The Arab Spring Turns Ten
The Hotel Juliana in Benghazi is a modern, clean place with western toilets (always check this before-hand) and enough hot water if you don’t linger. The Wi-Fi is good, which explains the nightly crowd in the lobby smoking, drinking fruit juice, checking smart phones and speaking in the time-honored Arab manner of all at once. Get a room in the back of the hotel, away from the crowd, where you can open your window at night and listen to the sea lapping against the beach. My room was so close to the water that if I pitched an empty orange soda bottle, an odd shoe, or spare ammo clip out the window, I could almost hit the surf. To look at the shoreline plenty of guests had already tried it.
I was in country shortly after the attacks on the Mission Compound in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens in September of 2012. It was a strange time, almost surreal. Benghazi was the place that the hope of the Arab Spring turned violent – where the mass of peaceful protests turned into a bloody revolt. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi didn’t go quietly but, as he’d predicted at the start of movement, on “rivers of blood.” Some seven months after the protests had started in Libya, the colonel was flushed out of a drainage ditch by rebels and sodomized with a bayonet.
And there exposed the fatal flaw in the Arab Spring that showed so much promise 10 years ago. The thrill and hope of a unified opposition to a tyrant is one thing, it’s the stuff of legend. The tedious task of building a functioning government in the resulting vacuum is something else altogether.
In that slim breather between revolution and full-blown civil war, a man I’ll call Omar had built the Hotel Juliana and we were standing by the half-completed swimming pool. Omar assured me would be finished by spring and smiled triumphantly. “We have a good future. In Libya, we have two great natural resources.”
“Tourism, of course.” Omar said it as if I really should have known better.
“Look at this…” Beyond us there was a cold surf on the other side of about 50 feet of garbage-strewn beach. As a guest, I thought it rude to say, “You mean this trash heap?” so I took the cultural tack, “Well, Omar, help me understand something as an American; what would the women wear poolside? Not the jilbāb?”
“Yes. Women would be… ahhhh… discouraged…from the pool.”
Which may be the single most effective way to discourage men form being at poolside as well. I kept that two myself as the man was feeling expansive. “What about Gaddafi’s ban on alcohol? Will the new regime lift it?”
“No.” he said with no small degree of approval, “There is no talk of this.” Devout man, that Omar.
“Oh.” I said deeply. Far be it from me to crush a man’s one glimmer of hope in the foothills of war. I just couldn’t see how a bunch of stone sober men standing around a pool was going to turn an essentially homophobic place into an international tourism destination. Not with those ouzo-swilling, three quarter nude, Greek Isles only about 350 miles away. We were on the dodgy side of the Mediterranean Sea, oily and slick from the tankers traffic. “What about the ocean?” I asked.
Omar sighed, “The beaches were mined in the 1990’s when Gaddafi thought the US would invade.” The garbage strewn beach had attracted, as it does, packs of feral dogs and – this was new – and foursome of feral horses. The wild animals and explosives tend to put bathers off.
By the summer of 2012 most Libyans would have said that the war was over, and said it with a hint of nostalgia. The revolutionary graffiti on the tumble-down walls are a lot of US, French and Qatari flags – about half the slogans are in English. I asked a young pilot trainee why the slogans weren’t in English. “We want to tell our message to the world, not just Arabia.”
“I thought that Gaddafi removed English from school curriculum.”
He smiled proudly, it was boyish and wide, and he thumbed his chest. “We learned.”
It is hard not to mark the September 11 attack in the US Mission Compound as the starting gun – the heroic revolution was over and the sordid civil war had started. It wasn’t obvious just yet, but since the day that Gaddafi bled out in October of 2011, the hopes of the rebellion were starting fracture. Over the summer there had been attacks British diplomats and the British cemetery in Tobruk. There had been an attempt by jihadist groups to occupy Benghazi.
The sad truth is that it is easy to start a revolution with a slogan, possible to win one with it, but you can’t run a government on it. Of the four regimes toppled during the Arab Spring, only Tunisia has made any movement towards a stable (if fragile) democracy. Egypt in under the control of a military junta that makes the days of Hosni Mubarak seem almost free-wheeling. Libya and Yemen exchanged their tyrants for fractured civil wars. In Syria, Basher al-Assad is still in power, but the country is a wasteland.
The new Arab Big Men, as well as the governments that survived the movements have taken measure to crush dissent. A wave of protests in 2019 toppled governments in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, but like the original movement, the region has taken a step forward only to take two steps back.
So, what went wrong? Possibly nothing, but that this is the nature of revolution. What is to be done about it? From West, again, possible nothing. No nation can fight another’s revolution. And the tragedy may simply be a matter of time – brutal, blood thirsty time.
I was standing in the corridor of the Benghazi Medical Center speaking with a local doctor – Latifa – who’d spoke perfect English from having lived in Tampa, Florida until she was about eight years old. There she identified strongly with Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I was from North Africa, I was an American. I thought that that made me an African-American.” Which it does, if only by the definition of the word. Her teacher, however, didn’t see it that way but could never fully explain herself.
Latifa had asked a nurse for assistance and he’d snapped back, “Who died and made you Muammar? We’re living in a free society now!”
She looked at me and rolled her eyes. “We haven’t quite got our head around this freedom thing.”
I was trying to be philosophical about it. “You know, the government we set up after our revolution only lasted about seven years before we had to start over. Our first rebellion only about five years later. A generation later we collapsed into civil war.”
She smiled at this. “America wasn’t always America.” She wagged a finger at me, “It wasn’t always the land of the free. In the beginning it was exile.”
“You know your American history.” Better, I thought, than we know theirs.
This article was adapted from the upcoming Pothole of the Gods