Democracy Lab

Save Benghazi

How the citizens of Benghazi are pushing back against the killers of a U.S. diplomat many considered their friend.

Amid the stinging acrid smoke and triumphal yells of the protestors who had just occupied the base of Benghazi’s Islamist Ansar Al Sharia militia last weekend, a big man in a yellow polo shirt pressed through the crowd. Mistaking me for an American, he introduced himself as a politics professor, Ehad El-Fawsi, then apologized on behalf of his city for the death of “my” ambassador. “He was a good man.”

Encounters like these are a frequent occurrence for the few westerners still in Benghazi following the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and three fellow diplomats on September 11.

The narrative from Washington briefings paints this eastern Libyan port city as a den of jihadists, but the reality on the ground is very different. There is real sorrow at the death of Stevens, who had made the city his second home. “People feel responsible. He was so good, he was so interested in what civil society was doing,” said Hana Al Galal, a prominent civil rights activist, who had been due to meet Stevens the day after he died.

She, like many others, fears that the triumph of last year’s Arab Spring revolution in throwing off the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi may be eclipsed by militants ushering in a new one. “Everybody is rallying against extremists, against all brigades,” she told me. “We are not going to go from darkness to darkness.”

And rally they did. Last Friday, after a protest they dubbed “Save Benghazi,” thousands of mostly young male protestors decided they had had enough, and marched on the militia bases. I watched the first assault, on the local headquarters of the Shahouda Abu Salem militia, and it was an extraordinary experience. Hundreds of local teenagers forced the gates of a compound surrounded by crumbling apartments from the city’s colonial Italian past. Militiamen, still clutching their guns, were manhandled into the street.

Ansar Al Sharia, the Islamist unit blamed by Libya’s de facto president Mohammed Magarief for involvement in the assault on the US consulate, was the next to go. Once the bearded militiamen were respected for bringing security to Benghazi; in more recent times they were feared, booming through the streets in their black-flagged jeeps.

After the attack on Stevens, Ansar’s adherents braced themselves for retaliation, deploying anti-aircraft guns deployed against fearfully anticipated U.S. drone strikes. But they had no answer to the thousands of protestors who marched down a narrow street to the front of the militia’s main compound. The militiamen fired a volley of shots over the heads of the protestors, then fled. In minutes, their compound was ablaze, inspiring scenes at once triumphant and farcical.

By the time this correspondent got inside, a handful of red-capped military policemen had arrived, to be embraced by the protestors. A lone fire truck was dousing one blaze even as cheering looters set fire to its neighbor. “It’s like in the revolution,” said one military police colonel, Mohammed Ben Eisa. “We're taking orders from the people.”

The night ended several miles away, when long columns of cars spilled protestors onto the street outside a third base, a former farm complex of the Islamist Rafalla Al Sharia militia. This time they came under fire, four protestors dropping dead.

Chaos ensued as more carloads of people arrived. Red tracer sliced the night sky and other cars hooted a way back into town, ferrying the wounded to hospital.

When the smoke cleared, literally, the following morning, the militia was back in their base, and the bodies of six soldiers of the army’s first infantry brigade were found, bound and shot through the head, in a nearby field. Exactly who did the shooting was not clear, and recriminations continue to boil, but it is clear the protestors of Benghazi had made their point.

“I’m so, so, optimistic,” said aviation student Mohammed El Gadari, his face lit up by the blue-red strobes of a military police jeep outside Ansar’s burning compound. “It’s always a problem, how to get rid of these katibas (militias). This is the best way, not by force, peacefully, because no one from any katiba will shoot a local guy.”

"Peacefully" is, of course, a relative term in today’s Libya. But it is clear, at least in this city, that extremism has met its match. Elsewhere in the world this month, jihadists scorched television screens with a wave of attacks on U.S. embassies. In Libya the holy warriors’ image as the Great and Terrible Oz has been shattered by nothing more menacing than thousands of desperate people.

