Streets and Statues: Political Symbolism in Benghazi

The downtown center of Benghazi and the city’s nearby historic Birka district is connected by a 3.3 km arterial road. This street has gone by several different names in the past, depending on who is power at the time, but for local Benghazi residents, it’s known as Jamal Abdul Nasser St., named after the leader of the Pan-Arab movement that captivated Gadhafi. This passion for Pan-Arabism extended to most of Benghazi’s streets, with the main highway connecting Benghazi to East and West Libya named ‘Arouba’ (Arabism) street, and most members of the Arab League will find a road in Benghazi with their name, from Yemen to Sudan to even the historic Andalus. However, the only name that stuck with the locals was Jamal Street (the highway is known as Tripoli Road).

The naming of streets in Libya is serious political business. During the 2011 revolution, there was conscious willingness to rename all the streets and plazas and pubic buildings from symbols of Gadhafi’s Fateh revolution, with the new names representing the new era of Libya. This occurred throughout the region, with multiple ‘freedom squares’, ‘martyrs plazas’ and ‘revolutionary roads’ appearing across MENA cities. The 2014 civil war, which saw a shifting of political alliances, meant that names had to be changed yet again. The people of Benghazi, who could understandably not keep up with these constant changes, eventually reverted to the pre-revolution names.

Jamal Street retained its name in all this turmoil, despite losing the eponymous statue which marked its Western entrance. One year after the revolution, a group of “officials” ordered the statue to be torn down. News reports claim that the reason was unclear for bringing down the statue, but everyone in Benghazi knew why. After certain political groups co-opted the revolution, they began doing what Gadhafi had done before them; remove all symbols of past power.

The now demolished statue of Jamal Abdul Nasser
Photo credits: http://wander-wege.blogspot.com/2010/08/brief-history-of-benghazi.html

This is a trend that seems to be particular to Benghazi; it is one of the few cities where history is difficult is commemorate spatially. Gadhafi had a field day ordering the removal of any public icon that wasn’t linked to his ideology; the shrine of Omar Mukhtar was destroyed, the ‘souq al-thalam’ in the downtown demolished, the King’s Parliament building razed into a parking lot, the lion statues on the corniche mysteriously vanished overnight. What couldn’t be removed was left to decay. Piece by piece over 42 years, the landmarks of the city were erased, perhaps his own attempt at trying to control a disgruntled city that never really recognized his authority.

And after the revolution, this mindset of erasure was inherited by the winners; the statue of Jamal taken down, the ‘revolutionary bases’ burned to the ground, and new statues put up. Among the very grotesque and aesthetically horrifying symbols was an abstract mini-replica of the Benghazi lighthouse, a strange 10 meter skeletal box (?) with a neon hand and the words ‘God is Great’ written over it, and a particularly hideous clock with the colours of the flag placed on the face of the lighthouse itself, which elicited much rage from the architect community. Among less hideous statues were the fighter jets and tanks placed at various roundabouts, commemorating the Libyan air force and military.

The burned out ‘mathaba thawriya’ (revolutionary base) in central Benghazi

Other symbols were instead appropriated, such as the ‘pipe roundabout’ which was a celebration of the Great Man-Made River project. A grouping of several large, dusty white pipes, they were given a new coat of colourful paint after the revolution, and again re-painted after the war in the shape of book spines. I think the aim here was more about rejuvenating the spirit of Benghazi after a particularly difficult historic period (something difficult to appreciate when you are stuck in the traffic of the roundabout and yelling at the guy who just cut you off).

Because of the lack of any real pedestrian routes in the city aside from the city center, these statues invariably are placed in the city’s numerous roundabouts. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a roundabout in Benghazi that doesn’t have some icon in the center, including in some cases the burned out cars of notable fighters during the war, statues representing rural life such as jars and wells, and of course more fighter jets.

A small model of the Omar Mukhtar shrine during a cultural parade in Benghazi, in which various historic symbols of the city were recreated

These symbols, while failing to actually reflect anything symbolic, instead offer some insight into the various power struggles; of religious ideology, military force, and the confusion that many of the local artists and residents have about what the city truly represents. Benghazi is more than revolutions or wars, and yet we don’t have anything to prove it except faded memories. It is a city that is doomed to repeat its own history because it can’t hold on to it.

