Derna, Libya—The deadly Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi should not lead Americans to think of Libyans as anti-American or intolerant. Rather, they are an indication of the catastrophic failure of the country’s security forces, and of Benghazi’s failure to pull itself together as many smaller Libyan cities have.
But my impression, after three weeks traveling from the country’s far west coast to the far east, is that while Libya may be on the verge of being a failed state, many if not most of its cities are working. The eastern port city of Derna, population somewhere between 85,000 and 120,000, is a case in point.
Just about every English-language news article on Derna refers to it as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. It’s true that more foreign suicide bombers in Iraq over the last decade came from Derna than from any other city—perhaps because the city has been economically moribund for generations. It’s true that everyone knows a local boy or two fighting in Syria. And during Ramadan in August, Wahhabists blew up an ancient shrine in the center of the town’s main mosque.
But scarcely a month later, the shrine had already been rudely reconstructed using the same stones. A foreigner walking through the mosque and around the old town center—skillfully renovated under the auspices of Unesco just before the revolution—gets friendly greetings and endless questions: “What do you think of Derna?”
Libya’s elections in July tell some of the story. Derna is represented by two women and three men in the newly seated National Assembly. Derna’s local council doesn’t include any women, but two women were among the 90 candidates who vied for the 23 neighborhood representative positions.
Randa el Goudary, a Libyan-American from Ashburn, Virginia, readily admits that there is a fashion among some of Derna’s youth for the garb of Islamic extremists. “But I am going everywhere like this”—she points to her diaphanous headscarf and contemporary slacks and shirt. “I am driving myself, and no one says anything. Do you think if Qaeda is here that I will be here?”
Ms. el Goudary was one of a group of women gathered for coffee on the terrace of the Derna Pearl Hotel, the nightly resort of the local elite. Her table overlooks the swimming pool, where men and women swim together (though in T-shirts and long tights). Nearby is Jamila Ruta Al Henad, an Arabic teacher who heads a 180-person non-profit called “Citadel of the Free.” She wears the typical Libyan female dress of a long coat and a tightly pinned headscarf. Next to her is Fatima Ramadan Boudirah, all in black, her face nearly covered, wearing the black gloves affected by very conservative women.
Samaya Edris Elagi, 25, one of the two women who ran for local council this year, wears a hot pink headscarf and long shirt over pastel jeans and Paul Smith sneakers. A lawyer who speaks only Arabic, Ms. Elagi was inspired to run for office by the men and women who gave their lives in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and by a feeling of frustration among young people here. “We have absolutely nothing to do,” she says. She shows off her campaign flyer, which bears her photograph. Although women’s campaign posters have been defaced even in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, Ms. Elagi says hers are still up. She adds that she has not been threatened by any Wahhabists.
The extremists have been driven out of the town center, Mohamed Suweisy tells me, “because no one likes them here.” But about 300 or so are holed up in the nearby mountains, according to local estimates. Before the revolution, Derna had 3,000 policemen, or roughly one for every 12 residents. But they were mainly from other towns, and have not returned to work in a place where they were unpopular. New York City currently has about 36,000 police officers. If it had as many cops proportionally as prerevolutionary Derna, there would be 700,000.
So the town lives in some fear. Derna’s top need, says town council head Fathalla Ibriham Alawamy, is security. Walking through the recently renovated old town market, Mr. Suweisy explains that one particularly attractive courtyard is closed because there were no police to protect it from vandalism. In his shop nearby, Asea Ben Ali, a money changer, insists that “Libya needs police and strong government.” Yet just try to find someone in Derna who wears a seat belt, as mandated by law.
“The problem,” said Abdul Juwied Bubeida, “is that everyone here is working for the government. He estimates that 30,000 of Derna’s citizens are state employees—himself included. Yet along with state socialism in Gadhafi’s Libya, there was also neglect of basic services. Mr. Bubeida, for instance, has a developmentally disabled child. But there has never been special-needs education in Libya. Now Mr. Bubeida, together with other parents of special-needs children, has created a private school staffed by volunteers.
Libya has a long way to go, but the independent Libyan character allows for hope. If there’s anything Libya will not do, it is to conform to expectations. There is a streak of stubborn individualism here, worn with charm and Mediterranean allegria, that calls to mind American individualism. Now it remains to be seen if Libyans will also show some American responsibility and take ownership of their streets before a tiny minority hijacks their revolution.