Their desperation is directed in two directions: First, against the jihadists who are blamed for attacks on five diplomatic targets in Benghazi in as many months; and second, against a government seemingly incapable of taking action.

That sense of the government’s passivity remains -- though it has taken a somewhat new twist. While Tripoli has announced that all “illegal” militias will be disbanded, if necessary by force, it has also given permission for Benghazi’s biggest Islamist units, Rafallah and the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, to remain.

Officially, they have been declared part of the army. Officially, each must now work with an army-appointed commander, a ruling that has raised eyebrows. Benghazi’s own MPs in Libya’s new parliament have called for more, demanding a total ban on all militias.

But that is not so simple. Islamists are a powerful force in the government. It must be said that there are Islamists and Islamists. Ansar Al Sharia were considered the wild boys of the Islamist groupings, and, crucially, they lacked government support.

That support is heavy for Rafalla and February 17 -- and not just from the Libyan government. Qatar, which backed Libya’s Arab Spring with aircraft, money, and supplies, is intimately connected with the brigades through Ali Salabi, the Doha-based cleric who is the mentor of Libya’s Islamists and who receives generous airtime on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel.

Fawzi Bukatef, commander of 17 February, was a political prisoner released a few years ago after talks between the Gaddafi regime and Salabi. Salabi’s younger brother Ishmail runs Rafalla Al Sahati.

Ismail met journalists this week wearing a long white silk robe, through which seeped blood from two bullet wounds in his thigh sustained on the night of the protests. He presented this as verification of his claim that among the protestors were some Gaddafi elements bent on settling scores.

He insists his men played no part in the attack on the U.S. consulate, and says that he even advised diplomats to leave the city after a rocket attack on the convoy of the British ambassador in June wounded two UK bodyguards. “I advised the Americans and the British to leave. The British took the advice and left Benghazi, the Americans did not.”

Even so, Islamists of every stripe are finding it hard to gain traction in Libya. First, Libya is already a conservative Muslim country, one happy in its faith, and relatively secure that this faith is not in danger. There is popular resentment at seeing Islamists claiming to speak for Libya’s Muslims. A few weeks ago I met with the campaign manager of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, who explained to me that the party had come second in the elections because Libyan people “did not understand Islam.” Afterwards, my translator, a young and pious medical student, told me it was not the man’s business to tell other Libyans how to observe their faith.

Second, Libyans welcome broader contacts with the outside world. “Libyans don’t want an extremist regime. We’ve already experienced an extremist regime,” said Bilal Bettemer, one of the organizers of the Save Benghazi rally. “In Benghazi there is a big unemployment problem, and only business can solve it, not oil on its own. We want to open out to the world, to Europe, to the Gulf.”

Like Galal, Bettame, a law student, knew Stevens, working with him on a joint foreign policy forum, one of a dozen initiatives the ambassador was pursuing. “With Chris Stevens Libyans had a special relationship," says Bettame. "He was so supportive.”

During the 2011 revolution, the constant refrain from rebel formations was that they were “not Al Qaeda,” a reaction to Qaddafi characterizing the rebellion as jihadist. One commander of a Misratan militia unit last summer refused to have his picture take until he had stuck a cigarette in his mouth. “Qaeda don’t smoke,” he explained.

The Islamists suffer also because, while their units fought hard in last year’s revolution, so did everybody else, robbing them of the claim to have secured Libya’s freedom. And the heavy lifting of that war was provided by western warplanes.

Salabi concedes that ordinary Libyans appreciate the alliance bombing campaign. “What NATO did helped us,” he says. “But it does not mean they can come when they want. Maybe there is a secret agreement for the Americans to use our air space.”

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Islamists here is that Libya is rich. Present in everyone's mind is the fact that Libya has only six million people but enormous reserves of oil. There is no need for an absolutist government, only one that is competent enough to share the oil wealth equally. Asked how they want Benghazi to look in five years, residents opt for a cross between Dubai, Paris, and London. Not Riyadh.

