Benghazi dreams of becoming "Libya's New York"

Wed Dec 7, 2011 11:22am EST
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By Francois Murphy

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - To the people of Benghazi, the faded colonial facades are as significant as the burnt-out buildings and bullet holes.

Their city, the cradle of this year's Libyan revolution, suffered four decades of malignant neglect at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi as he fashioned the capital Tripoli into his power base at Benghazi's expense, they say.

Now that the man who branded the rebels "rats" and threatened to exterminate them "alley by alley" is gone, many here argue that it is time for Benghazi to regain its rightful place as a leading business and commercial centre.

"Visiting Benghazi now is like visiting in 1969," said Anwar Moussa, an unemployed 26-year-old, referring to the year Gaddafi came to power in a military coup.

"This carpet probably hasn't changed since then," he added, sitting in one of the city's drab concrete hotels where politicians mingle with Western visitors.

Despite having repelled Gaddafi's forces eight months ago, the scruffy seaside city still faces many of the same problems as the rest of Libya -- rubbish is piled up on its streets and beaches, jobs are in short supply and weapons are everywhere. But that doesn't prevent people from thinking big.

"Maybe it can be like America," said Moussa, who studied in Britain before returning to Benghazi last year. "You have Washington, DC and you have New York. Maybe Benghazi can be the economic capital and Tripoli the political capital."

The idea is a common one in Benghazi, perhaps because it is not new. The city, which is a major port, an oil industry hub and a manufacturing zone, cultivated its status as a premier economic centre under King Idris, whom Gaddafi overthrew. Its population is now estimated at nearly 1 million, roughly half the size of Tripoli's.   Continued...

<p>Fireworks explode as people gather near the courthouse in Benghazi August 22, 2011 to celebrate the entry of rebel fighters into Tripoli. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori</p>