Benghazi Blues

Assassinations, Islamist rumblings, and murky tribal politics are taking the luster off life in the rebel capital.

Traveling to and from Benghazi is a bit like reading a graphic novel or a postmodern comic book, with the shifting emotions of the residents of the Libyan rebels' de facto capital plastered on billboards and splashed across graffiti-covered walls. The book's introduction is grateful, embracing, and polished: "Freedom Is Our Destination" reads a newly erected billboard by the airport's arrival terminal, astride a line of flags from countries that have formally recognized the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC).

Another placard along the main road leading into town shows a smiling, elderly man in traditional dress and red fez, his hand outstretched, offering the visitor a yellow daisy, a flower that grows in abundance in the neighboring Green Mountains.

In the center of town, another chapter opens in the book of Benghazi, altogether more raw and gritty: "Topple Qaddafi and his hangers-on" reads one piece of black scrawl, not far from "Game Over" and "Fuck Gaddafi!" (the latter two, presumably for the benefit of Westerners, in English). Emblazoned on buildings near the port are elaborate drawings, both skilled and creepy: One popular set, presumably sketched by the same hand, shows Muammar al-Qaddafi as the devil, swastikas emblazoned on each side of an exaggerated afro. Another depicts Qaddafi's second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam, not long ago the regime's most visible symbol of reform, as a small, smiling devil perched on his left shoulder.

But it's not just the Qaddafi clan that bedevils the rebel capital. At 5 a.m. on July 29, two hours before my planned departure to Benghazi, my colleague and I were alerted to the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis, commander of Libya's rebel forces, with two of his lieutenants. A week later, the circumstances of the assassination remain murky: The TNC has confirmed that it had issued an arrest warrant for Younis (a fact it had previously denied), but continues to blame infiltrators loyal to Qaddafi for the assassination. Meanwhile, one rebel minister (and many locals) said the army chief was killed by an Islamic faction within the rebel movement.

The conflicting reports, many of which have a false ring to them, have increased observers' doubts about the TNC's capabilities, while casting a pall of intrigue and anxiety over rebel-controlled areas.

I was traveling to Benghazi with my colleague, a Libyan-American who had left Benghazi some 30 years ago. We had created an NGO to help set up a series of clinics to address physical and psychological trauma among eastern Libya's residents. It had been more than five years since I had last been in Libya, as a commercial/economic attaché in what was then the U.S. Liaison Office, prior to the opening of the full-fledged embassy in 2006. During that period, I traveled to Benghazi many times to report on various aspects of the local economy and, on the side, to collect material for a book of translations of Libyan short stories.

There's a certain rough charm to Benghazi. Despite crumbling colonial facades and a fetid lake, fed for years by the effluent from an abattoir (a hallmark Qaddafi maneuver), one could imagine how beautiful Benghazi must have been in the pre-Qaddafi years. The city allegedly maintained some of its appeal through the early years of Qaddafi's rule, but by the early 1990s, a well-established reputation for Islamist-fed opposition provoked a systematic and brutal crackdown and a cessation of outside investment -- all of which took a further toll on the city's physical appearance, if not its spirit.

In 2005, in the midst of Libya's reintegration into the international community, a range of loyalist bureaucrats and trade-promoters described to me their grand plans for the development of Benghazi's waterfront and prime tourist locations farther east. Today, that same seaside property has been taken over by an impromptu, carnival-like spectacle, with souvenir hawkers standing next to photos of those who have lost their lives in the struggle, martyrs to the cause.

The notion that east Libya could become a nest of jihadists remains, for the moment, somewhat far-fetched -- but in the current environment, anything is theoretically possible. Many of the older residents with whom we spoke thought that extremism could still be controlled, but that order was key. "Within a prolonged uncertainty or a power vacuum, these elements will grow, certainly," said one. Just as Benghazi inherited Cairo and Alexandria's learning and culture in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the growth of Islamist influences in western Egypt and elsewhere could aggravate existing pockets of religious extremist ideologies, as will wartime indoctrination of unemployed youth.

Contacts spoke of escalating conspiracy theories. Some thought Younis's assassination was a vigilante killing by an "Islamist" faction; others thought it was an inside job, perhaps the result of a power play within the TNC. Nobody with whom we spoke gave much credence to a so-called Qaddafi "fifth column," as the Western media was quick to report.

On one of our forays downtown, a young man, perhaps 18 years old, approached us listlessly: "There are snipers around," he said. "Watch out! Bang, bang!"