Libya’s parliament is due to choose a government in the coming days. The protests of Benghazi have given it a popular mandate, should it grasp the nettle, to bring order to the extremists. In some parts of Libya this should be easy. Most of the country’s 500-odd militias are drawn from their own communities: The most powerful, those of Misrata and Zintan, mind their own business, under control of city hall. For the others, a bold administration can be fairly sure of popular support if it tells them to disband.

“Ansar al Sharia” -- the name means “Partisans of Sharia” -- are another matter. Since their eviction, the members of the group have scattered, though a bomb that exploded harmlessly against the wall of an interior ministry building in Benghazi this week indicates that their members are still around. Salabi warned that denying them a base might prompt them to “take to the shadows.”

The people on the streets of Benghazi are skeptical that Libya’s chaotic authorities will dare to take such a step. “The government is part of the problem. The government, after the revolution, armed these militias,” complained El Fawsi, the professor, that Friday night.

Nevertheless, he remained optimistic. The protest, he insisted, had shown militias they are not wanted. And, he hoped, it had shown the outside world that far from rejecting the outside world, Libyans, after 42 years of dictatorship, are eager to embrace it.

ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/GettyImages

Dispatch

Bachelor Padding

How lonely single men created China's dangerous real estate bubble.

For more photos of Beijing's housing bubble, click here. 

BEIJING — When Xiaobo Zhang got married in the early 1990s, he and his bride, like millions of other couples across China, were given a small room to live in by his danwei, or work unit. At the time a lecturer at Nankai University in Tianjin, Zhang's room was utilitarian and unremarkable, virtually indistinguishable from the ones inhabited by his colleagues. In a word: average.

In the China of the 1990s, which was characterized by a pubescent limbo between the economic reforms of the 1980s and the last decade's explosive growth, Zhang recalls that mostly everyone was average. People were neatly packed into work units, generally laboring under the same conditions, eating in the same canteens, and sleeping in the same blocks of industrial-looking housing provided by their employers. There was little disparity in salaries, and few cars and luxury handbags to spend those salaries on.

During these times, Zhang explained, occupants paid minimal rent for their work-unit housing -- which was issued based on seniority, family size, and rank -- and could essentially stay in it forever. There was no legal market for buying and selling property in China, even in rural areas without employer-provided housing, where families built their own homes. Then, in 1998, the Chinese real estate market was born. It began with a decision by the Chinese State Council to monetize housing in an attempt to develop a commercial private market for real estate. In other words, instead of just providing apartments for lifetime occupancy, companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies began to give their employees the option to purchase the housing they lived in. Fourteen years and a serious housing construction boom later, China's property market has allowed for one of the world's largest accumulations of real estate wealth in history, valued at $17 trillion in mid-2010 by HSBC Global Research and worth some 3.27 times China's GDP. (To better understand the scope of the construction boom that precipitated this massive accumulation of wealth, it's worth noting that between 1998 and 2008 alone, 14.4 billion square meters of residential housing space were constructed in China, according to China Statistical Yearbook figures. That's equivalent to 160 times all the residential space on the entire island of Manhattan.)

This is where the definition of "average" in China starts to go a little wonky.

As a result of the real estate boom, reports in Chinese media indicate that the average property in a top-tier Chinese city now costs between 15 and 20 times the average annual salary, though J.P. Morgan reports indicate something closer to 13. (For purposes of comparison, in most of the world's cities, the housing-cost-to-income ratio hovers between 3-to-1 and 6-to-1, rounding out at about 3-to-1 in the United States.) This is especially problematic in China, where thanks to still-prevalent Confucian ideals of the male as the "provider," home ownership has become an unspoken prerequisite to marriage.

