Benghazi's Tahrir Square: Times Square style meets revolutionary zeal
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FRANCE 24's special correspondent reporting from Benghazi, Libya – Benghazi's newly named Tahrir Square is a local draw. There are photos of martyrs to gape at, flags to be waved, souvenirs for sale and revolutionary rap to keep up the emotional momentum while the battle rages on the front lines.
There's a man in a Stetson, draped in a flag, strutting in the square. No, it's not Times Square's famous “naked cowboy” – this one is fully clothed – and it's not the US flag he's draped in. This is not New York, it's Benghazi, capital of rebel-held eastern Libya. Obviously then, the flag is ... French.
Mais oui, it's the red, white and blue tricolour that is being sold in the seaside square outside Benghazi's old courthouse. It flies proudly atop the courthouse building, the sole international flag fluttering beside the red, black and green one from the pre-Gaddafi era that has been adopted by the pro-democracy movement.
France was the first country – and the only permanent UN Security Council member so far – to recognise the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Italy and Qatar have since followed suit. But all eyes at the TNC are on Washington. Talk to any TNC spokesperson or official – high or low, on or off the record – and you'll be lectured on a familiar theme: the TNC is desperately seeking official US recognition. Until that happens, France is all they've got among the UN’s “Big Five”, so they're making the very best of it.
“Sarkozy, Sarkozy,” scream the little boys, sensing my interest in the French flag with the sharp marketing instincts of seasoned salesmen.
Lights, entertainment and 'thawra tchotchke'
Business is brisk at Benghazi's Tahrir Square – as this patch of beachside real estate has been called since the Libyan uprising began in the wake of protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square that led to the collapse of the Egyptian regime.
There are all sorts of cheap souvenirs available here – thawra tchotchke, as I call them, after the Arabic word for “revolution” and the Yiddish word for "trinket". Miniature pre-Gaddafi flags and bracelets in the signature red, black and green colors, as well as badges of Omar Mukhtar, the anti-colonial hero from eastern Libya who fought the Italians and who has been adopted as a symbolic figure by the pro-democracy bunch.
This is also the place where all manner of thawra entertainment unfolds every evening. Crowds gather to hear speeches, gape at the photos of fallen heroes pasted on the courthouse walls, listen to revolutionary music (such as the hit “Hani Thawra” rap tune), wave flags, chant slogans, munch snacks and publicly profess their determination to bring Muammar Gaddafi down.
A line of gaily colored tents frames the square, blocking the view of the Mediterranean. Sitting outside one of these tents, Hossein, an oil worker from Misrata, says he plans to stay in the square until Gaddafi leaves.
Misrata on their minds
The war-wrecked rebel outpost of Misrata is around 300 miles from here but it feels like a world away, even as the fighting and humanitarian disaster in the western Libyan city dominates the chatter in Benghazi.
The TNC, suddenly saddled with the responsibility of administering eastern Libya, has done an admirable job of catering to the hoards of foreign journalists who have descended upon this city.
The foreign press pack is not an easy lot to cater to. We have deadlines, we have editors turning up the pressure and we're facing serious connectivity challenges, since the local Libyana mobile service provider does not work abroad and Internet access is a nightmare. We need information now.
The staff at the press centre, which now occupies the old courthouse, courteously attempts to cater to our needs. They are quite good at providing press registration and various security clearance passes, but inept at providing reliable information.
Over the weekend, Al Jazeera declared Misrata free of Gaddafi's forces. Journalists in Benghazi rushed to the press office, cameras in tow, to get a statement or confirmation from the TNC. News headquarters across the globe were demanding verification and the reporters were snappy.
But the press office was closed for lunch. When it finally opened, the answer we received was, “We don't know – that's what Al Jazeera is reporting.”
Still, it's unfair to blame spokespeople when they're not updated by their bosses.
As for me, I love the Benghazi press centre. The old courthouse that houses it was ransacked by protesting lawyers in February, at the start of the Libyan uprising. The lawyers’ protest is widely regarded as the spark that torched the popular revolt against Gaddafi.
The building itself is burned-out and decrepit. A collapsed wall lets the sea breeze into the charred room where I am working. But the walls that are still standing are gaily festooned with revolutionary art, a smiling “tea boy” brings you dangerously sweet tea whenever you want it and the WiFi works – well, mostly. I'd better sign off before my connection goes ...
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