The Magazine

What I Saw at the Revolution

With a Libyan conservative in free Benghazi

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Speaking on the phone while I was in New York, El Senussi quickly volunteered that he does not want to revive Libya’s monarchy, which lasted only 18 years, from 1951 to 1969. (A London-based cousin, by contrast, also named Mohammed, is seeking to revive the monarchy and pretends to the title “crown prince.”) While the El Senussis have been prominent in Libya for 300 years, the roots of the monarchy are shallow. Idris was emir of Cyrenaica, or Eastern Libya, but fled to Cairo in 1922 when threatened by the Italian occupiers. He spent nearly 30 years in exile in Egypt prior to taking the throne at the age of 62. Idris is widely viewed as a pious, well-intentioned, but ineffective ruler who allowed his entourage to despoil Libya’s new oil wealth. (Some of the despoilers were El Senussi’s El Shalhi uncles on his mother’s side, he acknowledges. The El Shalhis are a prominent Berber clan originally from Algeria.)

El Senussi laments that his great-uncle’s role in the resistance to the Italian occupation has been slighted. “King Idris appointed Omar Mukhtar leader of the Senussi movement when he left for Egypt. He provided him with funding and arms from Egypt.” Mukhtar, a tribal sheikh who was captured by the Italians and executed in 1931, has been a national hero ever since, and the February 17 revolution has made a totem of his likeness. “What hurts me,” El Senussi comments, “is that there are no photographs of my great-uncle.” 

But leaving aside his family, El Senussi hopes that his connections in the highest reaches of Egyptian society can be of use to the Transitional National Council. It was the Sadat family who invited the Senussis to live in Egypt after Qaddafi’s coup, and El Senussi is friends with Gamal Sadat, a former schoolmate, now the head of Etisalat, a mobile phone provider in Egypt. Egypt has not yet recognized the council, nor has it frozen Qaddafi’s assets. A large but uncertain number of Egyptians, many illegal, work in Libya, and in the areas under Qaddafi’s control, like Tripoli, they are de facto hostages.

Predictably, El Senussi is concerned about postrevolutionary Egypt, too. “I know that Egypt will not be a democracy. The population will be a hundred million in 10 or 15 years. What happened with Iraq and Kuwait can happen here.” And El Senussi worries not only about a possible land grab by Egypt but also about Libya’s borders with Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia. None of these six neighbors, he points out, “is a democracy. All hold extremists. They are not going to sit still. They are going to try to destabilize us.”

El Senussi adds, “When Qaddafi falls, Libya needs both the U.N. and the United States to replay the role they played back in 1949 and in 1951, and Libyans should feel no shame in asking benevolent powers to please help us help ourselves.”

For the moment, we soak up the atmosphere of Freedom Square. I buy a handmade tricolor wristband for 70 cents. Mohamed is not the wristband type. But both of us are trying to decode what we’re seeing. Many of the women demonstrators are wearing the niqab (full-face veil) that marks them as fundamentalists, even though taking part in a march is a radical act for a woman in this traditional society. Are the funds from the sale of the tricolor buttons and hats going to the salesmen or the cause? Who is paying for our free coffee?

Revolutionary Benghazi is not, for the moment, very concerned about money. Hundreds of people are milling around; Garyounis University, Libya’s oldest and largest, closed on February 17, and few government workers are going to their offices. Their salaries are being advanced to them by the Transitional National Council even though the funds aren’t coming from Tripoli—but workers can withdraw only 200 dinars (about $140) a month. Since most Libyans work for the government, that’s a big blow to the local economy. Almost no shops or restaurants are open when we arrive, perhaps because few people have the money to patronize them, perhaps out of fear, though more opened every day of our stay. There are plenty of small groceries—many have cut prices to cost in the spirit of solidarity that has gripped the city—and on every block, shabby cafés offer the espresso that, along with cigarettes, fuels Benghazi’s population.

The schools are closed too; many teachers are on the endless committees that provide social services for displaced families, publish newspapers, make videos, or organize demonstrations. One women’s activist, Fairouz Naas, tells me that no one wants the schools to open until Qaddafi is gone. To resume normal life while Qaddafi is shelling civilians in Misurata and the Western Mountains and terrorizing Tripolitanians would be a betrayal of their fellow Libyans.

