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Recently returned from Benghazi, Hafiz reports on rebel fighters, supporters and early stages of the Libyan uprising

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Jihan Hafiz has just returned from Benghazi after covering the story for The Real News Network, and she joins us now in our studio in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

JIHAN HAFIZ: Thanks for having me.

JAY: So why did it get to an armed struggle so quickly?

HAFIZ: This is a civilian population. They fought a military that had antiaircraft weapons. And that’s why it became an armed struggle, because they really have human shields, where there’s–in one instance there was a bulldozer that was trying to push through to this Katiba (which is a military barracks in English). They were trying to push through. And in order for that to happen, there was a group of men who guarded this bulldozer in the midst of it, getting shot all at once.

JAY: This was the rebellion trying to get arms from the base. They’re–


JAY: –breaking their way into the base.

HAFIZ: But it wasn’t even their objective to get weapons. Their objective mainly was to bring down this very feared Katiba. This was the place where they were torturing people. Many people said before it came down they wouldn’t even look at this building, ’cause of what it meant and how much fear they had for it. So they were fighting this thing to bring it down, knowing that this is Gaddafi’s main military barracks, and if they brought down this military barracks, they would in effect bring down every other area in the east. And so they brought it down. And when they did, the army fled, and there were weapons. So what they did was they armed themselves, they armed their neighborhoods. Most of them didn’t know how to use guns, never picked up a gun in their lives, although we did hear reports from people that in the ’80s and the ’90s Gaddafi had different schooling programs where he taught kids how to hold guns in order to protect themselves from foreign invaders and whatnot. So some people did, but most people did not [know how to hold] guns. And that’s how they were armed. They were armed after they fought with rocks and with makeshift explosives against this Katiba, against this military barracks that was shooting at people. And from what we saw at the morgues, the weapons they used were very–were forceful. They used excessive force. We saw body pieces. There’s a very famous photo now in Libya (as soon as you enter the border, the first thing we saw, in fact) of two men: you just see their shoulders and no body [inaudible] pieces everywhere.

JAY: Did you get any idea of the extent of casualties? It’s another thing some people are suggesting, that there’s yet no clear-cut evidence or indication the scale of civilian deaths in Benghazi in this early stage.

HAFIZ: Well, according to one of the main doctors of Al-Jalah Hospital, which is the main trauma hospital, he said that there were between 200 to 300 killed in the first days of the uprising. So from the 17th until the 20th, until they brought down Benghazi, there were about 300, up to maybe around that, an estimate of 300 people killed, and there were maybe over 1,000, he said, injured. He didn’t have exact numbers.

JAY: And these numbers were just for Benghazi.

HAFIZ: This was just Benghazi. This was not Darnah, this was not Bayda, this was not Tobruk. And that was happening along the eastern area as well. But it was a bloody fight there. And we have–it’s so fascinating, because what they did–they were very strategic. They had no military training, but in fighting this Katiba with no weapons, they were strategic in how they did it. They had three different fronts. The first front was the suicidal front. These were the men who were basically kamikazes that are going in to die. They had a second front, which was going to push in and throw the makeshift explosives, push forward. And the third group of people who went in, the third front, were people with camera phones and video cameras and people documenting what was happening. And so–and that’s when we came in. They had all these videos and they had all these people who documented, and they all spoke to the press. So they did it strategically, with no time, ’cause it happened violently. One part I didn’t mention: the people who were killed on the 15th, they were taken to be buried, and they wanted to pass by the Katiba in defiance, to say that even though you shot at us, we’re going to walk by with our dead, with our martyrs. And as they did that, that’s when they shot at people. And this ignited the battle for Benghazi when they passed by with the funeral procession.

JAY: So when you get there, Benghazi has been liberated. And what’s the mood? What do you see? Your stories talked about people creating a whole new civic administration, more or less.

HAFIZ: It was, and it was incredible. We just came from Egypt, and Egypt witnessed a revolution of epic proportions. You know, there’s a saying in the Arab world that Misr Umm al-Dunya. It means Egypt is the mother of the world. And so they had–they were sort of the beginning of this process, and they showed people how to clean the streets and how to organize security. But in Libya it was a whole ‘nother story, because these are people who never had civic society to begin with. They never had an independent newspaper. They never even dreamt of it to begin with. They never knew how to organize in communities. And now that was happening, and you really felt it when you walked in, when you drove through. People were elated. There were celebrations going off. Whenever a journalist came by or something extraordinary happened, they’d shoot off into the sky. And so they built this media center out of this burnt-down police building. And you saw that everywhere. You saw these burnt buildings. And so they burned down the government buildings to cleanse it of Gaddafi’s forces or to cleanse it of its era. And they built a new system. And the media center that we worked out of, that we sent you most of these reports out of, was one of–was a security building that had been burnt down. And they–it was incredible, ’cause not only did they have an independent newspaper begin in this area: they had a TV station; they had an art house; they had a studio where they would record music, rap songs; they had a poetry hall. So this was not just a media center, but this was an area of creativity for Libyan people. For the first time in 42 years they were able to draw their presidents or their leader in the way they saw him. And it was a truly a remarkable thing to witness people sort of build from the bottom up again. And these are educated people. Most of them it seemed were well off, at least those inside the courthouse and those organizing the media centers. So they had an idea of how to build society, and they were working with everyone else to create that.

