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Beirut: Where Valentine’s Day Belongs to Another Kind of Saint

Though Beirut’s opulent array of lingerie boutiques, jewelry stores, and gift shops do brisk business in the romance trade throughout the year, many of them are shuttered on the most romantic day of all. Valentine’s Day is a semi-official holiday in Lebanon, though not because the citizens of this cosmopolitan, Middle Eastern country are reputedly more amorous than the rest of the Arab world. In fact, Feb. 14 is the date that former prime minister Rafik Hariri died in a massive car bombing in downtown Beirut in 2005, and each anniversary since has become a kind of saint’s day for those in the country who believe that the Hariri assassination was ordered by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which occupied Lebanon at the time. Continue reading →

Libya’s Civil War: The Limits of People Power

The huge plume of black smoke rising above oil refinery in the rebel-held city of Ras Lanuf, the result of air strikes Wednesday by the Libyan government, seemed to mark an ominous escalation in what has all the makings of a protracted Libyan civil war. Though the country’s spontaneous democratic revolution made lightning progress in liberating a large swath of the eastern Libya from the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and took the town of Ras Lanuf several days ago, it’s untrained volunteer militia has since balked in the face of the well-equipped remnants of the Libyan army that has stayed loyal to Gaddafi. Most importantly, the rebels lack armor and air support, and have been pinned down by government attack helicopters, fighter jets, and bombers. The attack on the oil refinery today suggests Gaddafi’s willingness to use his air superiority to target the country’s infrastructure in rebel-held territory, whatever the cost. Continue reading →

Libya’s Desert Rebellion: The Lessons of World War II

The whipping sandstorms, low visibility, and stray camels make the five-hour car ride from Benghazi to the oil refinery town of Ras Lanuf a tense one even in normal times. But these days there is nothing normal going on in Ras Lanuf, which lies on the front lines of the clashes between Libya’s volunteer rebel army and forces loyal to the country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. On Saturday when TIME visited, the gates of Ras Lanuf were guarded by a platoon of opposition irregulars with anti-aircraft guns and recoilless rifles mounted onto the backs of pickup trucks.

But calling this a front-line may overstate the level of organization and planning behind the rebel advance. Though opposition forces have been slowly moving west from their stronghold in Benghazi along the about 700-mile coastal highway to Tripoli, the country’s capital and the center of Gaddafi’s power, Ras Lanuf has changed hands several times. As has Bin Jawad, the next town west down the coastal highway. And looking at the leaderless bands of pick-up trucks gathering at checkpoints to make fresh sorties on government positions with weapons newly acquired from raided government arsenals that they barely know how to use, it’s hard to think of this as anything like a conventional army. But what’s clear is Libya’s desert geography — and Muammar Gaddafi’s attempt to violently suppress what was once a peaceful movement — has transformed the country’s pro-democracy uprising into the first military campaign of the Arab Spring. And it’s also clear the desert is an arena in which people power plays at a disadvantage.

For a dictatorship that’s been in power for 42 years, the Libyan government collapsed with remarkable speed in the eastern part of the country — a handful of days around February 17th. Besides the fact that Benghazi has long been a hotbed of dissent to rule from Tripoli, the terrain of the east — hills, forests, and a daisy chain of relatively dense urban centers along the coast — is also more sympathetic to a revolution. But west of Benghazi, the land flattens out, with the white sand of the Mediterranean shoreline giving way quickly to juniper and sage scrub and a seemingly endless expanse of dirt and discarded plastic bags. Towns along the way are small, easy to garrison, spread far apart, and located at highway intersections, or clustered around oil facilities.

If eastern Libya is guerrilla country, central Libya is tank terrain. Some of the great battles of World War Two were fought by legendary Axis and Allied tank commanders over the course of several years in a back-and-forth war along the north African coast between Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, nothing like the scale of those battles is going to occur in the Libyan civil war. Only the forces that remain loyal to the Gaddaffi regime have anything resembling a modern army. But therein lies the problem for the opposition. Though much of the Libyan military — already under-funded by a suspicious Gaddafi, who lavished money and materiel on his personal security forces instead — defected to the opposition camp, it has been unable to impose any authority or organization on the rebellion’s volunteers who have been doing most of the fighting. And without air support and armor, speeding down straight desert highways with no cover is almost suicide.

