BENGHAZI, Libya — A around 8:45 this morning Senator John McCain, accompanied by his adviser Christian Brose and Ambassador Chris Stevens, the US envoy here, made an unannounced visit to the makama, or courthouse, where the Revolution of February 17th got its start. The senator was en route to a meeting with the 31-member Transitional Council that’s governing Free Libya. The Arabic-speaking Ambassador Stevens has been in Benghazi now for several weeks, getting to know the people who made this improbable revolution, and McCain is on a 24-hour visit.
Freedom Square, as the large open plaza in front of the courthouse is called now, is usually thronged with Libyans. But Friday is the weekly holiday in Libya, and only a small group of demonstrators were waving homemade (and imperfect) American flags and shouting pro-American, anti-Qaddafi slogans. A small group—many of them relatives and friends of Council member Selwa Bugaighis, a lawyer—spoke with the senator, who had only the lightest of security details.
Libyans pressed close to Senator McCain as Bugaighis calmly examined the photographs of martyrs and missing on the courthouse wall. A ten-year old girl, Nada Hisam Al Magri, gave the senator a wristband in the red, green, and black of the Libyan independence flag, which he immediately put on. Nada’s mother, Iman Bugaighis, was one of the activists who greeted the senator warmly.
Iman’s distant cousin Amal Bugaighis, a lawyer-turned-activist, gave the Senator a flag corsage for his wife. “Since the first days of the Revolution, McCain was with us,” said Amal’s older sister, 64-year old Zaina Bugaighis, headmistress of a Benghazi private school. “What we see now we never imagined. We were dead people for 42 years.”
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Many Americans are skeptical of the “Libyan rebels,” so-called, and wonder if they are “ready for democracy.” My two weeks here in Benghazi, the headquarters of the Transitional Council that provides government services in eastern Libya, have reassured me that about Libya’s prospects. I’d guess democracy has a brighter future here than in Afghanistan, though of course I know that country much better after 17 visits since 2002.
The TV images of wild-looking Libyan freedom fighters have given Americans the wrong idea. (I’ve tried to get some of my editors to publish some of the hundreds of photographs I’ve seen by Libyan photographers showing a much more diverse, and gentle, set of images from the last two months. Some are included here.) Those young men exist, and bravely sacrificed themselves for what they call Libya Al Hurra (Free Libya). But the people who are governing are 50-somethings—mainly lawyers—together with a few high-ranking military defectors from Qaddafi’s army. They are well-educated, English-speaking, bourgeois in their outlook, and as surprised as the outside world to find themselves running the “Republic of Libya,” a name that deliberately omits the words “Arab” (in deference to the 10 percent non-Arab population) and “Islamic.”
While 42 years of Qaddafi have left Libyans with a lot of catching up to do, they, and Libya’s peculiar history, have also produced an unusual an unusual combination of circumstances that may prove conducive to future success.
It is little remembered today, but Libya was the location for the world’s first Arab republic, even before Libya existed as a nation. The Republic of Tripolitania was established in Tripoli on June 1, 1919, recognized by Italy in later that same month, and dissolved amid bitter infighting by August 1920. Soon after, the Tripolitanians agreed to accept the leadership of Idris, Amir of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), who would eventually become Libya’s first and last king after independence. But the republican moment is a testimony to Libya’s early openness to progressive ideas.
Libya’s three biggest cities, Tripoli, Benghazi, and Misrata, are ports. Each had an ethnic mix and a constant exposure to strangers. In 1937, Benghazi’s population numbered 30,000 Arabs, 16,000 Italians, and 2,500 Jews. Many people tell me that their parents or grandparents spoke Italian. The Italian colonization was horrific, with the Italians murdering up to a third of the local population in concentration camps. Benghazi changed hands five times in World War Two, suffering tremendous destruction. Yet Libyans here are surprisingly friendly and forgiving to the Europeans who inflicted this damage.
One reason I am optimistic about the prospects for democracy here is the instantly apparent egalitarianism. Deference is paid to age, but otherwise Libyans are without the obsequiousness to rank and status that I’ve seen so often in Afghanistan. The fact that education through university has been free since independence is part of the explanation. People from humble backgrounds have become doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers.
