Benghazi Blues

Assassinations, Islamist rumblings, and murky tribal politics are taking the luster off life in the rebel capital.

Ethan Chorin
Ethan Chorin

Traveling to and from Benghazi is a bit like reading a graphic novel or a postmodern comic book, with the shifting emotions of the residents of the Libyan rebels’ de facto capital plastered on billboards and splashed across graffiti-covered walls. The book’s introduction is grateful, embracing, and polished: "Freedom Is Our Destination" reads a newly erected billboard by the airport’s arrival terminal, astride a line of flags from countries that have formally recognized the rebels’ Transitional National Council (TNC).

Another placard along the main road leading into town shows a smiling, elderly man in traditional dress and red fez, his hand outstretched, offering the visitor a yellow daisy, a flower that grows in abundance in the neighboring Green Mountains.

In the center of town, another chapter opens in the book of Benghazi, altogether more raw and gritty: "Topple Qaddafi and his hangers-on" reads one piece of black scrawl, not far from "Game Over" and "Fuck Gaddafi!" (the latter two, presumably for the benefit of Westerners, in English). Emblazoned on buildings near the port are elaborate drawings, both skilled and creepy: One popular set, presumably sketched by the same hand, shows Muammar al-Qaddafi as the devil, swastikas emblazoned on each side of an exaggerated afro. Another depicts Qaddafi’s second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam, not long ago the regime’s most visible symbol of reform, as a small, smiling devil perched on his left shoulder.

But it’s not just the Qaddafi clan that bedevils the rebel capital. At 5 a.m. on July 29, two hours before my planned departure to Benghazi, my colleague and I were alerted to the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis, commander of Libya’s rebel forces, with two of his lieutenants. A week later, the circumstances of the assassination remain murky: The TNC has confirmed that it had issued an arrest warrant for Younis (a fact it had previously denied), but continues to blame infiltrators loyal to Qaddafi for the assassination. Meanwhile, one rebel minister (and many locals) said the army chief was killed by an Islamic faction within the rebel movement.

The conflicting reports, many of which have a false ring to them, have increased observers’ doubts about the TNC’s capabilities, while casting a pall of intrigue and anxiety over rebel-controlled areas.

I was traveling to Benghazi with my colleague, a Libyan-American who had left Benghazi some 30 years ago. We had created an NGO to help set up a series of clinics to address physical and psychological trauma among eastern Libya’s residents. It had been more than five years since I had last been in Libya, as a commercial/economic attaché in what was then the U.S. Liaison Office, prior to the opening of the full-fledged embassy in 2006. During that period, I traveled to Benghazi many times to report on various aspects of the local economy and, on the side, to collect material for a book of translations of Libyan short stories.

There’s a certain rough charm to Benghazi. Despite crumbling colonial facades and a fetid lake, fed for years by the effluent from an abattoir (a hallmark Qaddafi maneuver), one could imagine how beautiful Benghazi must have been in the pre-Qaddafi years. The city allegedly maintained some of its appeal through the early years of Qaddafi’s rule, but by the early 1990s, a well-established reputation for Islamist-fed opposition provoked a systematic and brutal crackdown and a cessation of outside investment — all of which took a further toll on the city’s physical appearance, if not its spirit.

In 2005, in the midst of Libya’s reintegration into the international community, a range of loyalist bureaucrats and trade-promoters described to me their grand plans for the development of Benghazi’s waterfront and prime tourist locations farther east. Today, that same seaside property has been taken over by an impromptu, carnival-like spectacle, with souvenir hawkers standing next to photos of those who have lost their lives in the struggle, martyrs to the cause.

The notion that east Libya could become a nest of jihadists remains, for the moment, somewhat far-fetched — but in the current environment, anything is theoretically possible. Many of the older residents with whom we spoke thought that extremism could still be controlled, but that order was key. "Within a prolonged uncertainty or a power vacuum, these elements will grow, certainly," said one. Just as Benghazi inherited Cairo and Alexandria’s learning and culture in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the growth of Islamist influences in western Egypt and elsewhere could aggravate existing pockets of religious extremist ideologies, as will wartime indoctrination of unemployed youth.

Contacts spoke of escalating conspiracy theories. Some thought Younis’s assassination was a vigilante killing by an "Islamist" faction; others thought it was an inside job, perhaps the result of a power play within the TNC. Nobody with whom we spoke gave much credence to a so-called Qaddafi "fifth column," as the Western media was quick to report.

On one of our forays downtown, a young man, perhaps 18 years old, approached us listlessly: "There are snipers around," he said. "Watch out! Bang, bang!"

We hailed a cab back to the Tibesti Hotel, site of a shootout the day before we arrived, and were quizzed incessantly by the driver about our reasons for being in Benghazi. It seemed that he, like the youth before him, was intent on provoking unease — quite the opposite impression given by soldiers in uniform and older residents, all of whom were pointedly respectful.

Later, I stepped out of the car to take a picture of a particularly interesting piece of graffiti, when an enraged young man approached us, yelling in Arabic: "What are you doing? Who are you? You cannot take pictures; this is illegal."