It's a tough, competitive life for men in China these days, in part due to the aftershocks of the one-child policy, which has left the country with a gaping gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls. Author Mara Hvistendahl reports in her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, that by late 2020, 15 percent (or roughly one in six) Chinese men of marriageable age will be unable to find a bride. She predicts that China will see an increase in what's already happening in Taiwan and South Korea, where men doomed to bachelorhood as a result of gender imbalance are boarding planes to Vietnam. Roughly $10,000 covers their flight, room and board, and the price of a Vietnamese wife, according to Hvistendahl, and this practice has become so common that the imported wives "get a booklet translated into Vietnamese explaining their rights when they get married at the Taiwanese Consulate."

Although instances of bride-buying and bride-napping are often reported in China, men are also turning to the web in the face of increasingly heavy competition to attract a mate. On China's mega microblogging website, Sina Weibo, a page called "Save a Single Police Officer" was created by the deputy director of a police station in Sichuan province to help his employees find a spouse. He feared that given the gender imbalance and the grueling work hours of his men, they would become guang gun, or "bare branches," a term usually used to describe men in China who cannot find a wife.

The page launched this February with the profiles of five police officers, including a strapping young man with a gun who goes by the name of "Cola427." Offering a mix of local news, weather reports, and the profiles of single officers (including some female ones) who have been added to the mix, the page now has more than 55,000 followers. This July, a post encouraged all citizens to rejoice because Cola427 (with over 6,000 followers of his own), age 29, measuring in at 1.78 meters and 70 kilos, had found the love of his life through the site.

Millions of other Chinese men are not so lucky. While the most disadvantaged are the country's poor male farmers, who now live at society's rock bottom in rural villages devoid of women their age (as females tend to leave in search of better jobs and marriage prospects), the marriage challenge is rippling its way up through the classes. It is manifested most clearly in China's real estate market, where -- given the highly desirable nature of property -- men are pouring all their savings as a means of improving their chances of finding Mrs. Right, or any Mrs. for that matter.

"Mathematically, they can't get married," says Zhang, referring to younger Chinese men and their double burden of financial demands and the shortage of available women to marry. In 1994, he moved out of his danwei to study for a Ph.D. at Cornell University in the United States. Today, he works as a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington and as a professor at Peking University. Along with Columbia University economist Shang-Jin Wei, he has published several studies on China's economic growth, including one that shows how 30 to 48 percent (or $8 trillion worth) of the real estate appreciation in 35 major Chinese cities is directly correlated with China's sex-ratio imbalance and a man's need to acquire wealth (property) in order to attract a wife.

"Mother-in-law syndrome" -- the idea that Chinese mothers-in-law are driving up the price of real estate by refusing to allow their daughters to marry men who are not homeowners -- has been widely reported in China, but Zhang and Wei take things a step further. They show how Chinese cities with the highest ratio of men to women are also consistently the ones with the highest percentages of real estate appreciation, which follows the logic that fewer women means more competition among men and a greater need for a flashy house. At the same time, rental prices in these cities have increased minimally by comparison, lending credence to the theory that the rise in real estate prices is not driven by an actual demand for housing, but by the demand to own a house.

This demand has no doubt contributed to fears over China's housing bubble, which has been the source of concerned speculation now that China's economic growth has slowed to 7.6 percent, the lowest since 2009. A recent IMF publication shows how a decline in the Chinese real estate market could do everything from affect the price of zinc and nickel to trigger a trade slowdown with South Korea, Japan, and other G-20 partners. Yet from the marriage-market perspective, the demand for property appears unrelenting.

* * *

Berlin Fang, a columnist, literary translator, and associate director at the North Institute for Teaching and Learning at Oklahoma Christian University, argues that the demands of the marriage market and China's relatively new market economy are so heavy that "Chinese men have lost the ability to be average." Like Zhang, he recalls the days of the danwei with bittersweet nostalgia, as a time when people weren't so quick to size each other up in terms of their market value. There was a certain comfort and ease to being average, one that has become extinct, given the extreme competition to be one of the "haves." In such a densely populated country, Fang insists that "average is the new mediocre."

