the democratic opposition to the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and you’ll get saluted right back and then hurried along your way.

Opposition supporters in eastern Libya are making every effort to battle the tight controls that the government has put upon information coming out of Libya, claiming that the media blackout hides the crimes and killings the government has committed against its own people. From taxi drivers offering free rides, and average citizens offering food and lodging, to the new revolutionary committees setting up press centers, Libyans have welcomed the international media with open arms, and almost everyone has a message they want to get out to the world. “You can’t believe how happy I am to meet an American reporter,” says Omar, an airline pilot from Benghazi, who took me to his home so I could have a warm place to write, made me lunch and played me country-western music. “The government was massacring us and there was no one here to see,” he says.

After the uprising against the Gaddafi regime started, the government shut down access to the Internet, blocked international phone calls out of the country, jammed satellite phone signals, and even forced people leaving the country from the western border crossings to Tunisia to erase their photographs and mobile phone videos of the protests. On Friday, the regime flew a very small number of journalists into the capital city Tripoli, located in western Libya and still the center of government’s military and security apparatus, for a brief one day-long tour of the city. One journalist reported being assaulted by a pro-Gaddafi street marcher, who quickly apologized. The government also declared that any journalist inside the country not on the approved tour would be considered to be a member of al-Qaeda.

But in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the epicenter of the uprising, the new revolutionary government is treating journalists not like terrorists but as brothers-in-arms. English-speaking volunteer translators have thronged to a new media center housed in the soot-stained former appeals court building, which days ago had been the scene of a battle between opposition supporters and the remnants of Gaddafi’s security forces in Benghazi. Inside, young men have set up computer workstations to make press passes for anyone who shows a foreign passport. They are also designing anti-Gaddafi posters and caricatures, and preparing to distribute much more sobering images depicting what they say is evidence of crimes against humanity by the Gaddafi government.

On Friday, at the Benghazi revolutionary committee’s first press conference, Peter Bouckert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch who is part of a two-person team in the city, said that the opposition’s claims are justified. He estimates that at least 300 people died violently in Benghazi during the uprising, based on actual body counts from hospitals and morgues. “It’s a very conservative figure, and it’s going to rise as the investigation continues,” he said. “What happened here was much more serious than what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. We are talking about the government using live ammunition in a systemic campaign against peaceful demonstrations. There’s also pretty clear evidence of the use of heavy weapons including anti-aircraft guns, which were turned against the people. The results were pretty horrific.”

Meanwhile, the city’s new government — led by a 13 member council of lawyers, judges and professors — wanted to reassure the world that the uprising was committed to democratic principles and that there would be no need for foreign military intervention. What Libya needs, said Hafiz Ghoga, the council’s spokesman, was short-term humanitarian assistance, an international freeze on assets belonging to the Gaddafi family, and a no-flight zone to keep the whatever’s left of the air force from turning on the people. “There is no mess in Libya except where the regime is still in power,” said Ghoga.

But besides Tripoli, one critical area that remains in the control of the regime is Sert, Gaddafi’s hometown, located about midway on the 700 mile costal road from Benghazi to Tripoli. Because Sert may be among the last of Gaddafi strongholds to fall, and because the only alternative land route from Benghazi to Tripoli winds for days through the Sahara desert, it may be sometime before most of the international press can witness whatever desperate battles are occurring between the government and the opposition in the capital. So far, only the New York Times has a reporter sending dispatches out of the capital. But Libya’s revolutionary volunteers will no doubt do their best to get us there, as Omar, my airline pilot host, promised me. “As soon as the airports open, I’ll fly you to Tripoli myself,” he says.

Why Iran Celebrates Its Own Revolution by Waving Egyptian Flags

On the same day that the streets of Cairo and Alexandria erupted in ecstatic celebration of the success of a people-power revolution in driving President Hosni Mubarak from power, Iranians were also in their country’s streets — celebrating the 32nd anniversary of their own revolution, in typical resistance-chic style. Huge crowds gathered in Freedom Square on Feb. 11 despite snow and rain, carrying flowers and posters of the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Khamenei, “Down with Israel” placards and the tricolor red, white and green flags of the Islamic Republic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived by helicopter to a rock-star greeting from the faithful young men who surged against police barricades, shouting, “Ahmadinejad is our life! Ahmadinejad is our President!” while marching bands struck up revolutionary anthems. This year, everyone knew that Iran’s government has more to celebrate than usual.

The Egyptian uprising has brought down one of the U.S.’s key allies in its Middle East cold war with Iran. That’s why soldiers in Tehran handed out Egyptian flags to the crowd and many anti-Mubarak slogans and cartoons were on display — including one of protesters pulling down a statue of Mubarak much in the same way that American tanks had taken down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003. “The sword will bring you down from your palaces of oppression with the help of God,” Ahmadinejad told the crowd. “Very soon, the new Middle East will have no Israel and no America. The new Middle East will have no superpowers.”

