By Hamdan Azhar, Doctoral student, University of Chicago
CHICAGO — On Saturday afternoon, braving the bitter cold and intermittent snow, hundreds of Chicagoans gathered to express their solidarity with the Libyan people. College-aged girls in bright headscarves chatted amiably while clutching cups of coffee at the plaza at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway. Meanwhile, hardened progressive activists stood by with pamphlets ready for distribution.
Against the foggy backdrop of the downtown skyline, the demonstrators began chanting â€œAsh-shaâ€™ab yureed isqaat an-nizaamâ€ — the people want the downfall of the regime — the revolutionary slogan first popularized in Cairoâ€™s Tahrir Square before going viral throughout the Arab world.
Other slogans heard throughout the day included â€œFree Free Libyaâ€ and â€œColonel Qaddafi has got to go.â€ The flag of the Libyan revolution was the motif of the day, while flags of Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain were also present.
A contingent of protesters stood along Michigan Avenue, aiming signs of â€œLibya united, hopeful futureâ€ at passing drivers who honked in agreement. Within the crowd, middle-aged Libyans tentatively sought out one another and introduced themselves before extending heartfelt embraces.
The atmosphere was one of celebration. Mahmoud, 52, had driven down from Milwaukee with his wife and three children. â€œI am from Misratah,â€ he told me, a smile on his face. â€œIt has been liberated.â€
He expressed confidence that the era of Qaddafi was over. Asked about possible American involvement in the conflict, he suggested that a no-fly zone be implemented and that Qaddafiâ€™s assets be frozen. â€œNo soldiers,â€ he was quick to add. Other attendees at the rally also made clear their opposition to U.S. military intervention. â€œSanctions only hurt the people,â€ was a common refrain.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to spread awareness of the situation and generate public outcry,â€ said Patrick, 16, a local high school student. He expressed excitement at the wave of popular revolutionary movements throughout the Middle East. â€œWe see a bright new future ahead.â€
Sharon, an English teacher in her mid-40â€™s, works with Libyan students at a local language institute. â€œAmerica has nothing to fear from a free Libya,â€ she said. â€œTheyâ€™re wonderful, open-hearted people.â€
Adam, a workersâ€™ rights advocate, informed the crowd that most of his friends were still protesting in Madison, Wisconsin. â€œBut they wanted me to let you know that they stand in solidarity with you,â€ he said to cheers.
As the snow intensified around 3 p.m., the event began to wind down. A group of young men joined their arms and started a folk dance in the center of the square. â€œHave patience, Oh Qaddafi,â€ they chanted in Arabic. â€œSoon the people will dance on your grave.â€
Alexandra, 25, stood by herself in a corner, transfixed by the spectacle. I asked if she was just passing by. She told me that she had heard of the event on Facebook. â€œThis is my first time attending a rally,â€ she added softly.
She glanced at volunteers gathering signs left behind by the attendees – signs proclaiming â€˜We stand with Libyaâ€™ and â€˜Qaddafi murderer.â€™ She turned to me, her voice faltering. â€œItâ€™s a shame that this is all we can do. But at least, itâ€™s something.â€
Hamdan Azhar is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Chicago.