A hospital's turmoil shows Libya's struggle with regime change

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 23, 2011 

BENGHAZI. Libya — After a hectic morning patching up battered revolutionary fighters from Libya's front lines, more than 100 employees of Hawari General Hospital here massed outside the administration's offices on a recent afternoon and staged an uprising of their own.

Doctors, nurses, lab technicians, clerks and custodial staff all chanted, "Leave!" until the targeted officials, holdovers from the regime of fugitive former leader Moammar Gadhafi, were escorted from the premises by security guards. The administrators' offices were padlocked, and the protesters declared victory.

But the celebration was premature, and the hospital revolt has become a case study of the obstacles Libyans face as they try to cleanse their institutions of Gadhafi's legacy. The rebel National Transitional Council touts reconciliation, but so far it has provided no guidance on how deep purges of regime bureaucrats should go, or by what criteria individuals are to be forgiven or cast out. Even some of the council's top members face accusations of belonging to "the fifth column," Libyans' catchall name for anyone suspected of trying to preserve vestiges of the old order.

Without a clear policy, the hospital is on its own to decide what steps to take.

"In our hospital, it was like having Gadhafi sitting right there, still surrounded by his regime, as if we'd achieved nothing," said Dr. Sabry al Jaroushy, an anesthesiologist and organizer of the protest. "For seven months we waited, saying, 'It's not the right time.' But it is the right time."

Including Hawari, all five of Benghazi's general hospitals are in some state of internal revolt. Fistfights and shouting matches have erupted at the other hospitals, leaving doctors embarrassed at the stain on their profession's decorum.

But even more shameful, they say, is the pattern of corruption they've uncovered from Gadhafi-era administrators' files: ghost employees, patient overbilling, bribes from pharmaceutical companies and payroll irregularities.

Similar stories are emerging from across the country as rank-and-file employees rise up to dislodge managers whom they view as too close to the former regime.

"This is a new day, when if you see something corrupt or wrong, you protest," said Dr. Osama Jazwi, a Hawari doctor who was on a trip to the battlefront during the hospital's revolt. "The other day, I was on the phone with my brother — he works at an oil company in Brega — and I could hear shouting in the background. I asked him what was going on and he said, 'Oh, we're throwing out the management'."

For medical workers, however, the stakes are higher than in other fields. At Hawari, for instance, helicopters arrive each day with bloodied troops in need of urgent care. In addition to the fighters, the doctors have a full caseload of patients with typical ailments and diseases, and, now, daily cases of civilians with gunshot wounds because their neighborhoods are awash with weapons in untrained hands.

So far, the administrative turmoil hasn't shut down the hospital, as was the case at other facilities in this eastern coastal city. But the Hawari management isn't going quietly, and the protesters haven't ruled out the possibility of a temporary closure, if interim health officials don't take their concerns seriously.

The protesters say their patients are suffering from mismanagement that's left Hawari with rust-colored water, overpriced treatments and no surgical gloves. At least twice in recent weeks, they've had to transfer patients to other hospitals because either the oxygen supply ran out or the air conditioning shut down.

Jaroushy said the protesters have three main demands: the formal dismissal of the old administration, an investigation into corruption allegations, and the appointment of a caretaker committee to see the hospital through its transition. He said emissaries from the current health ministry promised a swift response after holding talks with up to 400 employees who crowded into the hospital's basement.

A spokesman for the transitional council said officials who could address the matter were in Tripoli and unavailable for comment.

At Hawari, it seems the real fight is just beginning. To the protesters' astonishment, some of the managers have returned to the hospital. One defiant supervisor, they said, showed up with five truckloads of gunmen and a document from the attorney general's office authorizing him to work.

Last week, a physician who's aligned with the old guard filed a complaint against Jaroushy alleging that Jaroushy acted improperly when he wasn't on duty by trying to resuscitate an 83-year-old patient who subsequently died. Jaroushy dismissed the complaint as a revenge attack and was confident he'd be cleared in an investigation.

"I told him to his face, 'Are you Gadhafi or what?'" Jaroushy said. "Who has time for this? We're in a crisis, a war."

The ostracized managers have set up shop in trailers in a parking lot far removed from the main building. The protesters have nicknamed the new compound "Niger," a snide reference to the neighboring African country where several Gadhafi loyalists have fled. The managers couldn't be reached by telephone and guards shooed away a reporter who tried to approach the trailers.

"They have no right to stay in their positions. Who put them there and why are they trying to stay?" said a visibly exasperated Dr. Ahmed Taher, who supports the hospital regime change but thinks the issue should be shelved until Libya's battlefields are quieter.

For now, though, no one is quite sure who is in charge. The protesters have agreed among themselves not to escalate the situation until they hear back from the transitional council's interlocutors. They're determined to keep the transition peaceful and avoid the mistakes made in Iraq, where overzealous efforts to dismantle Saddam Hussein's Baath Party left a security vacuum and fueled a brutal sectarian war.

Libya could prove even more difficult, however, because of Gadhafi's singular decentralized system, under which loyalties aren't easy to determine.

Jaroushy said the protesters' latest tactic is "smile and wave" as they bide their time in a battle they're sure they'll win, eventually.

"The patients are our priority. We can wait," Jaroushy said. "We see Iraq in front of us and we know that example very well. Once you start with the violence, it doesn't stop."

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