Resilience and Euphoria in Free Libya (orig. pub. in WSJ 4/14/11)

Resilience and Euphoria in Free Libya
In Benghazi, state salaries are being paid, trash collected, and the poor looked after.


April 14, 2011

Benghazi, Libya

This is an exhilarating, utopian moment in Benghazi and the smaller cities of what people here call Libya Hurra (Free Libya). It is also an encouraging bellwether for the Libya of the future. Moammar Gadhafi’s subjects are becoming citizens, and they are taking responsibility for themselves.

In the absence of much state infrastructure, voluntary committees are keeping essential services going, taking care of the poor and internally displaced, and beginning to reconstruct Libyan society. The National Transitional Council that’s assumed the reins of government is making sure state workers receive their salaries (and insisting that they return to work if they want to continue getting paid).

Many of the fears articulated by American observers are discounted here. No one believes that a civil war between east and west is likely. Libyan diplomat Ahmed Gebreel—who used to work for Libya at the United Nations in New York and now advises Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdul Jalil on foreign policy—says there is no broad ethnic divide between Tripolitanians and Cyrenaicans.

“The original inhabitants of Tripoli are only a couple of thousand people. The rest come from all over Libya. I was born in Al-Bayda (in eastern Libya) but I normally live in Tripoli.” Conversely, as Imam Bugaighis, a university lecturer and one of the handful of prominent women in the circle around the Transitional Council, told me, “Every family has relatives in both Benghazi and Tripoli.”

There are valid questions about what would happen to the social fabric if opposition forces fight their way to Tripoli, but that seems increasingly unlikely. The Transitional Council appears to expect a negotiated settlement to end the conflict, though not one that leaves in power Gadhafi, his family, or anyone associated with him.

Benghazi and Tobruk show encouraging signs of social resilience and even social transformation. Ms. Bugaighis says that there are more than 100 voluntary committees in Benghazi, a city of about 800,000. “We are doing much better without him,” she stated proudly, referring to Gadhafi. Under him, “Libya wasn’t meant to be a country—just militia and people.”

Benghazi’s citizens are stepping up to the plate to maintain essential services. Sanitation workers, largely guest workers from Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, have gone back to their own countries. But local volunteers are taking the initiative and picking up the garbage. Libyans may drive too fast, but they’re still obeying traffic laws and parking in an orderly way. Mr. Gebreel says that the incidence of traffic accidents has actually fallen since the revolution. In conservative Tobruk, I watched as volunteers for a local charity, the Mercy Foundation, measured out European Union-donated flour into bags for displaced people. Sixty volunteers serve 10,000 needy families in the area.

The mood in Benghazi is euphoric. The square in front of the courthouse where the protests began has become a revolutionary fair where families stroll and young people demonstrate. Booths offer political leaflets and display political cartoons, while food carts offer free sandwiches and espresso to the coffee-obsessed population. Souvenirs in red, green and black—the colors of the original 1951 Libyan flag of independence—are sold everywhere.

“We don’t want normal life to continue,” says Ms. Bugaighis. “Everyone is discovering that we love our country, we love our flag. It is more important that the teachers work on committees to build our society than that the children go to school. We didn’t know how to be democratic on the individual level. We don’t know how to work in an institutional structure. We have to develop that.”

There’s still much to be done here, and the war is far from over, but the people of Benghazi are on their way to becoming citizens of their new, Free Libya.

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