Amina Megheirbi, a English professor here whose grandparents were illiterate, explained to me that there are no VIPs in Libya. The reason is that Qaddafi and his family were the only game in town. But the legacy of this ugly situation is an unusually level playing field. Yesterday, two 50-something Libyan women from well-off families mentioned to me that their maids (now vanished along with most foreign guest-workers) would watch TV with the family. They knew from visits to Egypt that this is not the case in most developing countries.
There is also a tradition of independence, and of touchiness about being told what to do, that calls to mind some of our state mottos: “Live Free or Die” and “Don’t Tread on Me.”
“Free” is a special word here. The Arabic “Hurra” means free, but also “noble.” In the pre-European history of the Ottoman province of Cyrenaica that would later become eastern Libya, tribes divided themselves into “hurr” (“free or noble”) and “murabit” (meaning, in this context, “tied”). Nobility, roughly speaking, sprung from freedom. The informal name of eastern Libya today, “Libya Al Hurra,” or “Libya Hurra,” is resonant with these associations.
Another factor is Libya’s conservative culture, which is more of a double-edged sword. Qaddafi’s destruction of the fledgling political institutions Libya had when he seized power in 1969 threw Libyans back on older ties of family and tribe. No, tribalism isn’t good. But Libya’s social cohesion kept all but a tiny number of Libyans from looting when the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the east. This is still a shame society, urbanized though it is.
We can put to rest the argument that Libya isn’t really a country—that its three regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and the Fezzan still have only a loose coherence. This was valid in 1951 at independence, but the intervening decades have knit the country together. Oil wealth and new job opportunities have led people to move outside their home regions. The big cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata have residents from all over the country. Everyone here in Benghazi seems to have relatives in Tripoli they are anxious about (they are able to call them on sat phones, but can’t talk freely). And Benghazi, with the country’s biggest university, Garyounis, draws people from Tripoli who stay on after graduation.
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There is also a way in which this revolution is an equal and opposite reaction to Qaddafi’s 1969 coup. Qaddafi’s peculiar Green Book advocated direct democracy, and in the Seventies he tried to mobilize Libyan society through a series of committees. Of course, power was in the hands of a few. As Qaddafi’s regime grew darker and more violent, the only committees that mattered were the “revolutionary committees,” the lijan thureah, that had virtually unlimited power.
So, the first thing that the citizens of Benghazi did with their new freedom was to organize themselves into committees with the opposite agenda—to build civil society and heal the wounds of the war.
Amal el Gehani, a 25-year old lecturer in electrical engineering, explained in English honed at the University of Manchester that she belongs to three. “One is for rescuing families injured by war. The second is Shabab Libya Hurra. I am with the media committee where we do radio shows on Libyan radio. The third is the Feb 17 Youth, a committee for organizing other committees.” She added that after Qaddafi goes and society returns to normal, she will happily return to teaching: “This is very hard.”
Ms. Megheirbi, who runs a 130-member civil society organization started by women, says that she will devote herself to reviving the once-promising developments of the 1960s and 1970s here. When she was at Garyounis University here, men and women students worked and socialized together. But once Qaddafi became increasingly violent, hanging two Benghazi students in public in 1977, women were less of a presence at the universities and withdrew from public life. By 1986, when Qaddafi televised the hanging of eight dissidents, the situation was grim.
The small Salafi presence in Libya “emerged because of Gaddafi,” she explained. “If you have a democratic society, people will not go to extremes. Libya was never extreme. We had a moderate Islam. We want to create a healthy atmosphere at our university where young men and women can work together.”
It will take awhile to know whether attitudes like this prevail in Libya, and the hoped-for robust civil society emerges. But the early signs are very positive. Coming days will tell whether Senator McCain’s visit will bring additional American help for Free Libya and the besieged city of Misrata—or even help pave the way for recognition of the Transitional Council as the country’s legitimate interim government, as he called for at a press conference here eight hours later today. He also mentioned a clever idea he’d discussed with the Council—taking Qaddafi’s Orwellian state TV station off the air. But whichever way the cookie crumbles, Senator McCain’s support will rebound to the credit of the United States here.