We hailed a cab back to the Tibesti Hotel, site of a shootout the day before we arrived, and were quizzed incessantly by the driver about our reasons for being in Benghazi. It seemed that he, like the youth before him, was intent on provoking unease -- quite the opposite impression given by soldiers in uniform and older residents, all of whom were pointedly respectful.

Later, I stepped out of the car to take a picture of a particularly interesting piece of graffiti, when an enraged young man approached us, yelling in Arabic: "What are you doing? Who are you? You cannot take pictures; this is illegal."

"Illegal by whose orders, and who are you? Did we make revolution to be told what to do by random people acting on their own whim?" shot back a Libyan friend, incautiously. A few other young men, also not in uniform, approached, automatic weapons drawn and ready to fire.

There is a sunnier side to the new freedom in Benghazi. Residents are openly questioning everything, not least of all their leadership. The July 26 edition of al Libii (The Libyan) poses a series of hardball questions to TNC chief Abdul Jalil: "Why is Mahmoud Jibril, who has alternated between 'prime' and 'foreign' minister, never in the country?" "Why are you staffing the ministry of finance with academics and not experienced businessmen?" "What are you doing about inclusiveness on the council of opposition groups outside of Libya?" The questions go on, and Jalil treats each respectfully.

As the TNC is discovering a free press and a politically motivated population can be the new leadership's best friend and its worst enemy. Much of the latest criticism comes from the TNC's handling of the news of Younis's death. Even many of those wholly unsympathetic to the man faulted the way information was being disseminated -- or not. "Younis was a military man -- there should be a military investigation, by a military tribunal. Everything according to a process," said one engineer from the Libyan diaspora who had returned to assist the TNC with technical issues. "Even if the TNC had problems with Younis, it should have been dealt with straight on, according to a process, not the shadows."

A highlight of our trip was a two-hour visit to the office of a mutual acquaintance, "S.," who is well over 70 years old. By dint of his age, education, and family background, he carried significant respect within the community -- a fact evident by an almost incessant procession of well-wishers who, if S. didn't know them personally, made every effort to appear as if he did.

After about 20 minutes of conversation, the editor of one of the dozen new newspapers in Benghazi entered with a stack of broadsheets. Today's headline: "A Strong, Unified Libya." His optimism buoyed the conversation, which had turned slightly dour.

"Look at what we have accomplished. There are 25,000 guns loose in Benghazi, and we've got 10 or 12 shooting deaths a month," he gushed. "What would happen if law and order were suspended in any European or American city for even 24 hours? You'd have chaos!"

In a key televised address the afternoon of July 30, Jalil called for the armed militias in rebel-controlled territory to submit to the TNC's authority -- or face the consequences. The TNC leader, whose mien is hard to read, looked more exhausted and worried than usual. Behind the scenes, the TNC named one of Younis's cousins his successor -- clearly a gesture to Younis's tribe -- which also provoked criticism in some corners from those who saw it as a sop to a long-outdated notion that somehow tribalism rules modern Libya.

The TNC made good on its promises within hours: On the night of July 30, the leadership attacked one unit, alternately described as "Islamist," "pro-Qaddafi," or euphemistically, "independent," after it defied the order to consolidate. The result was a night-long firefight at the city's perimeter that allegedly left scores dead and plumes of smoke rising into the dawn sky.

We awoke on July 31 to an extremely tense atmosphere within the Tibesti. Hotel staff furtively passed around printouts taken from an opposition website. A few calls later, we learned that the U.S. envoy's office and the U.N. compound were both under lockdown. The Internet seemed to be failing, and there were few Westerners in evidence.

Benghazi was gripped by a pervasive feeling that order could break down at any minute -- an eventuality that our small NGO was ill-equipped to handle. I managed to hold a Skype connection just long enough to ask our third colleague, who was to arrive later that week, to contact the U.N. office in Cairo to ask its indulgence in getting us out that day. Our driver tried to assuage our fears, saying, "I've crossed the city this morning; everything is quiet." It was a reassurance that we would hear many times, whether we asked for it or not.

Forty minutes later, we were back where we started a few short days before, facing the kindly old man with the red fez and yellow daisy. The plane, thankfully, was an hour late in from Cairo, but we still had no seat confirmation. "We've been authorized to take you as far as Heraklion," the capital of Crete, came the eventual reply from a U.N. staff aide. If we had any doubts that we had made the right call to leave, they were dispelled once we saw the assembled passengers: hardened aid workers, many of whom were with us on our inbound flight, insisting they'd be in Benghazi "indefinitely."