Indeed, given their lack of discipline and training it’s incredible there aren’t more self-inflicted casualties. Besides the usual bouts of idiotic celebratory gunfire, among the many nerve wracking scenes of boys playing with dangerous toys that TIME witnessed near Ras Lanuf included a youngster sitting on top of a huge heap of ammunition boxes at a highway checkpoint and nearly knocking over an open artillery shell crate just so he could get more comfortable. And though the opposition claims an explosion at an ammunition depot near Benghazi that killed more than 20 people on Friday was the work of government saboteurs, it could just as likely have been the result of an accident. Meanwhile, though the Libyan government forces fled Benghazi in disarray, they appear to have regained a measure of composure, and according to reports, have dug into Bin Jawad with sniper positions backed by artillery, helicopters, and fighter jets. Fighting will get even tougher if the rebels move closer to Sert, Gaddaff’s hometown, located about midway between Benghazi and Tripoli.

Just how long Free Libya’s desert campaign will last is anyone’s guess. During the North African campaign in WWII, supply lines proved crucial. When the Allied air and sea power cut fuel deliveries to German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Arfika Corps, its Panzer tanks ran out of gas in a region where, ironically, some of the world’s largest oil fields were later discovered. Nowadays the rebel government says it has enough cash to pay salaries for the next two months. It’s asking foreign countries to begin recognizing it as Libya’s legitimate authority, a prelude to formally asking oil companies to begin paying them rather than the government in Tripoli. The Benghazi government also says at least one national oil company, the Sert Oil Company located in Ras Lanuf, has broken with Tripoli and sided with the rebels, and the refineries at Ras Lunuf were refueling opposition vehicles free of charge. The rebels are also getting foreign donations of food and medicine delivered to Benghazi’s port. “This isn’t Darfur, there’s not going to be a humanitarian crisis here,” said one rebel government spokesman in Benghazi . “But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a revolution by amateurs. We can’t keep doing this forever.”

Morale may end up playing the decisive factor in this conflict — though it can’t be too high on the Gaddafi side as they shoot on their own people, amid rumors that many soldiers are ordered to fight by their officers at gunpoint. But the regime and its supporters are fighting for their survival. Swift sanctions, asset freezes and threats from international bodies to investigate the regime for crimes against humanity have given the government little incentive to surrender peacefully.

The rebellion too is fighting for its life. Though the Arab League has offered to help broker negotiations, the opposition says there is nothing to discuss and fears that any return by the regime will be the beginning of a massacre. But fear is in short supply among the rebel volunteers, many of whom believe that their miraculous against-the-odds successes are a sign that God is on their side. After an attack helicopter appeared and began rocketing the vicinity, TIME beat a hasty retreat from Ras Lanuf back to Benghazi. But car after car of young men with guns and flags of the old Libyan monarchy, which has become the new emblem of Free Libya, kept speeding down the other side of the highway to fill the breach. One truck was also flying the skull and cross-bones of a Jolly Roger pirate flag, which perhaps better captured the wild spirit of the rebel campaign, which may yet tilt in their favor. As one veteran of north African desert battles, American General George Patton, said: “Nobody ever defended anything successfully. There is only attack and attack, and attack some more.”

Dispatch from Libya: Why Benghazi Rebelled

With names like the Cafe Venizia, Mundo, and Hot Hot Coffee, the espresso bars on seemingly every block of Benghazi are a pleasant legacy of Italy’s otherwise largely brutal occupation of Libya in the 1930′s. Another is the string of neo-baroque municipal buildings, art-deco cinemas and shopping arcades that the Italian city planners linked up to the old Ottoman-era town with a series of avenues and squares. Independence in 1951 and the oil boom in the 1970′s left their own marks on Benghazi, in the form of surprisingly stylish renditions of the architectural fads of the day, Brutalist banks and International Style hotels. And though most of this huge country is desert, Benghazi is surrounded by green hills, white beaches, and blue waters. Under the influence of a few too many cappuccini — alcohol is banned in Libya — it’s easy to imagine some glossy travel magazine of the era branding this stretch of North Africa as the Libyan Riviera.

