Thousands of Libyans march down the Corniche in Benghazi, chanting, “Free Libya,” “Revolutionaries,” “Beasts,” and other slogans. It is part of their military training. They are all volunteers, who chose to become fighters and join the rebel forces in areas like Ras Lanuf, Brega and Zawiyah , which are experiencing heavy air strikes by Gaddafi’s forces.
Among those is Ahmed, 25 years old, an Egyptian who has worked in construction in Libya for the past four years. In spite of his family’s pleas, he refuses to leave Libya. “I came to Libya and it was prosperous, I will leave it as prosperous as it was. I will stay here and fight with my friends until Libya is free, just like Egypt is free now,” said Ahmed who looked pale, but seemed very confident of victory and liberation.
Ahmed is one of many Egyptians who decided to stay and join the Libyan revolution. The volunteers are from both genders and all ages. Nada, 18, is a student who was born to an Egyptian mother and a Libyan father. She was born in Alexandria, but moved to Benghazi at the age of eight and has been living there ever since. She still visits Egypt every year.
“I love Egypt, it’s my second home, but I love Libya too, and I am going to stay and fight where I am needed,” said Nada passionately. Nada wears her hair short and she looks very practical in her suit and yellow shirt, which signifies that she is one of the organizers of the anti-Gaddafi sit-in. She joined the sit-in on February 18, along with her mother, another supervisor.
The sit-in is split on two sides of the road, one big section for men and a corner for women. “Here society is still closed, not open like Egypt,” says Nada who is confident that the success of the revolution will change society and make it more tolerant. “Already the revolution changed the spirit of the people here a lot. In the beginning, it was so crowded and disorganized; now everyone helps each other and the sit-in is looking very civilized,” adds Nada.
Samya, an Egyptian grandmother, agrees with Nada on the necessity of staying in Libya and fighting alongside the Libyan rebels.
“My two sons are with the revolutionaries. One is in Ras Lanuf and the other is in El Zawiya. They will bring us victory soon because their battle is just; they fight against a bloody killer and dictator,” said Samya who declared that she is not afraid.
“Maybe in the beginning there was some chaos with the prisoners out of jail and too many guns on the streets, but now God blesses our young men. They quickly organized themselves, and they are bravely defending our pride against the brutal Gaddafi,” said Samya who holds her two grandsons’ hands. One is five and the other is seven. The older boy recently wrote an anti-Gaddafi poem.
Samya still can’t hide her surprise at the Arab uprisings. “I never expected to see this in my lifetime. I feel so proud to be Egyptian and Arab. Now that the Arab people are defending their lives and freedoms, no one will be able to stand in their way. We have put up with a lot of poverty, oppression and injustice, and now it is now or never. We have the right to live a decent life.”
There are also many Egyptians who went to Libya specifically to volunteer and join the revolution like Mohammed Refaat, 32, who works as a TV editor. Refaat joined a medical convoy with his friends who are mostly doctors, plus one photographer who documents the revolution. They arrived in Libya two weeks ago to deliver medical supplies. Now, however, he and his friends have decided to stay in Libya until Gaddafi is gone.
“I was trained by my friends to do medical first aid in Egypt and I came here to help because the fight leaves so many dead and injured that the local doctors need more hands to help,” said Refaat, whose face is covered with dust from a battle in the western town of Ben Jawwad. “I was there with four of my friends, and the air raids were so heavy that I lost them all. We were trying to get to the field hospital there, but we couldn’t see because of the air strikes and shooting. We all ran down different roads.” Refaat didn’t tell his parents in Egypt that he was with the fighters, instead promising to stay in Benghazi.
Egyptian diplomats supervising the evacuation from Libya to Egypt via both the Tunisian and Egyptian border say that 500,000 of the estimated 1.5 million Egyptians working in Libya have already left. 1,200 Egyptians are still likely to cross the border to Tunisia in the next few days if the situation in Libya keeps getting worse.
However around a million decided to stay and either keep working or join the revolutionaries. Salem owns a supermarket in Benghazi. He refuses to leave Libya and donates goods every day from his supermarket to the sit-in or the different battlefields in Brega and Ras Lanuf. “I will not leave my work and escape. Sooner or later Gaddafi will go and this country will be better than it used to be,” said Salem with a smile. Salem regrets that he didn’t join the Egyptian revolution and he is proud to witness the Libyan uprising.
Salem and his fellows have changed the ideas that some Libyans held about Egyptians. “I didn’t use to like Egyptians; I used to think they only cared about their own interests, but after the revolution, I saw many of them volunteering with us and supporting us in an unprecedented way. I fell in love with Egyptians,” said Magdy El Zoey, an agricultural engineer from Benghazi who also joined the revolution and is fighting against Gaddafi’s forces.
El Zoey keeps recalling images of “very poor Egyptian labourers, wearing light clothes in the cold, and coming to donate blood, or even notes of 10 and 15 dinars. I was so touched by their generosity and solidarity,” said Zoey who thinks the revolutions will bring Arab and African peoples together in their struggles against totalitarian regimes.
Many agree with Zoey, and the graffiti on the walls of Benghazi also affirms Arab and African solidarity. “Thank you Tunisia, thank you Egypt,” “Greetings from the Libyan February 17 to the Egyptian January 25 revolution,” “The Libyan people are the king of African kings, and Gaddafi is the monkey of African monkeys,” “Benghazi is freed by Libyan and Arab revolutionaries.” The story of this newfound solidarity is told along the walls of Eastern Libya.