Normal life is indeed only slowly returning to Ben-ghazi. Qaddafi’s troops penetrated Benghazi on March 19 and 20, killing and wounding hundreds. Some people fled, but those who have returned from overseas or from Tripoli want to help to rebuild their society. Naas, a strikingly attractive forty-something mother of two, was an accounting professor in Tripoli until she and her family came here on February 20. Now she organizes demonstrations—and leads the women marchers, too.

Another activist, Iman Bugaighis, a professor of dentistry and the sister of Salwa, tells me that the Libyan people need to work on themselves. “We don’t know how to be democratic on the individual level. We will have a dictator if we don’t develop this.” Dr. Bugaighis is one of a handful of women, mainly from her prominent family, who were present at the demonstrations from the start.

While women received equal pay for equal work and entered the professions under Qaddafi’s bizarre brand of state socialism, they are by no means socially equal. In the small city of Tobruk, where we stopped on our drive from Egypt, the situation reminded me of Afghanistan, with next to no women on the street.

Nor is the town much more prosperous than an Afghan city. Indeed, in 1951, when Libya was granted its independence by the United Nations, the two countries were not so different.

Back then, Libya had barely a million citizens and combined “within the borders of one country virtually all the obstacles to development that can be found anywhere: geographic, economic, political, sociological, technological,” according to the economist appointed by the U.N. to plan Libya’s future, Benjamin Higgins. The country had a very high birth rate and an infant mortality rate of 50 percent in the first year of life. Ninety percent of Libyans were illiterate, and a per capita annual income of $25-$35 made Libya one of the world’s poorest countries.

Now, Benghazi, though it has obviously suffered from the neglect of a dictator who knew he was disliked here, is recognizably part of the modern world. Libya had an estimated per capita GDP of $13,800 in 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook, about $13,000 higher than Afghanistan’s. The Qaddafi regime is known for its neglect of statistics, and the number may be higher—especially counting the billions Qaddafi and his cronies stole.

Economically, eastern Libya is a mixed bag. The agricultural areas inland seem to be farmed using modern methods, the roads are good, and there are modern buildings everywhere. Yet the disrepair in the cities is shocking. There is a sense that civil society exists: There is a café life. People read for pleasure. They own laptops and check their email. Women drivers are legion (in part because public transport barely exists). Unlike in Afghanistan, I never have the sense that I’m doing anthropology fieldwork. That said, Kabul’s business life is far more vital than Benghazi’s—even if all the shuttered storefronts were open. The goods on offer in the clothing stores are no better than those found in Kabul, and the prices, oddly, are lower. It’s obvious that Qaddafi’s anticapitalist policies blighted his nation.

Today’s Benghazi is new to El Senussi, too. In early March he made his first trip to Libya since childhood. For three days, he visited old friends and relatives in Tobruk and Al Baydah, smaller cities between here and the Egyptian border. There, in its ancestral heartland, the Senussi family is still a big deal.

The Grand Senussi, Muhammad Ali Al Senussi (1787-1859)—a sayeed, or descendant of Muhammad—was originally from Algeria. He founded, and his son Mahdi expanded, a purist Sufi order that spanned North Africa. It began with a lodge in Al Baydah in 1842, and by 1911 there were over 100 lodges in Cyrenaica and the Sahara. Later they reached India and Saudi Arabia.

Now the lodges are gone, but the Senussis are still revered by the ikhwan or brothers of the Senussi Order—the descendants of the original followers—and the ikhwan “are very dear to us,” in my companion’s words. Idris was a grandchild of the Grand Senussi. Idris’s sister Fatima was El Senussi’s paternal grandmother. In Tobruk and Al Baydah, when El Senussi introduces himself, people show him deference. But in Benghazi, where a good percentage of the population comes from other parts of Libya, the Senussis are regarded with less awe.