Along with the strategic value of seeing an American-backed dictatorship fall, Tehran has sensed an ideological opportunity. The revolutionaries who created the Islamic Republic in 1979 saw themselves as beginning a world revolution of oppressed people under the banner of Islam. Now the Iranian government is claiming that the Egyptian uprising is the first Islamic revolution since 1979 and is giving Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood credit for starting it — claims strenuously repudiated by the Egyptian group.

Still, the Egyptian uprising presents a potential problem for the Iranian government. Opposition protesters from the Green Movement that had led protests against the disputed presidential elections in 2009 have petitioned the government to allow demonstrations on Monday, Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day — in support of the prodemocracy movement in Egypt. Iranian opposition leaders, who say the TV images from Tahrir Square mirror their own clashes with authorities in Tehran, hope that the government’s support for the Egyptian uprising will force it to allow Monday’s demonstrations.

Whatever happens on Monday, there’s little chance of events in Egypt reigniting Iran’s Green Movement protests. The Tehran government has demonstrated the will and ability to shut down street protests, and the Green Movement is unlikely to inspire turnout similar to those of 2009. Moreover, the Ahmadinejad government seems ever more secure in its position, having outmaneuvered conservative critics in parliament and the Foreign Ministry. But the Iranian government appears to recognize the need to address some of the economic grievances facing young people in both Egypt and Iran. In his speech on Friday, Ahmadinejad expounded at length on Iran’s scientific advancements, promising to both continue its nuclear program for civilian purposes and put an Iranian in space within the next decade. He also promised to end youth unemployment by 2013. “Once Iran was known only for pistachios and handicrafts,” he said. “Now we are known for nanotechnology.”

How the Egyptian Uprising Is Changing the Muslim Brotherhood

The largely passive Egyptian army defends just the outer perimeter of the prodemocracy demonstrations in Tahrir Square against the gangs of supporters of President Hosni Mubarak who lurk on the periphery of central Cairo. Inside the square, security is provided by a volunteer army. Young men search bags, give a light frisk and ask everyone passing through to hold up their ID cards to ensure that no plainclothes government agents have infiltrated the crowd. They are all polite. “We are very sorry” is a common refrain. “This is for your safety.” Many are religious, with thick beards, some with quarter-sized forehead bruises that mark fervent praying. Though they don’t always admit it when asked, many are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist group that is Egypt’s largest political organization.

Though the Brotherhood didn’t participate in the initial demonstration on Jan. 25 organized by human-rights activists that sparked Egypt’s democracy uprising, its role has been increasing ever since, especially in the front lines of the rock-throwing battles with government supporters. Ironically, the Egyptian government, which initially tried to discredit the protests by blaming them on the Brotherhood (a tactic the government has used often in the past to win foreign support for repressing dissent) is in part responsible for bolstering its position. Having faced government repression for years, the Brotherhood’s devotees were among the best prepared for the wave of violence meted out by the government. “All the liberal and leftist groups aren’t organized, but the Brotherhood is organized,” says Malek Labib, an Egyptian doctoral student who had returned from university in France to spend several nights in the square during the worst of the attacks, bringing water and rocks to the frontline fighters. “They’re not the majority, but they’re the most courageous.

As of Sunday, Feb. 6, the Brotherhood has made a political breakthrough as well. Departing from 30 years of official policy, the Egyptian government included the Brotherhood among the array of opposition groups invited to talk with Vice President Omar Suleiman, the Mubarak regime’s new front man. After the talks ended without progress, some opposition groups muted their previous demand that President Mubarak leave immediately, but Brotherhood officials vowed to continue the protests until Mubarak resigns.

Still, the newfound prominence of the Brotherhood has added to the long-held concern among American policymakers and their Israeli allies that a collapse of the Mubarak regime could be the beginning of a slippery slope toward a Islamist takeover of Egypt — much like the Islamic Revolution in Iran or the Hamas takeover of Gaza — and the renunciation of the U.S.-brokered Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Think tanks sympathetic to Israel and U.S. Jewish groups have begun circulating memos and talking points among opinion makers that cite some of the Islamist group’s many incendiary anti-Israeli comments in recent years as well as examples of the Brotherhood’s links to Hamas. “We will continue to raise the banner of jihad — two swords and a Koran — as long as the Zionists raise their flag, with two blue stripes to represent their so-called state,” said Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badi in 2010, according to the Washington Institute of Near Eastern Affairs.