As the plane began its ascent over the Green Mountains, I reflected on the chaos of the last few days. A particular piece of graffiti along the outbound airport road stuck in my head. Roughly translated, it read: "We will not beg, and we will not budge,"  

That's fine when facing a common enemy, but not particularly helpful when trying to communicate with one's own: Resolving the question of who killed Younis and bringing those parties to justice -- wherever they may be found -- will be key to the TNC's efforts to maintain popular trust.

After all that the people of Benghazi and the rest of Libya have been through, the worst of all outcomes would be a return to the past, or a fractious future. If Libya's rebels are able to accomplish this feat, the story of what has happened here may yet prove one of the most inspirational of the Arab Spring.

Ethan Chorin


The Cultural Revolution

As Egypt's artists struggle with a newly repressive military regime, the creativity that flourished after this year’s revolution is taking on some new targets.

This year at the Venice Biennale, one of the international art world's yearly dates, Egypt's official entry was the artist Ahmed Bassiouny, who died while filming and participating in the uprising earlier this year that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. For his work "30 Days of Running in Place," Bassiouny attached electrodes to himself to monitor and chart his stationary jogging.

Egypt under Mubarak could easily be described as "30 Years of Running in Place." Egyptian artists and writers faced challenges ranging from small audiences to censorship to the nepotism that dogged state-run institutions. (I remember once being surprised, at an official art exhibition, to see a prize go to a terrible painting of potted flowers: "The minister of culture's secretary," an artist friend whispered.) In one sense, stagnation itself was an inspiration: Films, novels, and artworks took the decay of the late Mubarak years as their main subject.

Now, however, Egyptian artists suddenly have a new chance to connect with audiences, and to stake a new claim on public space. The ongoing revolution has inspired and enabled an unregulated explosion of cultural activity, a great outpouring of artistic energy that takes a great many forms: Between attending rallies and protests, artists in Egypt are organizing "culture caravans" to poor neighborhoods, launching online magazines and new publishing ventures, putting on photo exhibitions in subway stations, and holding open-mic nights. Some are simply celebrating the chance to create freely; some are wondering what role art should play in the transitional period; and others are busy using their talents to wage a critique of the country's military authorities, fighting a revolution that seems destined to carry on into the foreseeable future.

Egypt is seeing a "Niagara Falls of art production of all different levels," says artist Lara Baladi. "So many repressed voices are contributing and participating in revolution."

The film Microphone, by director Ahmad Abdalla, offers a look at those repressed voices in the days before Egypt's revolution. Released on Jan. 25 -- the day the protests began -- the movie features musicians, skate-boarders, graffiti artists, and film students in Alexandria, playing themselves. It's a charming, kinetic work, a celebration of its protagonists' youth and talent. But all the music and motion goes nowhere -- and that is the point. A smarmy official declines to include bands in a government-sponsored concert and attempts to organize an informal neighborhood performance are thwarted by the police and the regulars of a nearby mosque.

These days, the artists in Microphone feel they have a much better chance to make themselves heard. "The country is ours again. Public space is ours," says Aya Tarek, a 21-year-old graffiti artist featured in Abdalla's film.

A highly visible legacy of the revolution is the graffiti and street art with which young Egyptians are signing their surroundings. Walls across the country bloom with witty, scathing, and melancholy messages -- a running commentary on the political situation that delights some and startles many.

Some of the most arresting work has been done by a 29-year-old graphic artist known as Ganzeer. Like others, he has memorialized the revolution's martyrs -- as those killed during the revolution are known here. With the help of volunteers, he's created three beautiful red yellow and black murals portraying the young men in their home neighborhoods. His dream is to create portraits of all the nearly 1,000 martyrs in their hometowns across Egypt.

But, like many of Egypt's post-Tahrir artists, he has been sidetracked by current events -- in particular, by the need to express his opposition to the generals that rule the country.

One day this spring, Ganzeer put out a call for volunteers on Twitter. Dozens of people showed up to create a mural under a bridge in central Cairo, depicting in striking, life-size, black-and-white detail an army tank facing a bread delivery boy on a bicycle -- a stand-off between the army and the people.

Other graffiti artists have created stencils of Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Allied Forces and the de facto ruler of the country, next to Mubarak and surrounded by hearts, behind bars, and sporting the low, untrimmed beard of an Islamic fundamentalist. These images are quickly effaced, only to have new ones take their place.

