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.