But the sober reality is that Benghazi, now a symbol of resistance to the rule of Colonel Mummar Gaddafi, is also a symbol of that dictator’s abuse, megalomania, and incompetence. The once beautiful downtown is a skeleton of its former self, with monuments surrounded by scaffolding that never comes down, empty office buildings, and decrepit apartment blocks. Outside of downtown, the pavement stops just off the highway, and dirt streets fill with rotting garbage. The city of one million has one sewage treatment plant, built more than 40 years ago. Waste is just flushed into the ground or the sea, and when the water table rises in winter, the streets become open cesspools. Benghazi, the second largest city in a country with vast oil wealth and a tiny population, is rotting in its own fifth. “Why do we have to live like this?” says, Rafiq Marrakis, a professor of architecture and urban planning at Benghazi’s Garyounis University, Libya’s oldest, who took TIME on a tour of Benghazi’s sad decline. “There’s no planning, no infrastructure, no society. Gaddafi has billions and billions in banks all over the world. But he’s left us here with nothing.”

Most Libyans suffered under Gaddafi’s capricious rule. His support for radical leftist militant groups in Europe and the Middle East sparked international sanctions that lasted until 2006, when Libya formally ended its weapons of mass destruction programs in exchange for international rehabilitation. His economic policies — laid out in his famous Green Book, which purports to chart a third way between Communism and liberal democracy but in fact cloaked an autocracy with a thousand toothless committees — were just as destructive. Gaddafi banned much private enterprise and turned over property from landlords to their tenants. While this benefited Libya’s underclass in the short term, it meant that there has been almost no investment in maintaining the country’s housing stock. “All of this is collapsing on the inside,” says Marrakis, pointing to apartment buildings along Gamal Abdel Nasser street, once among the city’s most prestigious addresses, now more reminiscent of Soviet bloc eastern Europe than of the breezy Mediterranean. “There is a severe, chronic housing shortage,” he continues. “Young people can’t own their own homes, can’t get married, can’t start their lives.”

Benghazi felt the particular brunt of Gaddaffi’s neglect, in part because the city has a history of defiance to central rule from the capital, in Tripoli. (Ironically, the uprising of military officers that brought Qaddaffi to power in 1969 began in Benghazi.) Gaddafi leveled the old bazaar, the heart of the Arab city and the center of civic life, and carved out a swath of prime real estate for an arsenal, parade ground and villa-studded pleasure dome for his elite security forces. And what social welfare projects the regime did undertake, such as a medical center with the pompously literal name “One Thousand Two Hundred Bed Hospital” became white elephants. “They’ve been building it for more than 40 years and it still isn’t finished,” says Marrakis. “Huge hospitals like this are obsolete now anyway. [But] all he cared about was his own glory.”

The neglect of the city’s infrastructure became one of the major reasons why Benghazi turned against the government. With the opening of the country since 2003, Libyans began to learn more about the outside world and realized that they were being shortchanged. The example of the rapid development of the Persian Gulf countries, particularly the Emirati city-sate of Dubai — which doesn’t even have much oil wealth of its own — into world-class economies, was particularly galling. “How is it that they are in the desert, in harsh conditions, but have performed miracles, while we have a wonderful climate and all these resources and are going nowhere,” says Marrakis. “[Meanwhile] the young people get YouTube and see how one of Gaddafi’s sons spent a million dollars to have Beyoncé perform at his party.”

