BENGHAZI // Along the seafront of Libya’s second-largest city is a large courthouse where the revolution’s first demonstrations massed. Next door, the world’s press converged at the rebel-run media centre, and down the road is the vast Tibesti Hotel, where deals were forged when and the envoys of an array of countries met in the lobby.
Yet as residents watch a fledgling government emerge in the capital more than 1,000 kilometres west, they fear that the new authorities will centralise business and politics in Tripoli just as Qaddafi’s regime did.
“We need to have decentralisation,” said Amina Megherbi, a member of the General National Congress representing Benghazi. She said that her constituents’ primary concern is that the central government is unable or unwilling to control security, encourage investment and allow a political voice for the people of Benghazi.
“The government is weak,” Ms Megherbi said. “Libya is a large country, with widespread cities and people suffer from going to the capital for every small detail. All the economic strength is in the capital.”
As yet, she said, it is still not clear how municipal authorities will implement policies decided in Tripoli. Local councils are selected and govern in haphazard ways across the country.
In the streets of the middle-class Keish area of Benghazi, a crowd leaving prayers one recent Friday complained that they had seen little sign of their new government making any difference to their lives.
“There is no law and no police,” said one worshipper. Another complained that services were provided only intermittently, although food and fuel subsidies had increased.
Others were more optimistic. “This is a transitional period,” said Abdulqader Sayeed, an employee in the economics ministry. “The government can’t organise itself … when the constitution is written, we will know more.”
Like many in Benghazi, Mr Sayeed opposed the idea of a federated Libya, in which the country’s regions would have a greater degree of autonomy. But he believes that nationalised companies such as the airline and oil company should be relocated, at least partially, to Benghazi.
The simmering resentment feeds into deep historical grudges. Libya only emerged as a unified entity after the Second World War, and Benghazi enjoyed joint-capital status with Tripoli under the rule of King Idress until Qaddafi took control of the country in 1969.
While the bulk of Libya’s vast oil deposits are in the east, Qaddafi spent the bulk of the country’s riches in the capital in the west, as well as in Sirte and his other favourite cities.
As the congress struggles to its feet in Tripoli, some worry that regional isolation from central powers may be a difficult habit to break.
Salim Betmal, the head of the municipal council in Misurata, said communication breakdowns during last year’s war isolated his city to the extent that it became independent of the transitional council leading the country. Since then, he said, it has been difficult to convince residents to respect the new government.
The abrupt move of the transitional governing council last year to Tripoli from Benghazi, after the fall of the capital to rebels, was a mistake, he said.
“The hot spot had been in Benghazi and suddenly it was Tripoli,” he said. “It was done in the wrong way, you should not feed these feelings of east and west.”
There are those, however, that are hopeful that the gulf between the two cities – and between the east and west of the country – can be bridged.
“Most countries in a post-conflict situation are worse off,” observed one western diplomat, referring to the vast oil income that the Libyan government has at its disposal to placate the population of a few million. “The government, by having control over oil revenues will have patronage, and as long as it manages these things. The fact is, they can be pretty generous to everyone.”
To integrate the east more effectively into the life of the nation, it may be given representation on the committee drafting the country’s new constitution out of proportion to its relatively low population when the process of writing the country’s new constitution begins. Notably, Libya’s new prime minister, Ali Zidane, also has turned to politicians from Benghazi to help form his cabinet.
Most residents of Benghazi are, for the moment, keen for the government to do its job. Increasing violence has made people wary of exacerbating problems, said Ramadan Al Darsi, a Congress member for Benghazi.
“There is a very big popular desire to settle down,” he said.
Omar Sallak, a member of Benghazi’s city council, expects his efforts to organise rubbish collection on a very limited budget to get easier as the government organises. And while he dismissed the western region as “crazy”, he said that it was part of an indivisible Libya.
“Libya is moving towards a state,” he said. “Libyans have started to understand that they need each other.”