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.
Although a rebellion that began in the east of the country has swept to power nationally, there appears to be little serious animosity in Benghazi towards the capital in the west. The eastern half of Libya contains most of the country’s crude oil and water resources, but none of two dozen or so people interviewed by Reuters expressed a desire to split from the west or for Benghazi to take over as the national capital.
“Our eternal capital is Tripoli,” retired hotel worker Ali Mohammed Ibrahim said in a bare shisha bar, where men smoked water pipes of sweet, flavored tobacco. But when asked about Benghazi’s future, he said it could serve as an “economic capital”.
Exactly what that would look like is anyone’s guess. Benghazi’s awkward skyline of reinforced concrete blocks and the occasional Italian or Ottoman relic is a far cry from the towers of downtown Tripoli.
The Benghazi branch of Libya’s stock exchange, which looks like a modern bungalow in a quiet neighborhood outside the city centre, is a world away from Wall Street. Trading has been halted since the revolution began in February.
“This branch is completely ready to operate,” Najib Obeida, its head, said in his eerily quiet office, explaining that the fiber optic link with the other branch in Tripoli was down. He hoped it would be restored by the new year.
Asked what, other than oil, could drive the Libyan economy in years to come, Obeida rattled off a list of ideas including fish farming, boosting tourism and creating a hub for air travel in Africa.
Few people here seem to have such specific ideas about the future. Some speak of greater political autonomy for Benghazi. But the most common demand is more down-to-earth: people are fed up with having to travel across the country to Tripoli to complete various administrative procedures.
“What we want is for the common people not to have to go to the capital in order to get a small certificate. This is the problem, the administrative work,” agronomist Fawzy El-Doumy, 64, said after Friday prayers.
At the commercial port, it seems the economy is slowly rumbling back to life. Shipments have resumed but there is no bustle on the docks. Rusty vessels lie still in the water.
“Traffic has been steadily increasing,” deputy harbormaster Saleh al-Barghati said in his office inside a decrepit prefabricated block on the quayside. Shipments were about a quarter of pre-revolution levels, he added.
As for how long it would take for volumes to return to normal: “It depends on the companies. Maybe about six months.”
Many foreign firms, however, are waiting for security to improve and for a long-term central government to be formed that can sign big contracts. Most people interviewed agreed the biggest problem facing the city was security.
There are more police on the streets than in Tripoli, where armed groups from various parts of the country still roam. But although the situation is more settled in Benghazi, local militias still parade around at night, firing in the air.
The provisional national government, which was sworn in last month and given the task of steering the country towards democratic elections next year, has said security is a top priority. It intends to meld the militias into a national army.
But disarming militiamen is a sensitive political issue since many of the militias are headed by strongmen jostling for position on the national stage. Fighters have also acquired a special status as heroes of the revolution.
“We can’t say to the people ‘Hand over your weapons’,” said the head of Benghazi’s city council, Jamal bin Nour. Since there was no rule of law yet, the militias needed to help maintain security in the city, he argued.
“They will choose the right moment to hand over the weapons,” bin Nour said.
At the city’s sprawling jail, where 3,400 prisoners escaped during the revolution and set fire to many of the buildings, the guards have a different perspective.
“Some of the prison staff didn’t come back because they know the criminals have weapons now,” guard Marai Ali al-Hassouni, 30, said inside the perimeter wall, its barbed wire speckled with black plastic bags lifted by the sea breeze.
When asked if he felt in danger, his 28 year-old colleague Mohammed Abdelaziz al-Majbari said: “Of course, because of the spread of weapons.” The jail now houses about 600 men, most of them awaiting trial.
Like most people, the guards were confident that things were improving little by little. The speed of recovery, however, would depend on funding, they said. So far, private contractors have carried out some repairs for the city council on credit.
Bin Nour said conditions in Benghazi would depend largely on the new central government. He too avoided predicting when normalcy would return, resorting instead to a soccer analogy.
“We are in the second half of the game,” he said, before adding cautiously: “There’s always extra time.”
Editing by Andrew Torchia