Still, El Senussi displays a paternalistic concern for the young men wounded in the fighting, most of whom are from humble backgrounds very different from the demonstrators and videomakers and council lawyers. In Cairo, El Senussi took me to visit a recovering fighter who had traveled some 600 miles from the remote southeastern oasis town of Al Kufra to join the rebel army. He had severe burns on his hands and had lost two toes. A Libyan businessman was paying for the treatment of this young man and 14 others. El Senussi noted that until two months ago, this benefactor was a Qaddafi supporter who made millions through his connections.

“The council has to take care of our boys. This is a rich country. We can pay for it. We have to provide treatment for all of these guys.”

El Senussi’s concerns were seconded by a neurosurgeon I spoke with at Benghazi Medical Center, Talahma Imad. Part of a foreign team brought in to run this new hospital—he’s a Palestinian educated in Milan—he says flatly that Qaddafi “didn’t want highly qualified Libyans.” Hajer al Jahmi, 27, a third-year resident at Benghazi Medical Center, says that medical education was “completely corrupted” by the regime, with connections and politics trumping academic results. She cannot depend on Libyan-trained nurses even to do blood work.

Only eight war-wounded patients remain in intensive care at Benghazi Medical Center. Many have been discharged to outpatient care, while others were taken to Egypt, Qatar, or Turkey for treatment. Those in Qatar will have been very well cared for, according to Dr. Imad, but care can be spotty in Egypt or Turkey. He says he is in touch with the “highly competent” minister of health on the Transitional National Council, Dr. Bereket, about organizing a system for managing and eventually paying for the fighters’ and civilian victims’ care.

With his caution about human nature and his insistence on looking at the worst case rather than the best, El Senussi strikes me as someone who would be at home in America’s conservative conclaves. But it still stunned me when he volunteered, “I’ve been following George W. Bush since he was governor of Texas. That’s a strong man, I thought, and when he became president I told the Libyan opposition, Get on that train.”

Yet El Senussi is critical of the United States’ handling of the Lockerbie bombing tragedy. As we join a crowd watching Al Jazeera’s coverage of Qaddafi’s forces firing cluster bombs on the civilian population of Misurata, he comments, “If justice had been served at the time of the Lockerbie bombing, Qaddafi wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing today. Look at the deal they made with Al Megrahi. He was a fall guy.”

El Senussi is referring to the April 1999 agreement between Libya and the United States by which Libya turned over two suspects for trial in a neutral country. Only Al Megrahi was convicted.

“The message that the United States was sending is, If you have a lot of money you can blow up a civilian aircraft and get away with it. Qaddafi should have been put in criminal court for that. There should be a new investigation of the Pan Am bombing—Moussa Koussa [former Libyan foreign minister, now in exile] knows all about it. He was on a red list by the French for the UTA [airline] bombing.”

Over the course of my trip, it becomes clear just how little we in the West have known of Qaddafi’s destructiveness towards his own people. Essam Gheriani, who is married to council member Salwa Bugaighis, got a degree from Indiana University in psychology and returned to Benghazi in 1986 to help his widowed mother. He found an economy ruined by Qaddafi’s crackbrained theories. People who once had been upper-middle class would try to bring back a few bananas or tubes of toothpaste when they were lucky enough to go abroad. Some months after his return, he was watching TV one night when the regular program was preempted by a public hanging.

Amina Megheirbi, the professor of English, recalls seeing two students she knew from her undergraduate days at Garyounis hanged in public on April 7, 1977, the year after she graduated. A cousin of hers was sentenced to life in prison and amnestied in 1980. In the ’80s, she said, Qaddafi’s revolutionary committees took charge of the universities, with the power to fire professors. “They might do anything.”

The stakes will be high in Libya even after Qaddafi goes. “We have a mountain to climb,” says El Senussi. But I am betting on the optimists, like Professor Megheirbi. She points to the egalitarianism of Libyan culture. “Our society differs from other societies. Rich and poor, we live together, we love the same activities, we have friends from different classes. I lived in the Emirates and was surprised at how they behave with people of high status. We don’t have VIPs in Libya.”

The democracy activists I spoke with were hopeful not just for Libya, but for the whole Arab world. Dr. Bugaighis spoke for many when she said, “Now something has changed in us from inside. I don’t think there will be any more dictators in the Arab world.” 

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.

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