A Beautiful Place to Be
The United Nations proposal came in February – but the UN has always been long on proposals and short on solutions that work at the worm’s eye level. Yet, as of this week, the warring parties have agreed to terms and Libya, after nine years of intermittent civil war, has a national government. Even here, a referee was needed to get it done. The UN appointed an interim government headed by a vastly rich businessman named Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. Not much is known about the new prime minister, save some connections to the old Gaddafi regime – but he could hardly have gotten vastly rich in Libya without them. Dbeibah and the ruling council have all agreed to not run of office in the first elections, scheduled for 24 December – Libya’s Independence Day. The symbolism is predictably fantastic and the failsafes fuzzy. It well may be a new beginning, but beginnings can be tricky.
I was in a taxi roaring past the burned-out US Special Mission compound in Benghazi, as the driver pointed to the building and made some gun noises before merged into the wild traffic. “I got it!” I said. The footage of that wall of black smoke was still running non-stop on American television at the time.
The driver didn’t speak much English, so he busied himself texting his girlfriend and the rest of North Africa with an occasional glance at the road. The technique, as far as I could tell was to lay on the horn enough to guide the car by sonar. Then we’d pass some other revolutionary destruction and he’d make more war noises. He did a pretty good incoming mortar round. The young men, at least, were still on what we’d call a revolution high – not unlike the way American twits get after an Antifa or far-right “patriot” riot. Except that when the revolution isn’t pretend, neither are the stakes. These boys were playing with live ammo.
Libya was in that surreal twilight between revolution and civil war – although at the time,it was hard to tell whether the attack on the Special Mission compound was a one off (there were strangely implausible tales of a protest of a video with the production quality of a local high school), or the starting gun of something worse. It was the latter, but there was no way for either the driver or me to know that. We were making that weird conflict zone small talk. He poked me in the ribs and said, “You this building!”
I thought he was pointing to a five-story office building which had had its front blown clean off. “Good Lord!” I said.
With another poke, he pointed again to a boarded up, tired but structurally sound, Catholic Church left over from when the Italians ran the place. “You Christian, yes?” Under the circumstances, it sounded like a trick question. Before I could answer the man, he carried on. “We have oil and we have tourism.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this talk of a tourism industry, and the sense of hope was heart-breaking. I was still fixated on the blown-out structure. It looked like a very dull dollhouse for a very dirty, 85-foot little girl. Which was as good a metaphor of the state of Libya at that strange moment in time.
They had been building a post-revolutionary society from scratch – without the over-weaning maniac who’d managed to infiltrate every aspect of Libyan life, by claiming that he was involved in none of it. Honestly, they weren’t doing a half-bad job of it until the politicos came along. No one was in charge, but the sense of sticking together was strong. Although, there were warning signs everywhere that it couldn’t last. Even before the civil war turned into an international proxy arms race, it was estimated that there were more guns in the country than people. A local doctor assured me that there was an assault rifle and RPG in the trunk of every car, but since Gaddafi’s ouster, it was considered bad form to be too obvious about it. Arab manners are something else, but under the circumstances there was almost no way that the sense of hopeful decorum would last.
The driver let me off at the Benghazi Medical Center; a beautiful, modern three building campus before it got shelled. It was there on the front steps I watched two men – one in a kurta, the traditional long white shirt, and the other in a fatigues jacket and jeans – open their trunks and compare an arsenal that would make the NRA proud. They did this, with wives and kids waiting in the car, with the same nonchalance of Americans comparing smartphones. In no way did the scene attract the attention of the security guard from a local militia, who was using the forward site of his rifle to scratch the back of his head.
Inside the hospital, there was a sense of excitement. “The solidarity, the sense of hope and purpose, the community!” a doctor told me, her wide eyes alight with the excitement of the memory. “Benghazi during the revolution was a beautiful place to be!” Then her attention drifted past me, to some unfocused point and she said something that sounded very pretty in Arabic. She translated softly, “Benghazi arise, arise for the day you’ve awaited is here.” And got a shiver. So did I.
“When the bodies started coming in – and I had cousins who died in the war – people started bringing in spare mattresses for the wounded, bringing in bread and dates and other foods, pharmacists brought in medicine, anything to help. We didn’t know where to put it. There was a hugging. Men don’t shake hands with a woman who isn’t a direct relative, and strangers were hugging me. And it was okay! Oh, it was a beautiful place to be.”
Societies, even the most hopeful, need structure or it will turn to ash as it did so quickly after the revolution. After any revolution – even ours. American like to think that there was an 80 year gap between our revolution and civil war – but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. There was an attempt at a break-away Republic of Franklin – in what we now call North Carolina and Tennessee in 1784 – a scant three years after the war with Great Britain ended. By 1789, we had to scrap our Articles of Confederation. Two years later, President Washington sent troops into Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1832, South Carolina was tinkering with breaking away from the Union. It stayed put for a generation and then walked out with the rest of the South a generation later.
Will the new national government in Tripoli last through elections in December and beyond? I certainly hope so, I fell in love with Benghazi, although why is God’s own private mystery. History, however, is less sentimental. A revolution might be a beautiful place to be, but building a society that works for everyone is, quite simply, less so.