Libya’s Benghazi keeps its air of rebelliousness

Sep 20, 2012, 7:10 PM

Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) – In front of Benghazi’s stock market, pedestrians pick their way around lakes of sewage in the street, carefully stepping on bricks set in the fetid water. The grandest hotel in Libya’s second largest city is a gloomy, state-owned bulk, with broken windows and dim corridors.

Benghazans, who see their city as a co-capital and historic home of Libya’s king, are bitter over decades of neglect and humiliation under Moammar Gadhafi. And they rumble with discontent that the transitional leadership in Tripoli still doesn’t treat them as equals.

Last week’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate was just one sign of how the city of 1 million is a tough customer. Perched on the Mediterranean Sea on the eastern side of Libya’s Gulf of Sidra, Benghazi was the first to revolt against Gadhafi last year, its young protesters hurling themselves against his troops until the regime’s hold was broken. It then became the rebel capital and the heartland for the militias on the eastern front of the months-long civil war.

The sense of rebelliousness continues. Since Gadhafi’s fall, several top leaders from Tripoli have gotten rough welcomes here.

Then-interim president Mustafa Abdul-Jalil was met earlier this year by angry protesters, some armed, who stormed his office and forced him to flee. Protesters with knives went after his prime minister.

Al-Shahat al-Awami, the head of the elected city council, resigned in July, just one month after he assumed his post, after receiving threats that he would be shot dead and his house burned to ashes because of failures to clean up garbage and delays in salaries.

“This is the paradox. Today they vote for you and tomorrow they spit in your face,” said Faraj Nejim, a native son and political commentator who is now a representative for the city in the national assembly.

“If this city doesn’t rest, the whole nation won’t see any serenity,” he said. “It is the one exporting everything good and evil. Leaders and suicide bombers. When the central government fails to realize that as a fact and deals with Benghazi as a remote city, troubles start.”

The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, only fueled the resentment of Tripoli. Residents held rallies memorializing the slain ambassador. Some blamed the government for failing to improve security forces or rein in the multiple militias that operate in Benghazi _ some of whom are suspected in the attack. Many noted that the new interior minister, in charge of security forces, has not come to Benghazi and are suspicious of him because he is originally from a western-based militia.

The attack also fueled residents’ worries over the growing powers of armed Islamist groups. They called for protests on Friday calling it “the Friday of rescuing Benghazi” from the grip of militias.

Though some of the militias and Islamic extremists are native sons, the city’s deep refusal to be dominated applies to them too. Earlier this month, extremists tried to demolish a beloved Muslim shrine south of Benghazi that they considered a heresy. Tribesmen shot three of them dead and shaved the beards off the others they captured.

Calls for semi-autonomous region in eastern Libya with Benghazi as its capital flared earlier this year when tribal leaders and armed factions came together to press demands on Tripoli. The autonomy push eased after landmark national elections were held in July to form the National Assembly.

But many Benghazans still want the new constitution due to be drafted to give them powers to manage their own affairs and a fair share of resources in a country that draws massive revenues from oil resources centered in the east. One group of city youth wrote to parliament insisting the constitution enshrine Benghazi as the country’s economic capital or else face a new revolution.

“We are waiting to see whether the constitution will meet our demands and give Libya the best political system which we believe is in forming a federated state,” said Ahmed Zubair, head of the Barqa Council created by autonomy proponents.

Sueliman al-Saadi, an oil company employee in his fifties, said, “We are patient and we know the government doesn’t have magic wand. But when it comes to constitution and our rights, this is the time we will have a say.”

“I see another revolution and it will be also from Benghazi against the militias, the government and everything,” he said.

Benghazi’s defiant attitude is rooted in its history as the capital of the once-independent east. It was the heartland of revolts against Italian occupiers in the early 20th Century. When it joined the two other provinces of what is now Libya in a unified state in the 1950s, the east’s emir became Libya’s king and he ruled from Benghazi as often as he did from Tripoli. The city housed the country’s first university and first public library.

When a 1969 coup toppled the monarchy, Gadhafi centered power in Tripoli and 42 years of intentional neglect and suppression of Benghazi ensued. Students marched the city’s streets in 1970s demanding democracy. Public executions of dissidents were held. Gadhafi inflicted collective punishments in the city, depriving a whole tribe of water or electricity if one of its members acted against his rule.

Residents recount what they saw as a campaign of humiliation. Sewage was dumped in the city’s lakes. The tomb of Omar al-Mukhtar, the hero of resistance to the Italians, was moved out of the city. In 2000, the regime bulldozed the stadium of the city’s wildly popular Al Ahly soccer club after fans chanted against Gadhafi and his son, al-Saadi, whom they called “a donkey.” The stadium has yet to be rebuilt.

“People were suffocating under Gadhafi, and when you suffocate people, don’t expect anything from them but to scream,” said Nabil Mohammed, 45-year-old solider.

The regime also kept the country’s oil wealth away from the city, and it shows in the infrastructure today.

The airport for a city of 1 million has a single, smelly cramped hall where bathrooms have no running water. Roads around the city are broken with potholes, including the main cornice along the Mediterranean. There are only two significant hospitals. People generally rely on the region’s strong tribal networks as an economic safety net and as an authority to resolve disputes.

Benghazi was hardly the only place to suffer. And even as they are impatient with the new leadership, residents know Libya as a whole must recover from the mindset left by Gadhafi.

“It will take generations to come up with something solid,” said Khaled Hadar, a local lawyer in his 40s. His own generation, he said, is lost. “We are harsh creatures and Gadhafi wiped our brains. Don’t ask about what the (new) government failed to do. If these people lived under Gadhafi, don’t except anything good to come from them.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Libya’s Benghazi keeps its air of rebelliousness