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Libya rebels bask in victory and look to the future

Two working-class cousins who took up arms against Moammar Kadafi's forces reflect on their improbable victory and the challenges facing the country they helped remake.

August 28, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Rebel fighters are piled into a pickup truck as it leaves Bin Jawwad, Libya.
Rebel fighters are piled into a pickup truck as it leaves Bin Jawwad, Libya. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — The two cousins still couldn't believe it. Just six months ago, they were working-class guys in the coastal town of Misurata making ends meet in Moammar Kadafi's Libya. Now they were in their pickup cruising around the capital. A capital they controlled.

Abdul Hamid Issa, 46, was a construction worker, Mohammad Issa, 45, a carpenter. But then came the Arab Spring.

In February, inspired by the revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the two men were among the first to take part in peaceful protests against the man who had ruled their country since they were children.

Photos: The Libyan conflict

Then, confronted by the full force of Kadafi's military, they and thousands of others took up arms, organized themselves into a ragtag army, built homemade armored vehicles, set up satellite Internet connections and mobile hospitals, and began to fight for their lives.

And they won.

"We are building a new Libya," said Mohammad. "The sacrifices we made were for the sake of children, so they can live in a prosperous Libya."

The odds are against them. Many revolutions throughout history have ended badly, especially ones that allowed thousands of weapons to fall into the hands of young men.

The rebels may have put aside their class, regional and tribal differences to defeat Kadafi, but those divisions have not been overcome.

The homegrown insurgents will no doubt clash with the incoming clique of political leaders, who have spent most of their lives climbing the ladder of exile politics in Michigan or London. Politicians will disappoint them with the outbreak of the first corruption scandal or attempt by a minister to muzzle a reporter.

Even between two cousins there are major differences. Mohammad maintains the dawn-to-dusk fast during Ramadan. Abdul Hamid demands that they stop at every store that's open to pick up something to quench his thirst.

"He's going to pray," Abdul Hamid explained at one stop. "I'm going to buy cigarettes."

But just for a moment, the Libyans can bask in the glow of their improbable story, with its hints of a fairy tale or a swords-and-dragons Hollywood blockbuster: A long-oppressed people rise up against a powerful tyrant. Defeats lead to mounting frustrations. And then, against the odds, the unexpected victory — with significant help, of course, from NATO airstrikes. Rebels and their supporters insist that the airstrikes helped even the score, neutralize Kadafi's war machines to allow them a fair fight and give the people hope that they weren't fighting alone.

And, they say, they were motivated by one thing.

"This revolution was not about bread," said Abdul Hamid, whose brother was killed on the front lines during the war. "It was about freedom and democracy, only."

It was just days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February that protests broke out in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi to mark the fifth anniversary of demonstrations there in which security forces killed 16 people.

Kadafi's security forces once again responded brutally. But this time some units of the loosely organized armed forces rebelled, taking up arms and handing weapons to civilians.

Nearly simultaneous protests erupted across the country. Protesters-turned-fighters took over eastern Libya and many cities along the coastal plain, including Misurata and Zawiya. The rebels even advanced toward Surt, Kadafi's tribal homeland.

But Kadafi remained firmly in control of Tripoli, the capital. He began gathering his strength and striking back, and by mid-March appeared poised to crush the nascent uprising. Zawiya was retaken by Kadafi loyalists. Abdul Hamid, Mohammad and other rebels found themselves on the front lines, battling superior armed forces and a siege that made Misurata synonymous with Kadafi's cruelty.

The United Nations Security Council authorized international intervention to prevent a civilian massacre. North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes stopped Kadafi's advance. Still, for five months the war appeared to be a stalemate.

The long fight against a powerful enemy, arm-in-arm with neighbors from all walks of life, forged a shared sense of purpose. On the front lines, Islamists and secularists, wealthy and poor spoke out about Libya's history, its place in the world and its future.

"We learned about democracy and freedom from our fathers and grandfathers," Abdul Hamid said. But cellphones, television and the Internet helped keep the rebellion alive.

"We traveled abroad and saw how other people are living, and we want the same things," said Mohammad.

And each bloodied corpse held aloft and carried to the cemetery made them and their comrades even more determined to win.

"We don't like killing," Abdul Hamid said. "Even if I kill a chicken I feel afraid. But he unleashed an army against us."

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