Dispatch from Libya: Why Benghazi Rebelled

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Andrey Stasevich / Belta /AFP Photo

A protester parading as Muammar Gaddafi stages a demonstration in the main square of Benghazi, Libya.

With names like the Cafe Venizia, Mundo, and Hot Hot Coffee, the espresso bars on seemingly every block of Benghazi are a pleasant legacy of Italy's otherwise largely brutal occupation of Libya in the 1930's. Another is the string of neo-baroque municipal buildings, art-deco cinemas and shopping arcades that the Italian city planners linked up to the old Ottoman-era town with a series of avenues and squares. Independence in 1951 and the oil boom in the 1970's left their own marks on Benghazi, in the form of surprisingly stylish renditions of the architectural fads of the day, Brutalist banks and International Style hotels. And though most of this huge country is desert, Benghazi is surrounded by green hills, white beaches, and blue waters. Under the influence of a few too many cappuccini — alcohol is banned in Libya — it's easy to imagine some glossy travel magazine of the era branding this stretch of North Africa as the Libyan Riviera.

But the sober reality is that Benghazi, now a symbol of resistance to the rule of Colonel Mummar Gaddafi, is also a symbol of that dictator's abuse, megalomania, and incompetence. The once beautiful downtown is a skeleton of its former self, with monuments surrounded by scaffolding that never comes down, empty office buildings, and decrepit apartment blocks. Outside of downtown, the pavement stops just off the highway, and dirt streets fill with rotting garbage. The city of one million has one sewage treatment plant, built more than 40 years ago. Waste is just flushed into the ground or the sea, and when the water table rises in winter, the streets become open cesspools. Benghazi, the second largest city in a country with vast oil wealth and a tiny population, is rotting in its own fifth. "Why do we have to live like this?" says, Rafiq Marrakis, a professor of architecture and urban planning at Benghazi's Garyounis University, Libya's oldest, who took TIME on a tour of Benghazi's sad decline. "There's no planning, no infrastructure, no society. Gaddafi has billions and billions in banks all over the world. But he's left us here with nothing."

Most Libyans suffered under Gaddafi's capricious rule. His support for radical leftist militant groups in Europe and the Middle East sparked international sanctions that lasted until 2006, when Libya formally ended its weapons of mass destruction programs in exchange for international rehabilitation. His economic policies — laid out in his famous Green Book, which purports to chart a third way between Communism and liberal democracy but in fact cloaked an autocracy with a thousand toothless committees — were just as destructive. Gaddafi banned much private enterprise and turned over property from landlords to their tenants. While this benefited Libya's underclass in the short term, it meant that there has been almost no investment in maintaining the country's housing stock. "All of this is collapsing on the inside," says Marrakis, pointing to apartment buildings along Gamal Abdel Nasser street, once among the city's most prestigious addresses, now more reminiscent of Soviet bloc eastern Europe than of the breezy Mediterranean. "There is a severe, chronic housing shortage," he continues. "Young people can't own their own homes, can't get married, can't start their lives."

Benghazi felt the particular brunt of Gaddaffi's neglect, in part because the city has a history of defiance to central rule from the capital, in Tripoli. (Ironically, the uprising of military officers that brought Qaddaffi to power in 1969 began in Benghazi.) Gaddafi leveled the old bazaar, the heart of the Arab city and the center of civic life, and carved out a swath of prime real estate for an arsenal, parade ground and villa-studded pleasure dome for his elite security forces. And what social welfare projects the regime did undertake, such as a medical center with the pompously literal name "One Thousand Two Hundred Bed Hospital" became white elephants. "They've been building it for more than 40 years and it still isn't finished," says Marrakis. "Huge hospitals like this are obsolete now anyway. [But] all he cared about was his own glory."

The neglect of the city's infrastructure became one of the major reasons why Benghazi turned against the government. With the opening of the country since 2003, Libyans began to learn more about the outside world and realized that they were being shortchanged. The example of the rapid development of the Persian Gulf countries, particularly the Emirati city-sate of Dubai — which doesn't even have much oil wealth of its own — into world-class economies, was particularly galling. "How is it that they are in the desert, in harsh conditions, but have performed miracles, while we have a wonderful climate and all these resources and are going nowhere," says Marrakis. "[Meanwhile] the young people get YouTube and see how one of Gaddafi's sons spent a million dollars to have Beyoncé perform at his party."

In the last three years, the regime began realizing that its neglect of the city was reaching a crisis point, and the government brought in a slew of foreign construction companies with Chinese, Malaysian and Filipino workers to build badly planned suburban mega-tenements. "They realized they were running out of time," says Marrakis. But it was too little too late for the dispossessed young people — more than half of Libyans are under the age of 30 — who took to the streets on Feb. 17 and drove Gaddafi's forces out of Benghazi.

Now Marrakis and many of the other intelligensia who have formed a new provisional government are hoping that Free Libya will turn Benghazi into the tourist mecca that its geography and history could so easily make it. "I've been all over Europe and Asia and haven't seen beaches like we have here; Greek and Roman cities," says Marrakis, who once lived in Seattle and got his doctorate from the University of Washington. "We had a golden opportunity and Gaddafi squandered it. This time we will do it correctly."

Meanwhile, the city has a least one new attraction. The burned-out villas, fortresses, and jails of Gaddafi's pampered and brutal security services — conquered by Benghazi's street kids — where the city's families are now lining up to see for the first time how their overlords lived.