The only way to live through the city’s past is through old photographs and memories of the people. It’s an invisible city, one that is superimposed onto the real one but which can only be viewed through the eyes of its residents. That’s where the Italian theater used to be, this is where the Benkato mosque once stood, here’s the building I once took classes. A city that ‘used to be’.

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The Lost Humanitarian Principle

WFP Assistance_blog post

A oddly arranged picture from some of the UN’s promotional material which prompt questions: Who are these 90,000 people? Do they actually need the food? Why a picture of an old woman in a traditional cloak who could literally be anyone’s grandma?

I’ve found myself reading quite a lot about Gadhafi’s early days of rule and the vision he had for Libya. Growing up in an anti-Gadhafi household meant that I was never able to see past his brutal regime, but in the wake of Libya’s destruction I have found myself questioning so much of what I used to believe, and that includes a more nuanced and critical view of the Gadhafi era. What I found most notable was his passion for a country that was completely autonomous, one that meaningfully tried to heal from its colonialist legacy. I believe that many Libyans who today long for the days of Gadhafi are most nostalgic about that feeling of true sovereignty and independence away from the meddling of outside actors.

This interference has become the target of a growing wave of anger and discontent from Libyans at the way embassies, development organization and NGOs are conducting work in and about Libya. It is dawning on many citizens that the political stalemate in the country is being prolonged by various nation-states who have competing interests in Libya, as the country has become the site of a proxy war. This can also been seen in the type of programs implemented by international cooperation agencies and where they do (and don’t) work.

It can also be witnessed in the “Twitter diplomacy” of some countries. No one can easily forget the bizarre antics of the American ambassador “Safira Debora” of a few years ago, who posted teenager-style tweets from within high-level diplomatic discussions. And the current Italian ambassador and embassy frequently write very ham-fisted tweets, including how the days of Italian occupation in Libya were a glorious time for the country, ignoring the fact that Libyans were dying in Italian concentration camps during that same period. Indeed it appears that the Italian policy in Libya is to blatantly step all over the nation’s sovereignty.

Recently it has been the work of aid organizations that have enraged Libyans across the country. Pictures of UNICEF distributing light-blue backpacks emblazoned with their logo were circulating last week, with objections coming from all sides. Most people lamented on the depths Libya has reached that we rely on international organizations to give our children backpack. But others still were angry at the prominent size of the logo and the demeaning way in which the photo op was conducted. Among other things, the depiction of beneficiaries as weak and helpless is frowned upon in NGO circles. But in the case of Libya, it is also creating resentment among a nation of proud people towards these agencies and their hand-outs.

Another inflammatory picture by WFP depicted a young boy in what appeared to be a camp, with the caption (I’m paraphrasing here) “We asked why this young boy wears his Eid clothes during food distribution days, and his mother said it was because these are days of celebration!” While one can debate the size of logos and importance of documenting aid distribution, the above example cannot really be justified. To depict a family as being so happy to get food distribution that they dress up for it is not only humiliating and demeaning, it also erroneously portrays food security as an issue in Libya.

I might need to put up some disclaimers here. Firstly, I come from a middle-class family from Benghazi, and the extent of my knowledge is obviously limited when it comes to Libya’s marginalized groups living under the poverty line. I also worked with an international NGO, and we weren’t perfect when it came to our programming and communication either. However, after working with and various groups across the country, I can say that we never encountered food security to be a prominent issue, for several reasons. The first is that local charities, the zakaa system and the CSR office of national companies already covers the basic needs of vulnerable groups. Secondly, basic food items are subsidized in Libya, making it still relatively affordable. But more crucial than all of this is the fact that WFP has been trying to import food assistance to Libya since 2014, and it has usually come in spoiled and unfit for human consumption, and is routinely thrown out. And yet, despite this massive inefficiency in management, Libyans haven’t starved without their assistance.

There is always the constant speculation over what is gained by such depictions in the communication material of these agencies. Libya is definitely suffering from severe problems including infrastructure failure, a weak education and healthcare system, but these are problems caused by a corrupt and mismanaged administration, not lack of money. Instead of addressing these key issues, why deliver bags of food? The unsatisfactory answer is that it’s easier to employ band-aid solutions than to spend years addressing root causes. The easy answer is that the aid industry relies on this system in order to provide jobs for thousands of expat workers. But there may still be a more insidious answer in the realm of conspiracy theories on how a weakened Libya serves certain interests.

