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Libyan rebels embrace U.S. and its flag

Benghazi residents show a love of all things American, from pop culture to gadgets to fast food. And American flags are common at rallies in Benghazi, in recognition of U.S. support for the rebel cause.

August 05, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Mohammed Ali Harari, 64, a tailor who makes and sells flags at the Benghazi courthouse, says he increased production of the U.S. flag.
Mohammed Ali Harari, 64, a tailor who makes and sells flags at the Benghazi… (David Zucchino, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — Omar el Keish wanted to make a strong statement when he headed out with his wife and daughter recently for a revolutionary rally here in the de facto rebel capital.

Keish decided to bring along a flag. It wasn't the ubiquitous Libyan rebel flag that flutters at every downtown rally. He chose the American flag — the Stars and Stripes — on a long, heavy pole.

The 57-year-old airline pilot waved the big fluttering fabric with both arms, and rallygoers smiled and flashed the V for victory sign at the sight of Old Glory.

"Libyans love America," Keish explained as he cut through a boisterous crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands. "They love the flag because it stands for freedom and democracy — exactly what they want for Libya."

In a region where America is often mistrusted and resented, rebel-held eastern Libya stands out as an island of pro-American sentiment. The ragtag forces that drove out Moammar Kadafi's security forces in February credit U.S. and NATO warplanes for rescuing Benghazi from a government counterattack in March.

America's popularity has risen further since July 15, when the U.S. formally recognized the rebel Transitional National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

More American flags have begun to pop up at opposition rallies and outside shops. Some young men sport ball caps emblazoned with a small U.S. flag and the New York Yankees logo.

Anti-Kadafi graffiti that dominates the Benghazi cityscape occasionally includes the American flag or pro-U.S. slogans. Schoolchildren occasionally place the Stars and Stripes in their anti-Kadafi drawings.

"I made a whole new supply of American flags after the U.S. recognition, and I've sold most of them already," said Mohammed Ali Harari, a tailor who sews and sells foreign flags at the Benghazi courthouse complex.

Not that the United States is the most popular foreign country here. That designation is shared by France and Qatar, which have provided the rebels with weapons as well as money and political support. Some rebel fighters fly the French tricolor on their gun trucks and several downtown buildings sport the maroon-and-white Qatari flag alongside the red-black-and-green rebel flag.

The U.S., for its part, has provided $25 million in nonlethal military aid to the rebels, including uniforms and ready-to-eat halal meals. Some members of Congress have suggested providing weapons, but the Obama administration has ruled that out so far.

Still, many Libyans consider the U.S. the sole foreign power capable of toppling Kadafi. For that reason, Kadafi's opponents tend to praise U.S. policy toward Libya while also expressing frustration that America has not done more.

Young volunteers at the front, in particular, say their patience is running out. They contend that the United States could overthrow Kadafi but is holding back.

"We expect more from America — they're the most powerful country, and they can do anything," said Ali Abdelsalam, 27, an electronics salesman. "They have the best weapons. They should give them to us, and then we could finish Kadafi right now."

If U.S. policy is generally admired here, America's cultural appeal is off the charts. American websites, cellphones, videos, music, clothing, cars and movies are immensely popular among the young men who form the core of the rebels' volunteer force. American pop culture is also popular in Arab countries less enamored of U.S. policy.

Perhaps the single-most coveted status symbol here is the iPhone. Imported from Dubai or Europe, it sells for about 1,400 Libyan dinars, or $1,090, here. Young men save for months for one, and many beg friends traveling to Europe, where iPhones cost less, to bring back one for them.

Young men also spend exorbitant amounts for Nike sneakers. Wealthy Libyans cruise Benghazi in imported Hummers and Ford Mustangs — drawing envious stares from men lounging at cafes.

Car radios blast American rap music – Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Eminem. Satellite TV channels from Egypt and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, broadcast mainstream American standards such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Lost," "Friends," "Prison Break" and "Pimp My Ride."

Young Libyans, who watch KFC and McDonald's ads on foreign satellite channels, complain that the fast food isn't available here. But restaurants offer "beef burgers" ("hamburger" sounds too much like a pork product), and diners who want fried chicken order "Kentucky chicken."

English usage is surprisingly widespread among rebel fighters at the front. Gunmen often tell visiting American journalists that they want to emigrate to the United States – after they topple Kadafi.

"Thank you America!" Yousif Abuleifa, 31, an oil engineer who has volunteered at the front, hollered at an American reporter who was chatting with Keish, the flag-waving pilot.

"We know we couldn't have faced down this dictator without America's support — France and the UK, too, but especially America," Abuleifa said, pointing to Keish's flag.

Keish said he lived in Southern California from 1976 to 1990, working as a flight instructor at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. He said he's proud to be Libyan — especially an anti-Kadafi Libyan — but admires the freedoms and choices available in the United States.

"That's why I fly the flag — to support American-style freedoms that we all want here," he said.

Harari, the flag-making tailor, said it wasn't difficult to create copies of American flags he'd seen on TV. He's made three sizes, selling them from $23 to $39.

The biggest ones have 50 stars and 13 stripes. But the popular small flags feature, for reasons Harari could not explain, 70 stars and 15 stripes.

"They just want the flag," he said, shrugging. "They don't care how many stars it has."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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