View a slide show of the graffiti of the Libyan revolution.
Ryan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. An Arabic speaker and former Dubai-based McKinsey & Co. analyst currently studying Islamic banking, Calder left California in late January to view the Arab revolutions firsthand, visiting Egypt and Bahrain during their respective upheavals before traveling on to Libya in March. He arrived in Libya four days before the international intervention began and is currently in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, where he has been interviewing the revolution's participants and witnesses and writing a blog, from which parts of this series are adapted.
Benghazi, March 27: Democracy, drag racing, and a decent cup of espresso
"Qaddafi had a hold on Benghazi like this," a 30-year-old butcher-shop employee in the city told me on March 26, clenching his fist. "But no longer. Now, we're free."
These political motivations for rebellion are the ones that tend to filter out of Benghazi through the news media to the outside world. In part, it's because people here -- official and otherwise -- do frame their fight in those terms: In my three weeks in the city, I've found that anyone in a position of formal authority in the interim government -- from national-level leaders to staff at the rebel-run media center in Benghazi to town-level representatives of the interim government -- is aware that "democracy" and "freedom" are bywords that will portray the "new Libya" in the right international light. (They're also careful to argue that there will be no partisanship (hizbiyyah) and no tribalism (qaba'iliyah) in the new Libya.) This is one of many ways in which the eyes of the outside world are shaping this uprising, and all of the 2011 Arab uprisings: Liberal-democratic discourse has gone utterly and completely global and is now reflecting back upon itself.
That these political motivations -- the desire for civil liberties, the rule of law, and democracy -- are self-conscious does not mean that they're disingenuous. But it's worth noting that socioeconomic concerns are also central to this rebellion. Some people will start a conversation about the revolution by talking about political freedoms, but will end up talking about the distribution of oil revenues a minute later. Others dive straight in, criticizing Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's government for its cronyism. Here are some typical quotes from people in eastern Libya:
"Libya produces 1.6 million barrels of oil a day. [Every Libyan seems to know this number.] But where does the money go? Into the pockets of Qaddafi, his children, and his friends."
"Look at the United Arab Emirates. They have beautiful buildings and great infrastructure. Why isn't Libya like the UAE? Or like Qatar? Our oil is of even higher quality than theirs, and we're a country of only 6 million people. [Libyan crude traditionally commands relatively high prices on the world market because of its quality, and every Libyan knows this too.] Instead, look around you. We've driven through the desert for 100 kilometers, and there hasn't been a single proper road sign. All you see are those faded milestones -- and they date back from the era of King Idris [who ruled Libya from 1951 to 1969]. We're running out of gas, and there's no way for me to know where the nearest road sign is!"
"Look, the Libyan people are a simple people. What does a young Libyan guy want? A job, a house, and a car. So he can get married. These are the things he's really concerned about."
"Africa, Africa, Africa. [This is a reference to Qaddafi's turn toward African unity and away from pan-Arabism. This turn began in the 1990s.] Qaddafi is always talking about Africa. In school, we had to study African history. But why should Libya have connections with [sub-Saharan] Africa? Look how backward those countries are. Why can't we have good relations with the West instead -- with Europe, the United States? With developed countries that have something to offer us? What good does Africa do us?"
[While driving through central Benghazi, a few hundred meters from the city's central square:] "Look at these roads! [Points to potholes in a bumpy unpaved road.] In the middle of the city! Can you believe it? That's Qaddafi for you. Forty-one years, and this is what we get."
To understand the significance of these kinds of comments -- which I hear everywhere -- it's important to understand the creaky character of the Libyan rentier state, which has been malfunctioning since the start. This is partly because of the rentier state's poor fit with Qaddafi's revolutionary socialistic Green Book ideology, partly because of Dutch disease, partly because of reliance on expatriate labor (both inside and outside the oil sector), and so on. Parallels with the Soviet Union also abound: A revolutionary ideology and charismatic leadership raised expectations in the 1970s, only to disappoint the masses as the regime ossified, with a state-dominated economy failing to produce improvements in the standard of living from the 1980s onward. (The timing doesn't coincide with the USSR's trajectory, but the general contours do.) Qaddafi's foreign adventurism and his turn toward Africa have, in many Libyans' eyes, only exacerbated the problem.
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