For Benghazi residents, the assault on the diplomatic mission was a milestone in their descent into chaos.
CAIRO — Scores of anti-Islamist demonstrators gathered last week in downtown Benghazi, Libya, to protest a proposed unity government.
Five mortar shells fell nearby, presumably fired by Islamist extremists who, for their own reasons, also opposed the unity government. No one was hurt and, instead of dispersing, participants said, the crowd only grew larger.
Navigating a war zone is no longer anything new for the hundreds of thousands of residents remaining in Benghazi. More than four years after an uprising there led to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, the battle for the city may now be the most intractable obstacle to resolution of the broader conflicts splintering Libya. Residents say they have all but given up on any quick end of the fighting.
“People hate each other, and they have become fierce,” said Abdullah Jamal, 30, an engineer who still lives in the city.
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Benghazi preoccupies officials in Washington, D.C., because of the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission there on Sept. 11, 2012. The U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans died in the attack.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified Thursday before a congressional panel investigating the security failure, and a federal judge in Washington has begun weighing motions in the criminal trial of the extremist accused of leading the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was captured by U.S. special- operations forces last year in a raid on Benghazi.
But for Benghazi residents, the assault on the diplomatic mission was also a milestone in their descent into chaos.
That brazen act made all too clear the frightening ambitions of Islamist extremists. The attack galvanized a new movement against them. At the same time it frightened away international diplomats, investors and aid groups that had given the city a certain cosmopolitan flavor after the fall of Gadhafi.
Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a would-be strongman backed by Egypt and its Persian Gulf allies, tapped into public anger at the violence of the extremists. In 2014, he began a military campaign against the extremists as well as more moderate Islamists.
But in a pre-emptive strike, a faction of Islamists and regional militias seized the capital, Tripoli. Libya swiftly collapsed into an armed conflict between two rival coalitions of cities and tribes.
The internationally recognized government sided with the general and relocated to eastern Libyan towns under his control. The opposing faction set up its own rival provisional government in Tripoli. And in the vacuum of authority, the Islamic State group has established its own beachhead, in the mid-coastal city of Sirte.
Benghazi, though, remains the crucible of the conflict. While the fighting between cities and factions has cooled in other parts of Libya, Benghazi is as polarized as ever, rived by fear of Hifter on one side and fear of the Islamists on the other.
Rival armed groups have divided up the city. Fighters loyal to the Islamic State group are battling in the waterfront neighborhood of Sabry, once home to Benghazi’s best seafood restaurant, and the residential district of Al Leithy, Abu Khattala’s neighborhood before his capture, according to photographs the group has posted online and residents with loyalties on both sides of the struggle.
Other Islamist-allied militias and Ansar al-Shariah, an extremist group that also played a role in the attack on the U.S. compound, dominate the newer areas of Al Gawasha and Sidi Faraj, farther from downtown and not far from the former compound.
Hifter’s forces control the airport. No longer open to commercial flights, it houses a small fleet of aging bombers used to attack his rivals.
Much of downtown Benghazi has been gutted. Shelling has nearly demolished the Nouran hotel, once a favorite of journalists and aid workers. Garyounis, the area around Benghazi’s venerable university, remains a dangerous battle zone.
Fighting has destroyed most the buildings on Venezia Road, the long street that led to the U.S. compound and blossomed with shops and restaurants after Gadhafi’s downfall.
Random shells sometimes fall out of the sky in various parts of the city. Trash piles up in the streets. Rolling power blackouts can last for five or 10 hours and sometimes engulf the entire city.
Fighting in the farmland around the city has created a shortage of vegetables. An influx of those displaced from war zones has overcrowded the safer neighborhoods, straining tempers. Public schools remain closed, and children have nothing to do.
The Islamist militias appear to be welcoming foreign fighters into their ranks and there are reports of suicide bombings, while Hifter is relying heavily on young and untrained neighborhood militias, said Frederic Wehrey, a researcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who recently visited the city.
But as the deadlock stretches on, he said, “There is a sense of normalcy side by side with combat.”
Residents have returned to work in many places. Young men play soccer at night or sit in cafes smoking water pipes and drinking espresso. The social and shopping scene that was displaced by the fighting on Venezia Road has returned to Dubai Street, a broad boulevard. The university recently began holding at least a few exams in locations off campus.
Those precincts that are free of violence are clogged with traffic. The main highways around the city have been wrecked, but many still drive around in search of something to do.
But a certain desperation has altered the “psyche of the city,” said Nafia Elbouri, 30, a father and home-appliance distributor.
“I don’t see anyone smiling. You enter a place and you feel like they would eat you with their eyes,” he said. “The city we grew up loving is not the one we see today.”