"Illegal by whose orders, and who are you? Did we make revolution to be told what to do by random people acting on their own whim?" shot back a Libyan friend, incautiously. A few other young men, also not in uniform, approached, automatic weapons drawn and ready to fire.

There is a sunnier side to the new freedom in Benghazi. Residents are openly questioning everything, not least of all their leadership. The July 26 edition of al Libii (The Libyan) poses a series of hardball questions to TNC chief Abdul Jalil: "Why is Mahmoud Jibril, who has alternated between ‘prime’ and ‘foreign’ minister, never in the country?" "Why are you staffing the ministry of finance with academics and not experienced businessmen?" "What are you doing about inclusiveness on the council of opposition groups outside of Libya?" The questions go on, and Jalil treats each respectfully.

As the TNC is discovering a free press and a politically motivated population can be the new leadership’s best friend and its worst enemy. Much of the latest criticism comes from the TNC’s handling of the news of Younis’s death. Even many of those wholly unsympathetic to the man faulted the way information was being disseminated — or not. "Younis was a military man — there should be a military investigation, by a military tribunal. Everything according to a process," said one engineer from the Libyan diaspora who had returned to assist the TNC with technical issues. "Even if the TNC had problems with Younis, it should have been dealt with straight on, according to a process, not the shadows."

A highlight of our trip was a two-hour visit to the office of a mutual acquaintance, "S.," who is well over 70 years old. By dint of his age, education, and family background, he carried significant respect within the community — a fact evident by an almost incessant procession of well-wishers who, if S. didn’t know them personally, made every effort to appear as if he did.

After about 20 minutes of conversation, the editor of one of the dozen new newspapers in Benghazi entered with a stack of broadsheets. Today’s headline: "A Strong, Unified Libya." His optimism buoyed the conversation, which had turned slightly dour.

"Look at what we have accomplished. There are 25,000 guns loose in Benghazi, and we’ve got 10 or 12 shooting deaths a month," he gushed. "What would happen if law and order were suspended in any European or American city for even 24 hours? You’d have chaos!"

In a key televised address the afternoon of July 30, Jalil called for the armed militias in rebel-controlled territory to submit to the TNC’s authority — or face the consequences. The TNC leader, whose mien is hard to read, looked more exhausted and worried than usual. Behind the scenes, the TNC named one of Younis’s cousins his successor — clearly a gesture to Younis’s tribe — which also provoked criticism in some corners from those who saw it as a sop to a long-outdated notion that somehow tribalism rules modern Libya.

The TNC made good on its promises within hours: On the night of July 30, the leadership attacked one unit, alternately described as "Islamist," "pro-Qaddafi," or euphemistically, "independent," after it defied the order to consolidate. The result was a night-long firefight at the city’s perimeter that allegedly left scores dead and plumes of smoke rising into the dawn sky.

We awoke on July 31 to an extremely tense atmosphere within the Tibesti. Hotel staff furtively passed around printouts taken from an opposition website. A few calls later, we learned that the U.S. envoy’s office and the U.N. compound were both under lockdown. The Internet seemed to be failing, and there were few Westerners in evidence.

Benghazi was gripped by a pervasive feeling that order could break down at any minute — an eventuality that our small NGO was ill-equipped to handle. I managed to hold a Skype connection just long enough to ask our third colleague, who was to arrive later that week, to contact the U.N. office in Cairo to ask its indulgence in getting us out that day. Our driver tried to assuage our fears, saying, "I’ve crossed the city this morning; everything is quiet." It was a reassurance that we would hear many times, whether we asked for it or not.

Forty minutes later, we were back where we started a few short days before, facing the kindly old man with the red fez and yellow daisy. The plane, thankfully, was an hour late in from Cairo, but we still had no seat confirmation. "We’ve been authorized to take you as far as Heraklion," the capital of Crete, came the eventual reply from a U.N. staff aide. If we had any doubts that we had made the right call to leave, they were dispelled once we saw the assembled passengers: hardened aid workers, many of whom were with us on our inbound flight, insisting they’d be in Benghazi "indefinitely."

As the plane began its ascent over the Green Mountains, I reflected on the chaos of the last few days. A particular piece of graffiti along the outbound airport road stuck in my head. Roughly translated, it read: "We will not beg, and we will not budge,"  

That’s fine when facing a common enemy, but not particularly helpful when trying to communicate with one’s own: Resolving the question of who killed Younis and bringing those parties to justice — wherever they may be found — will be key to the TNC’s efforts to maintain popular trust.

After all that the people of Benghazi and the rest of Libya have been through, the worst of all outcomes would be a return to the past, or a fractious future. If Libya’s rebels are able to accomplish this feat, the story of what has happened here may yet prove one of the most inspirational of the Arab Spring.

Ethan Chorin is the author of Exit the Colonel and Translating Libya. He was posted to Libya as a U.S. foreign service officer from 2004 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter: @EthanChorin.

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