The distinction between "average" and "mediocre" is one that has been ticking on the Chinese national psyche, as indicated by one of the questions on last year's gaokao, China's notorious college entrance exam:

Please write on the theme of refusing to be mediocre and accepting to be average. People cannot be mediocre. Mediocrity means no creation, no development, no progress. Living in this world, we should not be mediocre. We should have principles, insights, and persistence. Write 800 words in any genre except poetry.

Fang notes that the question was a source of heated debate, as there were concerns that today's students might not be able to distinguish between "mediocre" and "average." In a country where the social pressure to excel is so acute and mediocrity is rarely an option, Fang agrees that the question is knotty. He suspects it was designed to make students understand that it's acceptable to be average, so long as it's an aspirational average, not a feckless one.

Examples of responses that earned perfect scores can be found on Chinese news portal Sina.com, including one that tells the story of Wang Xiaobo. Following a subpar performance at the office, Wang does not receive the bonus he was expecting. When, over a meal of freshly prepared fish, he reveals to his wife that he was denied his bonus, she, "putting down her chopsticks and losing color in her face," laments that she is destined to live a lowly life, having such a good-for-nothing husband. After nursing his woes with a bit of alcohol, Wang hands his life savings over to a shady investment banker and eventually loses everything. Naturally, he heads to a lake to commit suicide, but instead ends up saving a nearby drowning woman. This good deed restores his honor, and he eventually becomes the hardworking, well-earning man whom his wife wants him to be.

While Wang's story certainly reflects a triumph over mediocrity, the fact that his wife's well-being is so dependent on his financial performance, and that Wang is so clearly depicted as her provider, reflects how ingrained these ideas remain in modern Chinese society.

Yet because it's nearly economically impossible for most Chinese men -- average or otherwise -- to be the providers they aspire to be, they frequently have to rely on their parents for financial support. This is a slippery slope, as it often gives progenitors more control than warranted over their son's choice of a partner, but Chinese parents -- keen to have their sons dutifully snuggled into wedlock -- gladly chip in. Zhang and Wei's study shows how this plays into China's household savings rate, which at 30 percent is among the world's highest. They argue that this fact is of particular economic concern, as the high marriage-related savings rate contributes to China's current account surplus, which in turn drives down China's exchange rate and perpetuates the global trade imbalance.

"It's completely unsustainable," says Zhang, arguing that the exact opposite -- less saving, more spending -- is what China's economy needs to keep afloat. But because men need to buy homes, they save. And because their demand for homes drives up real estate property, everyone else must save too, in order to keep up.

Seventy-one percent of single women prefer that their future husbands be homeowners, according to the 2010 Marriage Market Survey in China. It is culturally approved -- even expected -- for a woman to "free-ride" and move into her husband's house without making any contributions to it, but given the astronomical cost of housing, more women are helping to cover costs too. Doctoral research by Leta Hong Fincher of Tsinghua University focuses on Chinese women who are pitching in, if not shouldering, the joint purchase of a home with their husbands. She points out that this may work to their disadvantage down the road. Due to traditional, yet increasingly improbable, ideals of the man as the sole provider, homes are generally registered under a man's name. According to Chinese law, property belongs only to the person whose name it is registered under, so in the event of a divorce, women who are not listed as co-owners will lose out on financial contributions to their former marital home. Fincher also cites instances in which young women are hassled by parents into transferring their life's savings to a bachelor relative, so he can use the money to buy a house and increase his chances of finding a wife. Because it is assumed that a woman will marry into a house, the logic goes that she has a less pressing need for savings of her own.

On the other hand, women who are homeowners before marriage are considered better off, and this can actually improve their chances of "marrying up" into the echelons of moneyed men who have bigger houses than they do. Jeannie Wang, 29, of Beijing, is one of those women. Well-employed at a major auditing firm, she purchased an apartment as an investment and plans to live at home with her parents until marriage. "Ideally, I would like a man to also have a house of his own, or at least the earning potential so that we can buy one together," she says, slightly concerned that having a man move into her house would humiliate him. "I wouldn't mind so much if I really cared for him, but it's something I think few Chinese men would go for."