"There are people who come up with chants; there are people who are good at setting up tents," says Ganzeer. "People who have artistic talents need to figure out how to contribute with their tools to the cause." Responding to popular demand, Ganzeer has made a selection of stencil patterns available online to any would-be graffiti artists.

Other artists are also drawing directly from their experience of the revolution. In his new collection Tear Gas Poems, the poet Kareem Abdulsalam recounts extraordinary scenes from the uprising; the art gallery Darb 1718 is currently hosting a show dedicated to Egypt's state-owned media, which during the uprising spewed spectacularly vicious and ridiculous propaganda; the excellent new comic book TokTok features stories drawn from post-Mubarak life, including an artist's odyssey through protesters, tear gas, and police, carrying hundreds of issues of the magazine.

The comic book artist Shennawy, one of the founders of TokTok, says there is a greater margin of freedom after the revolution, but that it hasn't changed much in terms of his and his colleagues' work. "Most of the artists have been working in opposition newspapers," he says. "They are used to criticizing the government." TokTok, which launched a few weeks before the revolution and already has an enthusiastic following, is above all an example of the flourishing youth culture that powered the revolution and whose enthusiasm -- for connection, enterprise, self-expression -- may act as a bulwark against more reactionary forces that are also making their influence felt in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Thrilling as the revolutionary period may be for artists, it is also fraught. Their current expanded freedom of expression and assembly is by no means guaranteed. They must work in the shadow of an extraordinary historical event and an ongoing political struggle. "Since the Revolution, Egyptian artists have been running about like headless chickens," writes visual artist Doa Ali at the new online culture and politics magazine Rolling Bulb. "Their concerns have taken an almost existential dimension. What do we do now? Do we keep doing what we used to do? Where do ‘we' end and our art begin?"

Many Egyptian writers and artists long worked in spiritual or overt opposition to the ruling regime, wearing their marginalization like a badge of honor. Back in 2003, renowned novelist Sonallah Ibrahim declined a government prize and the sizable financial award that came with it, telling stunned dignitaries "this government doesn't have the credibility" to bestow cultural awards. Today, there are plans to honor Ibrahim -- who acted as the country's pre-eminent and satirical literary conscience -- once again, with an award he will not feel compelled to refuse. But in July, the event was postponed, as the organizers (a new group called the Independent Egyptian Artists) were too involved in street protests to proceed.

In any case, for many, it is much too soon to celebrate. That's the feeling at the downtown offices of the small independent publishing house Dar Merit, which for years has been a smoke-filled den of cheerful dissidence. Publisher Mohammed Heshim has put out works by a generation of young writers who tended to write scathing exposes of the moral collapse of the late Mubarak era (Alaa Al Aswany's Yacoubian Building was first published by Merit) or elliptical accounts of alienation and stasis.

Heshim was a regular at the 2005 protests of the Kifaya ("Enough") group, the first to call directly for and end to the Mubarak era. During the revolution, the offices -- with their welcoming couches and TV -- were a command center for writers and poets participating in the protests.

Today, Heshim and his colleagues and friends are still busy protesting -- worried that the revolution will be stolen from them by the elderly generals and conservative Islamists who have come out in force since Mubarak fell from power.

"We still don't have more freedom," says Heshim. "We won't as long as there are military trials, as long as we don't have a constitution, as long as there is religious bigotry and extremism. We're still fighting. We haven't won."

The battle is being fought on many, unexpected fronts. Lara Baladi is one of the artists behind Radio Tahrir and Tahrir Cinema, an open-air movie theater organized this month in the famous square. The venture -- set up with filmmaker Omar Hamilton and actor Khaled Abdalla -- came together in the span of 24 hours, says Baladi.

Baladi and others provided a projector and a screen; a passerby volunteered to get a mat for the audience to sit on; electricity was jury-rigged from streetlights. And soon hundreds of people were sitting, entranced, watching footage from the revolution that various amateur and professional filmographers contributed.

Baladi points out that a lot of artists in Egypt have been working for years to reclaim public space in creative ways (she herself is well-known for several memorable public installations). "We were moving slowly toward change," she says.

"Art under dictatorship and censorship is one thing, art during revolution is another," she says; "and art post-revolution will be yet something else." Like many artists here, she is living and working fully in the -- exhilarating, promising, nerve-racking -- moment.

Ursula Lindsey