The taxi driver suddenly popped a cassette into his radio. “Libya, the Song in my Head,” a tune popular in post-Independence Libya, began to play. The melody, which aroused in me a nostalgic pain, brought back images from a half-century or more. After a decade of exposure to strident Egyptian anthems, for the first time, Libyans’ minds had then been set alight by popular artists who were Libyan, full of optimism and hope for the future.
Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s “Libya, the Song in my Head” was welcomed by my generation as a sign of a prosperous future, marked by the dawn of the oil age. Then came the Arab defeat of 1967, followed by a wave of Arab nationalist anger, which the Qaddafi regime used to justify a period of political fumbling. What is left of Libya? What is left after five years of fighting and chaos in the wake of the February Revolution? This article is an attempt to answer this question, and to document what people are thinking now. It is also a response to many friends who have asked me to paint an objective, clear picture of life in Benghazi today.
A plane delivered me at midnight from Tunisia to Al-Beyda’s Al-Abraq Airport, near to one of the two seats of the Eastern government. The first questions to hit me were: why does this airport, which at the moment is the only entry point to the east by air, look so drab, and why is there barely any furniture? Why are the airport staff, despite obvious heroic efforts, subject to expressions of ridicule and aggression, rather than praise? For me this was a manifestation of how Libyan citizens and officials have lost a kind of “civilizing motivation,” perhaps even basic respect for themselves. In daily conversation, people refer to “an undeserving people, a corrupt elite,” and to a “crisis of morals.” Dour Facebook posts add to the feeling of depression and despair. The fall of the value of the Libyan Dinar (LYD), the scarce money Libyans have in their pockets, and the collapse of public services are all evidence of a major social and political implosion.
In the wake of the 2011 Revolution, Benghazi lived through many long, dark months of fear. Daily assassinations and bombings brought life to a standstill. The authorities were paralyzed, and thousands of families were made homeless. People have lived in an atmosphere that was almost Medieval. It was under these conditions that the national army was formed to extricate the city and its residents from the abyss of fear, poverty and destitution, and to stop the demolition and suffering. There may be different views of what happened, and perhaps some reconciliation might have been possible earlier, but in the world of politics it is impossible to understand the past through the phrase “if only…”
What happened, happened. We have to cope with the results. Most people here feel it is not possible to oppose the intervention of the army, as all the civilian politicians and all the domestic and international congresses and dialogues failed to stop the country’s slide towards destruction and division. There’s an Arabic saying: “You see spring the moment you open the door.” In other words, if there is hope you should be able to see it from the start.
But there are now signs of change. One of these, apart from bustling cars and shops, is the presence of dozens of cafes, where young men gather. The places are clean, in some cases even elegant, and they are on every street and alley. Some may find them objectionable, but they are a powerful manifestation of a desire to reconnect to a global culture, in the age of the smartphone and the Internet. Those who frequent them are using their government benefits, and helping generate employment. Many come to these spots to escape from politics, which many see as synonymous with lying, cheating and theft.
I met a friend, Rajab, in one of these cafes. We discussed the city’s tribulations over a macchiato. Rajab summarized them angrily: “The days are endless, but the years pass in the blink of an eye. Our days are wasted chasing salaries in queues at the bank. There are people who sleep in their cars at night. Cooking gas is still selling at 40 LYD a cylinder on the coastal road.” My friend Fathallah, a veteran fighter who lives amongst gun battles in the Al-Sakably district, told me: “Benghazi is defiant. It resists bullets, hunger and poverty. But there is a certain schizophrenia. Those with little money refuse to go without luxuries like chocolate and perfume…and the elite is clinging to power on a higher level. If only they were competent enough to do their jobs.”
Reconstruction work has started in the city center, and along the coastal road to the east. Shops, restaurants and cafes are appearing in every neighborhood – although their owners stockpile their money. “They’re right to do so,” a young, aspiring businessman tells me. “First of all, traders need to buy dollars in order to import and continue trading. What guarantee do you have that the bank will give you back the money you deposited?” he asked. The burden, however, falls on the consumer, who must buy everything at inflated prices.
Benghazi residents are very glad that there is some form of government here, no matter how feeble. As another friend said, “Don’t forget, that the most important thing the army did was push the battle’s front line outside the city itself. Think about where we were just a year ago. And that we are now here, in the middle of a city that is alive again. People used to head home when the sun went down. Now, there is traffic until after midnight. The roving armed pickup trucks are gone. There are traffic police at the junctions, without weapons or tension. Drivers respect them, even though some reckless young men still speed and break the rules in terrifying ways, and maybe thirty percent of cars don’t have license plates.”
At the corner of the street, a journalist friend tells me that Benghazi is “sighing with relief.” He underscores the importance of the Army’s recapture of the Oil Crescent from thugs last month: “This gives hope that the economy will rebound. (Khalifa) Heftar (head of the Libyan National Army) did his part when others failed. That’s all that has happened. The country needs a strong personality to stop the chaos. That’s what the ‘politicians of Tripoli,’ find hard to understand.”