Normal, but still far from ideal

If life seems normal in Benghazi these days, it is still far from ideal.  Having previously discussed the positive developments, I need to delve into the directions in which growth and development is still required.

The most obvious to the eye and nose of the casual observer is what my wife and I call “garbagio,” a term we invented forty years ago when traveling in southern Italy (well before we both learned Italian).  Every public space in Benghazi seems littered, sometimes to a depth of several inches.  I asked some young Libyans yesterday about this.  They said things have actually improved a good deal since the revolution, with people cleaning up a lot more than in the past.  The garbagio problem developed, they added, because no one felt pride in being Libyan.  The public space belonged to the state, so throwing trash into it was a tacit, maybe even unintentional, form of protest.

Libyans held the state in low esteem not only because of the way it treated them but also because they had no voice in it.  Essentially no independent civil society was permitted–only service organizations, and they had a hard time even doing things like helping the poor because Qaddafi denied that there were any.  Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have sprouted rapidly in Benghazi, though they are naturally in a rudimentary state, and spontaneous contributions to social improvement like directing traffic if the stop lights go out are common.

There is still little visible sign of political parties.  I spent the evening yesterday wandering among the many tents/booths set up in the courthouse square, where people gather each evening to enjoy the sea breeze and talk.  The different tents host discussions of issues while a goodly number of men alternately pray and listen to talk radio (or was it television?) broadcast over loud speakers.  The Libyans are really enjoying their freedom.  They seem almost reluctant to organize political parties because it will lead to divisions among them.

Newspapers have sprouted as well, with something like 80 newspapers and magazines now publishing in Benghazi (most not dailies), where there were only six before the revolution.  One of the young people I talked with is getting ready to put out a free English language weekly for distribution in Benghazi hotels.  Will there be enough foreigners left to attract advertisers now that the National Transitional Council (NTC) seems really to be moving to Tripoli?  Maybe not, but The Voice would like to give the enterprise a try.  There will of course be a dramatic weeding out of some of these publications, but in the meanwhile it is thrilling to talk with people who are for the first time in their lives discovering that their thoughts and writings might actually make a difference.

Another area where a great deal of “capacity building” (that’s what the development types call training) is needed is human rights.  My compliments go to USAID (that doesn’t always happen) for the human rights training that I attended yesterday, conducted under contract to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Warsaw) by three veterans of the Polish transition.  The day was devoted to a moot court to consider the case of a prisoner who had died of a heart attack while incarcerated.  The outcome was different from the real case, in which the Polish government lost for the first time at the European Court of Human Rights.  But it was argued with an intelligence and style that I hope foreshadows what Libyan courts may be like in ten years.

The court system is in fact a big problem.  Corrupted under Qaddafi, it will require a thorough vetting and retraining, something that will take more than a few years.  In the meanwhile, Libyans generally want Qaddafi, his family and his cronies tried in Libya, if only because here there is a death penalty not permitted at the International Criminal Court (ICC).  But a debate at the human rights workshop ended with the young Libyans voting to send Qaddafi to the ICC, due to the difficult problems of meeting international standards and preventing the trial from becoming a political nightmare.

The political nightmare could be deadly, as Libyans are still armed to the teeth.  This will only change if stability is maintained and a spiral of revenge killing prevented, as few will give up their guns if they really think they need them.  There has been some effort to collect the weapons, but there are still a lot more out there.  Re-restablishing the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force will not be easy or immediate.

Surprisingly, I’ve found relatively little complaint so far about the economic situation.  One Libyan did say that his salary of 350 Libyan dinars per month working in oil services was low, but he seemed to mean that in comparison to international wages rather than in comparison with what other Libyans make.  I suspect the grumbling will increase, but Libyans are clearly pleased that Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), lives in a modest house in Benghazi and is thought to be uncorrupted.  At least to some, that makes a big difference and may account for patience on the economic front.

With apologies for the lack of photos–I have no way of getting them from my nonfunctional cell phone to my computer–these are some of the ways in which Libya is still far from the ideal.


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