Benghazi: a normal life, for the moment
It would be wrong to suggest that everything is going well in Libya. Yesterday’s attack on oil facilities at Ras Lanouf by Qaddafi’s forces and the failure of an apparent government (that is Transitional National Council)-led offensive at Surt show otherwise. But here in Benghazi even yesterday’s inspiring TNC rally in Tripoli seems far off.
Life here is about as close to “normal” as it ever has been. No one is visibly carrying weapons. The one detonation I’ve heard did not cause any reaction among the Libyans present–they knew right away it was a car engine backfiring. By all reports, people feel far freer to speak their minds than they did under Qaddafi. They also feel freer to drive down one-way streets the wrong way and run red lights, though they do both not with abandon but with caution. Mostly they go about their business trying to earn a living and support their families, which has not gotten easier. Salaries and other payments made through banks are not fully available to depositors, who can only withdraw one-third to one-half of the total amount.
Libyans know that this is the price of liberty and hope it will not last. There are some good omens. Egyptian oil service workers told me this morning that some wells in the east are already producing, the Libyans are respecting pre-revolution contracts and the people they deal with are clearly more relaxed and taking more responsibility than under Qaddafi. Libyan Air has started up service between Benghazi and Misrata, Turkish Airlines starts to fly to Istanbul on Thursday, and there are rumors of British Air and others preparing to fly.
None of this of course affects most Libyans, who live in what can only be described as poverty despite the enormous oil and gas wealth produced during the Qaddafi regime. That money seems to have gone into the pockets of few people, who deposited a great deal of it in bank accounts and investments abroad. Benghazis are certainly convinced that none of it came here. They are quick to note the outlet for raw sewage that fouls their spectacular beaches and the empty square from which Qaddafi removed the grave of Omar Mukhtar, hero of the resistance against Italy in the early 20th century. Qaddafi did not want any competition, even from a long-expired hero.
The road ahead will not be easy. NATO spokespeople may suggest that finding Qaddafi is not so important, but they are wrong. Few believe Qaddafi can mount the same kind of resistance that emerged in Iraq, or attract the kind of foreign assistance the Sunni insurgency there benefited from, but many in Washington and elsewhere have gotten worried about the possibility of an insurgency.
They are right to worry: insurgency would make it far more difficult for the TNC to pursue the moderate course it has so far chosen, favoring reconciliation over retaliation and avoiding revenge against those who fought for and protected the Qaddafi regime. I am already receiving from a Belgian email address pro-insurgency emails. It only takes the beginnings of suspicion that people are associated with an insurgency to generate fear in the population and a harsh crackdown from the authorities.
None of that is yet apparent in Benghazi today, however. A friend is teaching a human rights class. A colleague is arranging a conflict management workshop. A journalist classmate is tracking the TNC and trying to ask them tough questions when they seem to do things different from what they say. The Egyptian oil service company people were off to arrange well workovers. Traffic is heavy, the markets are bustling, people are walking, bargaining, shopping, working. Water, and since this year’s August Ramadan also electricity, are flowing.
Libyans have experienced both autocracy and war. The normal life so many people who have lived in those conditions crave has arrived in Benghazi, at least for the moment.