30 May 2013

Libya: Why Benghazi Matters


In many senses, Benghazi lies at the heart of Libya's struggle to build a functioning government and democracy from the rubble of the 2011 uprising.

Earlier this month, on Monday, 13 May, an explosion outside a hospital in central Benghazi - widely suspected to have been a car bomb - killed at least three people and injured at least thirty.

The attack was the latest in a series of violent incidents in the east Libyan city, the most high-profile of which was the assassination, in September 2012, of American ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff.

Although in recent months, Tripoli, home of the national congress, has tended to dominate domestic political attention, the situation in Benghazi has become increasingly volatile.

In addition to the sporadic bombings and the assault on the US embassy, the city has witnessed street battles between rival militia, the emergence of a dedicated separatist movement, and frequent outbursts of public frustration at the lack of adequate local services.

Benghazi's political historical significance

Benghazi is certainly not the only urban centre in Libya to experience chronic disorder and popular unrest. Nevertheless, more than any other, it lies at the heart of the country's struggle to build a functioning government and democracy from the rubble of the war which toppled Muammar Gaddafi.

The city occupies a very specific place in Libyan political history. During the 1920s, it was used as an operational base by Omar Mukhtar, the guerrilla fighter who led Libyan resistance to Italian colonial rule.

In 1931, Mukhtar was captured and executed by the then fascist Italian authorities. Later, once Libya had won its independence, a tomb for Mukhtar was constructed in Benghazi.

When Gaddafi assumed power in 1969, one of his first acts was to visit the tomb to pay his respects to the memory of the late nationalist leader.

Yet, shortly after, the young Colonel - acutely aware of Mukhtar's status in the public imagination as a rebel and a liberator - moved the tomb out of the city, presumably in an attempt to ensure it did not become a rallying point for opposition groups. However, curiously, Gaddafi nonetheless continued to exploit Mukhtar's image to shore-up his own populist credentials.

The discovery in the early 1960s of vast reserves of high-quality crude oil and natural gas in east Libya helped strengthen Cyrenaica's regional identity, much of which is rooted in Benghazi's rich cultural and intellectual history.

Following an initial burst of investment by Gaddafi's Tripoli-based government, Benghazi's public infrastructure was, from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, allowed to deteriorate.

Such a situation fostered a deep sense of grievance among Benghazians, who felt their resources were being squandered on Gaddafi's vanity projects rather than being used to improve their living standards.

Benghazian resentment of Gaddafi intensified in the 1990s in response to the Abu Salim massacre, when inmates of the notorious Tripoli prison - many of whom were political dissidents from Benghazi - were slaughtered en masse by prison guards in the aftermath of a riot.

It took years of lobbying before the authorities finally revealed to the families of the prisoners where their relatives' bodies had been buried. Neither the increasing centralisation of power in Tripoli during the Gaddafi era, nor Gaddafi's aggressive promotion of a single, unified Libyan national identity, did much to erode Cyrenaica's sense of cultural distinctiveness.

The crucible of the uprising

Given its particularly fraught relationship with the Gaddafi regime, it is hardly surprising that Benghazi emerged, in 2011, as the crucible of the Libyan uprising. Indeed, it was the overthrow of a military garrison in the centre of the city which provided the initial spur for the wider, national revolt.

Gaddafi's subsequent threat to "cleanse" the town "inch by inch, house by house", only served to harden the resolve of Benghazi's residents to resist the onslaught. Thousands of them went on to die fighting to keep the town out of the central government's control.

At present, the demands of east Libyan separatists - or, to be more precise, federalists - for greater regional autonomy, coupled with the refusal of Benghazi's political leaders to rein in the militia groups operating throughout the city, act as a source of instability for the country as a whole.

The failure to persuade Benghazi to join Libya's political mainstream represents a significant obstacle to the establishment of a lasting democratic settlement.

It may be that old habits die hard, and, like Gaddafi, the current crop of Tripoli-based politicians are not sufficiently sensitive to Benghazi's specific political and cultural dynamics.

Altogether, it seems unlikely that the problems which have plagued the city for decades will be resolved until a new generation emerges.

- Egypt and Libya Analyst

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