“You remember the advertisement?” he said. “ ‘You can check in, but you can’t check out.’ That is us.”
In recent months, the dueling capitals of Libya have traded places. Tripoli, held by leader Moammar Gaddafi, is now in worse shape than rebel-held Benghazi.
Life in Benghazi gets slightly better every day: Police officers dressed as admirals at least pretend to direct traffic, an exhibit of once-forbidden art has opened in the new Gaddafi Crimes Museum, and the schools are scheduled to start again in September.
“The city feels safe. Things work,” said Abed Dada of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who has spent the past few weeks in Benghazi.
The bakeries are turning out special pastries again. A tank of gas costs $4, less than before the revolution. Cellphone calls are free.
Asked to compare the rival cities of east and west, which were traditional adversaries even before the uprising, one young merchant notes with pride that the price of a chicken in Tripoli is $12, whereas in Benghazi, a bird (imported from Egypt) will set you back $3.
The conditions of daily life in the de facto rebel capital — and the perceptions of its citizens — are important clues to how a post-Gaddafi Libya might function. The evidence in August suggests here would be a fractious, opaque government of well-meaning amateurs who care enough to try to keep the lights on.
When Saadi Gaddafi, one of the Brother Leader’s sons, came to Benghazi in February to try to cool the revolutionary fever, he famously told the angry residents that if they would only calm down and go home, “I will turn Benghazi into San Diego, I promise you.”
No worries, San Diego.
Benghazi could be lovely, it is true — it is on the Mediterranean and has lagoons and a zoo. But the sea is too dirty to swim in, the lakes are turgid waste pits, and the lion pacing his cage will break your heart.
Saadi Gaddafi admitted, after having had a brief look around, that Benghazi needed sprucing up. “There were a lot of mistakes,” the former professional soccer player and film producer said.
If Benghazi has a signature architectural motif, it is the half-completed construction site. Nothing was ever finished. The previous government appears to have erected scaffolding and then left town. Vast tracts of the city suggest a Florida real estate scam, nothing but signage and swamp. Construction of the government’s “One Thousand Two Hundred Bed Hospital” began in 1973. The first of three planned towers was finally opened last year.
Benghazi wags like to say that the entire emirate city-state of Dubai, one of the modern wonders of the Arab world, in the United Arab Emirates, was built from scratch in the time it took to build one 400-bed hospital here.
The same is true for the soccer stadium, built by King Idris in the 1950s: Renovations begun five years ago are still going on. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of apartments being erected in western Benghazi remain empty concrete shells.
“Gaddafi hates all Libyans,” Mohammad Zintani said. “But he hates the Benghazis most of all.”
Zintani runs a store that sells women’s casual fashions, and in the long evenings of the holy month of Ramadan can be found in Dolce & Gabbana jeans having double espressos with his pals at an upmarket coffee shop as they gossip about the present and debate a future that seemed unimaginable before the uprising: Will Libyans use credit cards? Will they read newspapers? Will alcohol be legal in tourist hotels?
Citizens take inspiration where they can find it. Zintani and his friends do not wield Kalashnikov rifles, but cellphones, which work.
The government cut rebels’ access to the Libyana mobile network, run by one of Gaddafi’s sons, but rebel engineers have resurrected and rebooted the service. “They are heroes of the revolution,” said Seraj Altwibi, a communications engineer who lost his older brother in fighting at the downtown army barracks and keeps his picture on his phone’s wallpaper.
Now, all local calls are free — if you can find a SIM card, a commodity that goes for $150 on the black market. And, look! Someone is tending the garden at the Finance Ministry. When a fire breaks out at a store downtown, a bright red fire engine appears to put it out. Locals refer to their evening meals as “romantic dinners” because they are sometimes by candlelight, because of a power outage. They are dealing.
Still, most of life is on hold. If you are young and not fighting at the front (the majority), you are loafing around Benghazi. The economy functions, but barely.
Citizens are bored, broke, anxious, waiting — though happy, most say, to be free.
There is no cash and no credit, so business idles. Benghazi banks will allow only small cash withdrawals, because they lack bank notes. Salaries haven’t been paid in months.
“Everyone says everything is Gaddafi’s fault,” said Ibrahim Shebani, who runs a media company that recently began publishing a glossy magazine for the city. Shebani dubbed the phenomenon “B.O.G.” for “Blame it on Gaddafi,” a common answer to all questions. “I am going to copyright it,” he said.
Libyans don’t do much in the way of manual labor, so the lowest-paying jobs, such as hauling trash, fell to African migrants, who have fled. Egyptians, Filipinos and Chinese mixed cement and painted walls, and they are gone, too.
The foreign companies — Austrian, Turkish, Chinese contractors — have also left Benghazi to its devices.
“The sewage treatment system wasn’t working before, to be honest, and is not working now. It all goes to the sea or lakes,” said Abdul Hakam Abdulmalik, director of operations and maintenance at the General Company of Water and Sewage, who mentions several times that he quit but was asked to come back.
Before the uprising, he said, “they put you in prison if there was flooding or the water made people sick.”
Now? “Nobody is talking about nothing, except, please, God, just keep the system we have running.”
Special correspondent Osama Alfitory contributed to this report.