In any case, the growing anger is leading to more and more NGOs and agencies being denied a license to work inside the country, and could potentially put their employees at a higher risk. More discretion, and a return to the principles of humanitarianism, are definitely required.

Benghazi’s Liberation is Just the First Step: Post-Conflict Recovery and the Upcoming Challenges

It’s been a day years in the making. Over the sound of fireworks, car horns and people’s jubilant cheers, Benghazi is filled with the chants we’ve waited so long to finally say; Benghazi is liberated, the war is over!

Since the killing of the US ambassador Chris Steven in 2012, to the deteriorating security situation in the years after, up until the declaration of war on May 16, 2014 and subsequent battle on October 15th of that same year, these years have been one of the most destructive and traumatic since the Second World War. Hundreds of people were assassinated or killed in car bombs, terrorizing the city. According to UNHCR, there were at least 105,000 people displaced from their homes in Benghazi in 2015, with hundreds of them forced to find shelter in public schools. Schools and universities were stopped, the health sector collapsed and infrastructure was barely functioning. We lost heroes like Tawfik Bensaud and Salwa Bughaigis as civil society became a primary target, and the city turned into a ghost town.

Today, Benghazi is barely recognizable. Most businesses and public services have reopened or are planning to, most displaced people have returned home, and there is a very strong feeling of safety and security among the inhabitants. While the official declaration of liberation was made on July 5th, 2017, the city has already begun the recovery process. Key institutions were restructured and reactivated, giving East Libya some semblance of a state. But it is also unrecognizable in a less positive way. The liberated districts have been badly hit, with many buildings destroyed or burned. The social fabric has also been damaged, as differing ideologies have created a rift between families, friends and neighbours. More worryingly, there are new ideologies slowly creeping into state institutions, a cause for alarm in a city that just won a war against extremists.

People in Benghazi now are less naive today than they were in 2011 after the announcement of Libya’s “liberation” in 2011. We know that the state is weak, weaker than it’s ever been. We are also acutely aware that the next form of governance will most likely take the form of a quasi-dictatorship, although people are between ambivalent to hostile when it comes to concepts like democracy. The joy on July 5th was not happiness at being “liberated” but rather because the war itself is over, because the hostile groups who terrorized us for years have been defeated. Liberation is the relatively easy first step, but the recovery and reconstruction from the war will be insurmountably harder. The challenges we face today can be divided as:

  1. Physical Reconstruction: Schools, hospitals, administrative buildings, electricity, water, these are just a handful of the biggest urban issues that need to be addressed directly. Benghazi already suffers from bad urban planning, and reconstruction needs to address the existing underlying problems. Along with this, the environmental problems is also crucial, particularly the issue of mines and pollution.
  2. Social Rehabilitation: Post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise, and everyone has been psychologically affected by the war to some degree. In particular, soldiers on the front line require intensive and long-term psychosocial care to help reintegrate them into society. As Libya barely has the technical expertise or infrastructure to deal with mental health issues, this will be a huge challenge.
  3. System of Governance: I mentioned before the establishment of military rule, although it is purportedly due to the current exceptional crisis situation. While this is understandable, civil society and civic actors must continue to push for the eventual transition into civil rule once again. With the increasing threats coming from groups like the Salafists and tribal actors, this is becoming more imperative.
  4. Corruption: This is probably the biggest challenge we’ll face in the next few years. Corruption has practically become part of our culture, and all eyes are now on the reconstruction plans for the city. Embezzlement and nepotism is expected to permeate this process. While it will be difficult to tackle this problem, having a strong independent media to blow the whistle on corruption, and strong NGOs and legal system to fight it, will be a step in the right direction.
  5. Reconciliation: It is now almost unanimously recognized by Libyans that the steps we took after the revolution (or rather lack of), with regards to reconciliation, was one of the main reasons why the country fell apart. We cannot repeat this mistake, and we can’t build a city or country by excluding and marginalizing anyone, even those we fundamentally disagree with. Benghazi needs to be the city that takes the first steps to reconcile between the different groups engaged in the conflict, and to ensure justice for all.

Of course, this is only a handful of the major challenges we face. There are others, such as inherently weak institutions, the continued collapsing economy, and the brewing hostility between East and West. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start local. It’s said that Benghazi has always been the city that has influenced all of Libya, and its our responsibility to make sure that this influence is always for the good of the country.