BENGHAZI, Libya – The burnt-out waterfront building was once the local branch of Libya’s hated high court. In the past three weeks, it has been transformed into a bustling hub of civic society, home to a daily newspaper, a recording studio and a press center.

The dramatic shift highlights one of the main challenges facing the rebels seeking to topple Moammar Gadhafi, who for more than four decades has snuffed out any sign of independent action by his people. With his rule shattered in the east, activists led by lawyers, doctors and local businessmen are trying to fill the void.

Libya is not like Egypt, where ousted President Hosni Mubarak tolerated some political parties, trade unions, rights groups and an increasingly vibrant independent press.

Under Gadhafi, there were no independent non-governmental organizations, free trade unions or political parties. The press was — and in the territory under the regime’s control still is — tightly muzzled.

But since the revolt erupted Feb. 15 in eastern Libya against Gadhafi’s rule, the first impromptu institutions have begun popping up, with Libya’s intellectual class largely leading the way.

“What we’ve done so far in these three weeks is astronomical, unbelievable,” opposition spokesman Mustafa Gherkin said.

GROWING PAINS

Their crowning achievement so far is the establishment of an interim national governing council to manage the day-to-day affairs in territory under their control. It has even appointed a crisis committee to handle military matters and foreign affairs.

Headed by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the council counts two prominent lawyers, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga and Fathi Turbel, as well as a political science professor among its members.

But it has struggled to speak with a unified voice at times, most notably sending repeated mixed messages about an alleged Gadhafi proposal to negotiate, but members dismiss the problems as growing pains.

At the local level, city councils have sprung up to run hospitals, collect trash and provide essential services such as electricity and clean drinking water.

Army units in the east that defected to the rebel side are busy training young volunteers eager to battle Gadhafi’s forces.

JUST A BEGINNING

Benghazi, the epicenter of the rebellion and the headquarters of the governing council, is even having new police uniforms sewn in Egypt to provide the force with a new look and distance itself from the Gadhafi regime.

To the east in Bayda, young men collect trash, provide security, man checkpoints and direct traffic.

The city council has reached an agreement with the banks to loan about $160 a month interest free to needy residents, said Hamdy Yacoub, a statistics professor at Omar Mukhtar University.

Doctors also have done their part, setting up a simple network to provide medical care and ferry supplies to rebel forces on the front lines, and a rotation system to keep it all humming.

Dr. Gebreil Hewadi, head of the radiology department at Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi and a member of the health committee, acknowledged that it was just the beginning as 41 years of Gadhafi’s unchallenged rule have left Libyans unversed in how to use the ballot box.

“We need to teach ourselves and train ourselves how to select leaders,” he said. “It will take time, but I think the Libyan people, especially the young, can do this.”