But such language is at odds with how the Brotherhood and its supporters have behaved so far in Tahrir Square. From its battle-scarred frontline skirmishers to suited politicians, the Brotherhood is downplaying its role in the Egyptian uprising and downplaying the role of any religious or class animus. “[Critics] say that this is a revolution of the poor against the rich,” called out a preacher during midday prayer services on Friday, Feb. 4. “They say this is a revolution of the hungry against the fed, of one sect against another. But it is not. It is a revolution for freedom that God ordained!” Finding a Brotherhood member who would brag about the group’s exploits in battle with the police was difficult. “This is a people’s revolution, and the Brotherhood is just a section of the people,” says one supporter. Officials were clear about giving the young activists who started the rebellion credit where it was due. “This is a youth movement led by the youth,” says one. “The Brotherhood is just a participant. I believe we are 5% to 10% of this, maximum.”

Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood leaders interviewed by TIME in Tahrir Square consistently spoke of their commitment to the civil, nonsectarian nature of the state. “The Muslim Brotherhood takes Islam as a template, but we don’t have a religious state or God-ordained rule,” says Ibrahim Zakaria, a Brotherhood official and former Member of Parliament. “We believe in democracy and all its rules. We believe in the principle that the people are the origin and source of sovereignty and that the people choose their leaders in free and secret ballots.”

On the subject of whether a new Egyptian government should cancel the Camp David Accords, they demurred. “We are not going to cancel any agreement previously made by the government,” says Zakaria. “But if there is a referendum about this or any other agreement, then we obey the people’s will.

But by and large, the democracy movement in Tahrir Square may be transforming the politics of the Brotherhood — and of Egypt — by exposing them to the breadth of opinion and identity freely in the public realm for the first time. Tahrir Square buzzes not just with chants against the government but also with conversations among Egyptians of all types, in which everyone is entitled to opinions that they can finally air. “It was the government that created false enemies, because it had no legitimacy,” says Mohammed Chalabi, an Arabic teacher. “When we are a free country, we won’t need any enemies.”

That very openness — if it continues despite a resurgence of Egypt’s security state in recent days — may in the end reduce the role of the Brotherhood as the country’s best-organized opposition once normal political parties are allowed to form. Anything can happen in a democracy.

“It’s unclear who the opposition even is at the moment,” says the Brotherhood’s Zakaria. “We can’t even define it. This is an illegal regime that made opposition illegal. So we are calling for free elections so we can find out just who the parties actually are.”

Why the Arab Democracy Wave is Unlikely to Reach Syria — Yet

As all eyes in the Arab world are riveted by Egypt’s democracy uprising, activists in countries such as Jordan, Yemen and Syria have begun organizing protests against their own authoritarian regimes to demand reforms. Activists on Facebook pages such as “The Syrian Revolution” have called for a day of protests on Friday, with marches planned in front of the parliament in the capital city of Damascus — and at Syrian embassies around the world. But unlike Egypt, and even Yemen and Jordan, demonstrations in Syria are unlikely to pick up anywhere near enough momentum to seriously threaten the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The reason is simple: Syria, unlike Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, isn’t allied with the United States.

It’s not that anti-Americanism is a driving force behind these Arab demonstrations. On the contrary, the rage of the Egyptian protestors is directed at President Hosni Mubarak, with America and Israel barely rating a mention. But being friends with America opens Mubarak to a host of liabilities that the Syrian government doesn’t have.

For one thing, Syria doesn’t depend on billions of dollars in U.S. aid in the way that Egypt and Jordan do. The Assad regime, which has been a pariah country for years because of its support for various of the region’s militant groups, gets only sanctions from the U.S. government, and comparatively little international aid besides. Its currency isn’t traded on international markets. Its banking system is pretty closed. And its stock market is miniscule. Syria’s central bank has been stocking up hard currency for years for just such occasions, and Damascus doesn’t have the vast slums teeming with African-levels of poverty that Cairo has.

That means that unlike Egypt — which, out of deference to the domestic sensitivities of its U.S. patron, chose to do its dirty work against democracy protestors in Tahrir Square with plain-clothed thugs rather than use an army funded by American taxpayers — Syria has shown precious little concern for world opinion in meting out domestic repression. Being on the wrong side of the Bush Administration’s “democracy agenda” also helped the Syrian regime. While many Syrians resent the blatantly rigging of their country’s elections, stability-Syrian style was preferred by many to the chaotic democracy created next door by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Syria also has a few strategic cards — notably its support for Palestinian militants Hamas and Lebanese militants Hizballah — to play when necessary to divert attention from domestic discontent. And there’s the fact that the country is still officially at war with Israel, which occupies Syrian territory on the Golan Heights: That conflict is the grounds on which Damascus keeps its state of emergency laws in force.

But the advantages of being an anti-American Middle East authoritarian will begin to wear thin in the not-so-distant future, especially if the Obama Administration more firmly backs democracy in Egypt and pushes for similar changes in other U.S.-backed autocracies of the Arab world. Though its economic problems are less acute than Egypt’s, Syria also has a huge population of young people who want more opportunity than Syria’s closed economy can provide. And if the Middle East begins to have elected governments that deliver on the aspirations of their people, it will no longer be good enough for Syria just to be better than Iraq.