Benghazi—Nearly a year after the fall of the hated Gadhafi regime, this city and much of Libya seems caught in a post-revolutionary malaise. Indeed, the situation here evokes the dreaded words “failed state.” Security is weak at best, and nonexistent in places. The economy is hardly better than it was during the war. There are burnt-out cars in the central business district, and trash everywhere.
Two months since the election of a new government—notable for its rejection of Islamic extremists—sectarian clashes are on the rise. Two of Libya’s oldest and most revered Sufi shrines were destroyed last month in broad daylight—one on Aug. 25, just outside my hotel room in Tripoli; the other, a 500-year-old shrine and library housing thousands of early Islamic texts, the day before in Zilten, a town 90 miles east of the capital. The extremists believe it’s sinful to locate a Sufi saint’s tomb inside a mosque.
After the attacks, a special session of the newly elected National Assembly resulted in the minister of the interior, Fawzi Abdelal, admitting in a statement that the new government is weaker than the fanatics. He later resigned.
Little would seem to stand in the way of the Salafis moving on to destroy Libya’s classical antiquities, if they target them. Already some Roman statues in Sabratha’s great archeological site had to be removed from public display to protect them from attack.
Sadly, the issues bedeviling Libyans as they go about trying, largely with great goodwill, to set up a functioning country run deeper and broader than religious extremism. Four decades of dictatorship have resulted in widespread indolence and a lack of a sense of ownership of the public sphere. It’s a toxic mix common in the Islamic world. Often Libya seems able to rise above it, as in its largely free and fair July 7 national elections. But it is glaringly obvious in Libya’s treatment of the history of its recent revolution.
Here in Benghazi, opposite the makama or courthouse where a lawyers’ guild’s quiet protest on Feb. 15, 2011 led to the fall of a 42-year dictatorship, sit a pair of Batman and Spiderman inflatable children’s slides. Until the spring of this year, this was hallowed ground, and the wall of the courthouse was covered with homemade posters of the martyrs of the revolution. Parents brought their children to show them those who had died for Libya’s freedom. Booths from dozens of NGOs handed out literature. Souvenir vendors sold t-shirts, key chains, coffee mugs and just about everything imaginable with the revolutionary flag. Families brought their children to celebrate their newfound freedom. Back in April 2011, there was a utopian aspect to the scene, with free espresso, touchingly incompetent crafts, and Libyans still thrilled to be able to speak their minds to foreigners.
All of this is changed. The photographs and literature are gone. Vendors sell toilet seats and glassware, not flags. Though there’s some scaffolding around the makama, nothing is going on inside the courthouse. In regard to the wall of martyrs coming down, Abdulla Doma, the Libyan photographer for Agence France Presse, says, “If the justice system is working then it is worth it. But it is four months now that it was destroyed and the makama is not working.”
Mr. Doma was the source of the first videos of the revolution. His brother drove them 500 kilometers south to a Siemens office in the desert where they could be emailed to Al Jazeera. As one of those who informed the outside world of the revolution through the Benghazi Media Center, Mr. Doma feels as keenly as anyone that with the passage of time the raw material of history will be lost. “We were hoping the makama would become a museum.”
Elsewhere, in Libya’s smaller cities, citizens are showing more public spirit, more interest in preserving their revolutionary past. In Derna, 200 kilometers to the east of Benghazi, locals rebuilt a shrine that Salafis blew up in July, and a room in the central mosque is devoted to photographs of those killed by Gadhafi while he was in power. Sumaya Edris Elagi, 25 years old and a candidate for Derna’s local council elections, was inspired to run by “how our martyrs gave away their lives” in the revolution. This is the sort of consciousness of the past that gives hope for the future.
In Sabratha, west of Tripoli, citizens have cleaned up their city, planted trees at their own expense, and dedicated a roundabout to the revolution. A group in the port city of Zwara led by Senussi Mahrez, a major general in the Libyan army who led a rebel brigade in the revolution, is trying to establish a museum in a 100-year-old building.
Clearly, Libya’s new government has more pressing needs than new museums. Security and a well-functioning civil service are higher priorities, and the West can better assist with both. But Libya’s new leaders should understand—perhaps even better than most—that a people who do not respect their past and fail to write their own history will find it written for them by others.