The tragedy of Benghazi, Libya’s second city
JHE GOLD LEAF the lanterns on the railings around the tomb are modeled on those that adorn Buckingham Palace. The crenellated walls sparkle with the finest marble in Italy. A huge chandelier inside comes from Egypt. The shrine of Omar al-Mukh tar, Libya’s anti-colonialist scholar and warrior hero, has been beautifully restored, two decades after a jealous Muammar Gaddafi dumped it in the desert.
But look through its arched windows and all you see is the surrounding ruin of Benghazi, Libya’s second city. Much of what was once a charming Italian town, with cafes, an art deco cinema and a royal palace, is a destroyed ghost town. The courthouse where Libyans rose up against Gaddafi in 2011 is flooded with sewage. “Lost Fatherland,” reads a graffito on a chipped colonnade adorning the old Bank of Rome. Services have collapsed. Garbage is piled up in the streets. Rubbish spills into the sea. Schools recently had to close after being flooded in a storm. War profiteers and smugglers moved in.
Like those other beautiful cities in the Middle East – Aleppo, Mosul and Raqqa – Benghazi was ransacked to wrest it from Islamist domination. For three years Khalifa al-Haftar, a former general turned warlord who commanded the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), bombarded this capital of the eastern region of Libya (formerly called Cyrenaica) by land, sea and air, until it fell on him at the end of 2017. Egypt, France, Russia and the UAE lent him a hand and then let him run it as his base.
the UN offered no recovery plan for Benghazi. On March 21, the Italian government organized an architectural jamboree, which many participants attended via video, calling for the regeneration of the city. However, Libyan power brokers in Tripoli, the country’s capital to the west, are concerned about the row over oil revenues and who should be prime minister. “There is no real will to rebuild our city,” laments Atif al-Hasiya, an engineer from Benghazi.
Mr. Haftar nevertheless presents himself as his protector. “With one hand we build, with the other we fight terror,” reads a sheet floating in the wind along the cornice. Locals speak only of the terror, inflicted mostly by Mr Haftar’s men, and say he is wasting funds on military ventures and salaries for his fighters, who claim to number 127,000. In 2018 the UN reported that a squad led by one of his sons raided the city’s central bank, stealing $300 million in local and foreign currency. “His sons are worse than Gaddafi’s,” says an exiled Benghazi businessman.
The city’s journalists are watched and muzzled. Critics of Mr. Haftar are in danger of disappearing. the the wall street journal reported in 2020 that it was accumulating a gold reserve, originating in Venezuela. Since reopening the port of Benghazi in 2018, it has become a warehouse for captagon, a Syrian-made amphetamine. “Drugs are Benghazi’s main growth sector,” says a local academic. Dealers are said to be laundering money from the luxury clothing stores and restaurants along Venice Street. Jewelers supplying gangsters are booming.
Benghazi residents had hoped that Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the beleaguered Libyan prime minister based in Tripoli, would undertake the reconstruction of Benghazi. Last May, he unveiled a reconstruction program including the city. He has been compared by optimists to Rafiq al-Hariri, the Lebanese tycoon who used his own business to rebuild Beirut after its civil war (before being assassinated). Various unfinished projects, such as an Olympic stadium that Mr. Dbeibeh had overseen under Gaddafi, may eventually be completed. But Mr. Haftar’s gunmen banned Mr. Dbeibeh from visiting their stronghold, and the funds never materialized. A general election scheduled for December raised hopes of breaking the deadlock but has been repeatedly postponed. Meanwhile, Benghazi is moldy. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Crushed and Forgotten”