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In Bayda, Libya's eastern capital, romance of revolution is fading

The scene of Libya's first Arab Spring-inspired demonstration is now one seat of a divided regime on the verge of financial collapse. Thousands fleeing fighting have poured in, and prices are soaring.

“The revolution started in this city, but from 2011 till now, I don’t know whether to call it a revolution or disaster,” says Osama Haash, a native of what is now eastern Libya’s capital city.

Today, Bayda isn't a war zone, but it is struggling with the cost of Libya’s chaotic unraveling. Thousands of Libyans displaced by fighting that has divided the country have poured into the city. Even the most spirited of revolutionaries are questioning the benefits of democracy.

Bayda is the capital of the Green Mountains district in Cyrenaica, a region rich in insurgents and home to a vibrant federalist movement. It became the seat of the government after militias overran Tripoli in August and set up a rival Islamist-leaning administration.

But with Libya on the verge of financial collapse – oil revenues have plummeted and the Central Bank is fast burning through its foreign reserves – the two rival governments are weighing painful cuts to food and fuel subsidies. The romance of having been a revolutionary capital is fading.

“At first people were happy that the government came here, but that is no longer the case,” says Mr. Haash, who has swung from advocating freedom to calling for a federal system under monarchic rule. “We brought the government here to solve problems, but if they are unable to solve problems then there is no need for them.”

The commercial bank of Bayda recently had to give Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s government a loan of 750 million Libyan dinars ($550 million) to keep going.

“Any government without money, without resources will be hated. We could see a backlash,” warns Haash.

It was here that Libya’s first Arab Spring-inspired demonstration erupted on Feb. 16, 2011. Residents took advantage of a football game to gather and defy dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a full day ahead of their countrymen, who had designated the 17th to protest.

It is a chapter in history that many here remember with pride, nostalgia, and frustration over its bittersweet fruits. Among them is Ziad al-Naji, whose brother was killed by security forces in that first demonstration.

“We didn’t expect the revolution to be like this, that it would be stolen by opportunists and Islamists,” he says. “We thought Libya would be a paradise like Dubai.”

Rents are soaring

Bayda is not a front-line city but it is positioned directly between two conflict zones – Benghazi and Derna, where forces allies to Gen. Khalifa Haftar are fighting jihadist groups but failing to deliver a conclusive victory. 

“Qaddafi used to kill extremists one by one. Now, without Qaddafi, they are spreading all over Libya,” says Jut, a housewife.

At night, young men wounded on the front lines fly out discretely from the nearest airport to seek medical treatment abroad. When dawn breaks, long and angry lines form at bakeries, which frequently run out of flour. Power cuts are common.

As Bayda native Mansour al-Fayidi puts it: “Libya used to bankroll Africa. Now it begs for aid.” 

Rents in the city of 250,000 people have doubled, taking advantage of growing demand. “Landlords hold out to rent to the government which is willing to pay high prices, but the average person is facing major problems,” explains Mr. Fayidi.

International aid is lacking

But even the government is struggling to pay its bills – hotels now ask officials for cash upfront. More than 300 government employees migrated from Tripoli to Bayda, filling up every available room in town.

The main pressure on housing, however, comes from the 3,000 families that fled violence in Derna and Benghazi. Many of them live in cramped conditions in converted facilities, such as a dorm for female university students. 

“Only 850 families get aid from us,” says Idriss Jwer, head of a local task force helping the displaced. “There is no help from international organizations.”

Twenty-percent of the internally displaced people, he says, are individuals wanted by the Islamic State, usually army and policemen who fled from Benghazi and Darna with their families. A smaller fraction are natives of Tawargha, a town burned down by militias from Misurata in 2011. 

Mohammed Nasser used to work as a teacher in Darna, a town where both Ansar al-Sharia and Islamic State are present. “We were not targeted, but we knew the real war can go off at any moment, so we left,” he says under the stern gaze of his elderly father.

Some blame West for chaos

While many are frustrated because they cannot return to Benghazi, others back General Haftar’s campaign. “It was absolutely necessary to get to the root of the problem, to see who was behind all the assassinations and bombs,” says Fatma Milaad, who was displaced by the fighting.

Nearly 800 individuals were killed in a wave of assassinations that swept Benghazi from 2012 to 2014, Bayda officials say. They blame Islamists for assassinations that took out ex-regime military, police, and judiciary officers, as well as prominent activists.

Jwer holds the West responsible for the rise of jihadists and the country’s descent into chaos.

“All these tragedies were created by the US, the UK and NATO,” he thunders walking down the dark and damp hallways of the dorm. “Why? Because they removed Al-Qaddafi and handed Libya over to Al Qaeda. They are responsible for the misery of our people.”

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