Her case illustrates the double-edged nature of female property ownership in China. Own something, and it might allow you to marry someone with something bigger. Own something too big, and it could intimidate potential suitors.

For men, however, bigger is always better. Zhang recalls visiting villages in China that were bedizened with a "phantom third story." This type of construction refers to a two-story house with an unfurnished, unfinished third story built to make the house appear more grandiose from the outside. The trend has taken off in neighborhoods where the competition for a wife is particularly fierce; in some areas, it has become mainstream to the extent that matchmakers won't schedule an appointment with a man's family unless his house has the requisite phantom floor.

On a more recent trip to China, Zhang landed in the southwestern city of Guizhou with a colleague from an Ohio university who was puzzled to find himself in what appeared to be an entire village full of churches. As it turns out, in addition to phantom third stories, owners are competing to add height to their homes by upping the size of the lightning rods on their rooftops. And the bigger they get, the more they look like crosses.

The most alarming thing about these budding basilicas may be that the majority of them remain empty. After they are used to bait prospective wives, the newlyweds often migrate to larger cities. Zhang says this is known as the "two-rat" phenomenon, as it refers to the migrant couples who live in urban, underground rented rooms like rats -- and, yes, sometimes also with rats -- while their large, rural houses are left vacant. This phenomenon begins to explain why there are some 64.5 million empty houses in China, according to economist Yi Xianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Wei and Zhang estimate that the pressure to accumulate wealth for marriage is responsible for 20 percent of the growth of the Chinese economy, as men scramble to start businesses and secure high-paying jobs in order to keep up with expenses. The word fangnu is an example of their struggle. Literally translated, it means "a slave to the home" and refers not to a woman who is a slave to housework, but in most cases, to a man who must slave at his job in order to afford a house and, by extension, a wife.

* * *

Sensing the challenges faced by Chinese men in the dating and marriage departments, 29-year-old Vincent Qi is trying to make a difference. Born in China, he went to college in Britain and speaks English like an over-caffeinated grad student. Now in Beijing, he calls himself "The Lady Whisperer" and markets himself as an online guru on how to get women. Qi also teaches online classes on confidence-building, self-improvement, and how to be an all-around better man. He has over 4,000 followers on China's Weibo, and just three months since the online launch of his tuition-based school, he has attracted over 100 students -- all male, and all rather average. They include a motley mix of students, small-online-shop owners, and working professionals on various rungs of the career ladder.

"Socially, we [Chinese men] need to be average," says Qi, stressing that "China is not a culture that values individuality." He is quick to add, however, that from a monetary perspective, it's highly preferable to be well above average. This creates a paradox for China's "average Zhou": how to be far enough above average to be respected, without exceeding the culturally enforced limitations of what is considered respectably above average?

One of Qi's students, 28-year-old Rodman Xie, thinks he is close to finding the answer.

"I took the gaokao three times and still only managed to get into a very average university," he says. "By societal standards, I've failed at many things, but I've never stopped setting goals for myself, and that's what keeps me going." He admits that though things seemed easier in the days of the almighty work unit, he wouldn't trade that kind of stability for what he describes as "the diversity that contributes to a healthy society -- the sort of diversity that we're starting to have now."

A native of China's northeast, or Dongbei region, Xie works in marketing at an export company in Shanghai, a city that he admits wasn't his first choice, but where he moved for the opportunities. He describes the women there as "materialistic," but seems relatively unshaken by the doom and gloom of the gender imbalance.

He explains that in addition to a whole lot of stress, the last 30 years in China -- his lifetime -- have also brought a whole new realm of possibilities. "We can change cities, change careers, pursue our interests, meet people from all over the world, and sometimes even travel to foreign countries," says Xie. "And for now, that kind of average is good enough for me."

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images