Benghazi, Libya: A city in foul disrepair, but its people share euphoria

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 17, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Benghazi may possess the most soulless cityscape on the Mediterranean, full of boxy new buildings that lack any architectural motif or sense of place and new dwellings with all the charm of high rises in Communist East Germany. "They're like prisons" says Ali Tarhouni, the new regime's finance and oil minister, of housing being built by Chinese contractors.

In the vast empty spaces that abut Benghazi's tangle of elevated

highways, garbage is strewn as far as the eye can see. At the city's two showpiece hotels, located on an otherwise charming lake, the raw sewage that pollutes the water is enough to keep any visitor indoors. Trash litters the seaside, the water unsafe for swimming or fishing, and many buildings along the shore are derelict or decrepit.

But make no mistake: this is one of the happiest and most exciting cities in the world.

It was in Benghazi that Libya's improbable revolution got its start on Feb.17 with a protest commemorating a 1990s prison massacre that few non-Libyans ever heard of. A month later, it was Moammar Gadhafi's threat to have "no mercy...no pity" in Benghazi that jolted the powers on the U.N. Security Council to approve a NATO armed intervention. How many lives were saved by the NATO bombing of Gadhafi's armored units is unknowable, but many here think it was upwards of 200,000. Benghazi became the base for the National Transitional Council and the beacon for the uprising elsewhere - Libya's answer to Leipzig in the East German revolution of 1989.

With the fall of Tripoli in late August and the interim government's promises of a representative democracy to follow, and bearing in mind their own near-death experience, townspeople here are walking on air — a good thing, considering their surroundings.

An American, French or British visitor can't stride through the city without someone thanking him or her for the West's air intervention. American, French, British, Qatari flags are on display in many places, and the new Libyan flag is ubiquitous.

This city is smiling.

So it seemed a reasonable quest for a visiting American reporter to seek out the city's top official and ask what are his dreams for this city of some 700,000. How will he motivate people suppressed by a dictatorship of 42 years to take charge of their lives and possession of their civic space? Getting more to the point, what are his plans to clean the place up? And when are the cruise ships going to arrive?

After several days of inquiries, the McClatchy team, consisting of a reporter and Libyan fixer-driver-translator, a trained engineer who's lived here nearly all his life, finally located the building housing the top officials of the municipal council. It was new construction adjacent to the city zoo, clad in marble but lacking even a sign that it was the city hall. A search for the office of the top official led last Tuesday to a modest outer office, where his secretary was receiving a long line of people seeking an official signature on documents

The president of the city council has a name, Salleh al Gazal, but he only drops by his office on Sundays and Wednesdays. His secretary dutifully took down the reporter's name and phone number and promised Gazal would call, even though this wasn't a normal working day. He did not, thus giving a response to all the questions at one swoop, without uttering a single word. Admonition to the unwary: Don't even think of asking about the future until elections are held.

This doesn't bother Benghazi residents, at least not those who gather nightly at the main square at the seafront, next to the courthouse.

"No, no, no," said Wafa Derna, 44, who wore the Libyan flag as kerchief when asked if government authorities were going too slow. The leadership "represents the whole of Libya. They are good people."

She said she's known genuine happiness for the past six months, the period Benghazi was free, and the only thing following the fall of Tripoli that would make her happier is "when they capture 'long hair,' " a reference to Gadhafi, who often affected outlandish costumes and hairstyles.

"We smell freedom. We have no constitution. But we are free to express our views. No one can bother us," she said.

Selim Khalifa Mohammed, 32, also had no complaints about his new government.

"I have no criticism at all," he said one evening last week. "The whole world has met (Mustapha Abdul) Jalil," he said, referring to the chairman of the Transitional Council. "We respect him. We are cheering him."

He told a story that is emblematic for Benghazi residents, who quite possibly would have been annihilated if NATO hadn't intervened. Not long after the Gadhafi war machine was forced to retreat from Benghazi, a good friend came to him and said, repeatedly, that he couldn't believe they had all survived.

"Pinch me. Am I really alive, or is this a dream?" his friend said. Said Mohammed: "He smelled freedom."

"We remember March 19. They were marching directly to Benghazi, but for God and France," he said, referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who led the call for a western intervention. "We do thank Sarkozy," he said.

And he added: "I give America special thanks, especially (President Barack) Obama." He said his favorite Arabic language chant of the revolution was: "Haba Haba, without Sarkozy, I would be dead."

Nabil Khalil Rahib, 20, a school dropout, was in Benghazi as a tourist, having helped liberate his village, near Tobruk in eastern Libya, early in the fighting. He too is a happy camper.

"I thank Allah for Tripoli falling," he said. "Frankly, I thought it would take longer." The appearance of the country was a secondary issue. "No, no. We are in a crisis," he said. "There is no bad feeling."

If citizens, or at least this a small random sampling, are satisfied with the Transitional Council, Council members feel the same way," Ali Tarhouni, the finance and oil minister told McClatchy. Tarhouni, now on leave from the University Washington in Seattle, where he teaches economics, proclaimed the fall of Tripoli in late August, when most of the transitional council members were still in Benghazi.

"My capital is smiling," he said. "It's a happy city, a happy capital."

He also can't believe that the world came to the rescue of Libya, a country few people knew "except for our killer-clown leader."

He said he marveled that the "people of Europe and the U.S., President Obama and Secretary (of State Hillary) Clnton did the right thing. Look at what Sarkozy did. He stuck his neck out. They took courageous decisions they didn't need to take," he said.

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