JAY: That’s actually been one of the other suggestions that’s critiqued the rebellion is that it is more kind of an upper class phenomenon, that the more working class Libyans are more pro-Gaddafi. Did you see any of that?

HAFIZ: Not necessarily. In comparison to Egypt, it took a while for the upper class to come out onto the streets. It took them a while to come to into Tahir Square and to struggle with the working class who were sleeping in the square. However, in Libya you sort of saw people of all classes of society support what was happening, mainly because the poor had been forgotten completely. We’d actually gone to a garbage dump where people had been living, hundreds of people living in this area. A lot of the people who we were with who were middle class, upper class, they couldn’t believe what–they’d never seen an area–they never even dreamt that it would be in Libya, that there was such a place, that people live in such conditions. So it seemed everyone, whether they were working class, shopkeepers, unemployed, they had great salaries and lived in Europe, they were all in line for this. And that’s why most of them said this isn’t for money, this isn’t because I’m struggling–and most of them were. They had awful stories about living in shacks or living on the street or living in a garbage dump. This was mainly about the freedom to tell people “I live in a garbage dump.”

JAY: Well, how much poverty did you see there? ‘Cause one of the things that is also being said is Libya has one of the more advanced ratings in the Human Development Index on the United Nations in Africa and that there’s more of a social welfare state there. I mean, what were the conditions for the poor people there?

HAFIZ: What we saw, and according to poor people we spoke to, the government rarely came into their neighborhoods. And in fact they said they set up different programs, which they liked. They were–they thought, these are great social programs–welfare, Section 8 housing, similar to what we have here in the States. But they’d never comply with them. So they go back consistently and ask, can we get–you know, we filed these papers; it’s been a year, it’s been a month we’ve been waiting. And no one would ever get back to them. So on paper they’d say they have these programs for the poor, but when they’d go apply for these different programs, they would never get them. And it was something that we heard not only in one neighborhood–which was not a neighborhood; it was a garbage dump. They said that that was consistent, that people would come there, they’d film them, they’d humiliate them, they’d talk about the clothing they wear and their lack of food and whatnot, but they would never come back with what their promises were. Likewise in another neighborhood. It was a bit more built up than this garbage dump, but it wasn’t–by no means extravagant. However, it wasn’t on the same basis as Egypt. You can go into some of the slums of Cairo and you see poverty. And it’s hard to avoid. You really feel it, and it’s almost consuming. In Libya it was the same, but not on that kind of scale.

JAY: So at least in Benghazi–and you were primarily in Benghazi, right?


JAY: Most of the people participating in the uprising are not doing it out of dire economic circumstances. It was mostly a democracy issue.

HAFIZ: Exactly. That was definitely a factor. That was definitely a part of it for the poor and for the working class. But the thing was, they couldn’t tell people that was the problem. I can’t say that I’m poor. I can’t say that I’m struggling. I can’t say I need another job. And it’s because it’s not a democratic–they said that it wasn’t a democratic system, whereas in Egypt, yes, there was a fear that you couldn’t speak up, but there was [inaudible] there was a number of different independent organizations, political parties you could address this with. So there’s definitely evidence. And there are lots of journalists who could speak to Egyptians, whereas that wasn’t the case in Libya.

JAY: So talk a bit about the political mood or ideas. In other words, to what extent were people fighting–I guess the question is: what are people fighting for?

HAFIZ: They’re mainly fighting for freedom, for liberation, for the ability to pray to God, for the–’cause that was also something that Gaddafi went after in Benghazi. A lot of Islamists or a lot of the devout Muslims there–. It’s a Muslim country to begin with. But, you know, sometimes if you prayed out in public you’d be detained. So this is something that disturbed people. You know, the ability to talk to a journalist–you would not believe how many people, after every single interview, thanked us, were–so much gratitude, gave us free food, free clothing, wanted us to have a comfortable time there because we were journalists. I’ve never experienced it in my life working as a reporter. But in Libya the hospitality and the generosity, because of our ability to report their story, was truly incredible. And that shows you that they want–that they do want democracy, they want freedom, but they want to put a ballot in a box and believe it will bring about results, and that’s what they were fighting for.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

HAFIZ: Thank you for having me.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on the The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Jihan Hafiz reported for The Real News Network while in Libya in February and March 2011