The Message From Benghazi

Written on May 25, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Africa, Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Europe

By Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union.

The birth of a democracy is beautiful, but it isn’t always pretty. Muammar el-Qaddafi starved Benghazi of money, so it was a drab city even before the current uprising. Now the clutter of revolution makes it look even more disheveled. But just as the drabness fed defiance, so the clutter of old flags, homemade banners and crumpled leaflets speak of great hope.I had come to Benghazi to open the first European Union office in free Libya. I arrived in the newly named Freedom Square, to see the European Union flag flying near the courthouse and to meet some of the people who have been bringing democracy to life.

As in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I found not just enthusiasm for reform but great warmth toward their European neighbors across the Mediterranean. Passers-by greeted me more as a friend than a first-time visitor. “Welcome, Cathy, Welcome Europe,” one said; “we know you care about us, thank you for visiting us, come again.”

At the offices of the National Transitional Council, Fatma greeted me in traditional Libyan clothes with beaten silver jewelry on her ankles, wrists and fingers. At six years old she is tall for her age and quite shy to find herself the center of attraction. She had come to give me flowers. She told me she liked to paint, and had two younger brothers, but that sadly her father had died so now her uncle looked after the family.

While Fatma sat with me I started to talk to the leaders of the National Council about their hopes for their country. They told me: “We want to do this for ourselves. We just need your help on some things.” Security is one of their big concerns. Porous borders and too many weapons in the country create real problems. Their priorities include proper border management and an effective system for licensing weapons.

Security matters most to older people. Younger Libyans I met focused more on the how to participate in democracy: “It’s not just about elections,” one said. As in Egypt, the revolution has a broad social base, unified around the essentially secular themes of freedom, justice and equality. Religion matters but does not dominate — at least, not for now.

At a hotel in the center of Benghazi I met some of the people from civil society. One human rights activist, Mohamed, had spent eight years as a political prisoner under Qaddafi. “Being in prison wasn’t the worst,” he told me: “the biggest crime was that Qaddafi tried to kill our spirit and our dreams.” Yezid, a former engineer, is typical of the young pro-democracy revolutionaries known as “shabab.” Now he runs a radio station. Media is big in Benghazi — I was told that 55 newspapers have started since the revolution. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on May 24, 2011 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 25, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: The Message From Benghazi).


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