In the last three years, the regime began realizing that its neglect of the city was reaching a crisis point, and the government brought in a slew of foreign construction companies with Chinese, Malaysian and Filipino workers to build badly planned suburban mega-tenements. “They realized they were running out of time,” says Marrakis. But it was too little too late for the dispossessed young people — more than half of Libyans are under the age of 30 — who took to the streets on Feb. 17 and drove Gaddafi’s forces out of Benghazi.

Now Marrakis and many of the other intelligensia who have formed a new provisional government are hoping that Free Libya will turn Benghazi into the tourist mecca that its geography and history could so easily make it. “I’ve been all over Europe and Asia and haven’t seen beaches like we have here; Greek and Roman cities,” says Marrakis, who once lived in Seattle and got his doctorate from the University of Washington. “We had a golden opportunity and Gaddafi squandered it. This time we will do it correctly.”

Meanwhile, the city has a least one new attraction. The burned-out villas, fortresses, and jails of Gaddafi’s pampered and brutal security services — conquered by Benghazi’s street kids — where the city’s families are now lining up to see for the first time how their overlords lived.

Libya’s Rebel City: How Gaddafi Allowed Benghazi to Rot

With names like the Cafe Venizia, Mundo, and Hot Hot Coffee, the espresso bars on seemingly every block of Benghazi are a pleasant legacy of Italy’s otherwise largely brutal occupation of Libya in the 1930′s. Another is the string of neo-baroque municipal buildings, art-deco cinemas and shopping arcades that the Italian city planners linked up to the old Ottoman-era town with a series of avenues and squares. Independence in 1951 and the oil boom in the 1970′s left their own marks on Benghazi, in the form of surprisingly stylish renditions of the architectural fads of the day, Brutalist banks and International Style hotels. And though most of this huge country is desert, Benghazi is surrounded by green hills, white beaches, and blue waters. Under the influence of a few too many cappuccini — alcohol is banned in Libya — it’s easy to imagine some glossy travel magazine of the era branding this stretch of North Africa as the Libyan Riviera.

But the sober reality is that Benghazi, now a symbol of resistance to the rule of Colonel Mummar Gaddafi, is also a symbol of that dictator’s abuse, megalomania, and incompetence. The once beautiful downtown is a skeleton of its former self, with monuments surrounded by scaffolding that never comes down, empty office buildings, and decrepit apartment blocks. Outside of downtown, the pavement stops just off the highway, and dirt streets fill with rotting garbage. The city of one million has one sewage treatment plant, built more than 40 years ago. Waste is just flushed into the ground or the sea, and when the water table rises in winter, the streets become open cesspools. Benghazi, the second largest city in a country with vast oil wealth and a tiny population, is rotting in its own fifth. “Why do we have to live like this?” says, Rafiq Marrakis, a professor of architecture and urban planning at Benghazi’s Garyounis University, Libya’s oldest, who took TIME on a tour of Benghazi’s sad decline. “There’s no planning, no infrastructure, no society. Gaddafi has billions and billions in banks all over the world. But he’s left us here with nothing.”

Most Libyans suffered under Gaddafi’s capricious rule. His support for radical leftist militant groups in Europe and the Middle East sparked international sanctions that lasted until 2006, when Libya formally ended its weapons of mass destruction programs in exchange for international rehabilitation. His economic policies — laid out in his famous Green Book, which purports to chart a third way between Communism and liberal democracy but in fact cloaked an autocracy with a thousand toothless committees — were just as destructive. Gaddafi banned much private enterprise and turned over property from landlords to their tenants. While this benefited Libya’s underclass in the short term, it meant that there has been almost no investment in maintaining the country’s housing stock. “All of this is collapsing on the inside,” says Marrakis, pointing to apartment buildings along Gamal Abdel Nasser street, once among the city’s most prestigious addresses, now more reminiscent of Soviet bloc eastern Europe than of the breezy Mediterranean. “There is a severe, chronic housing shortage,” he continues. “Young people can’t own their own homes, can’t get married, can’t start their lives.”

Benghazi felt the particular brunt of Gaddaffi’s neglect, in part because the city has a history of defiance to central rule from the capital, in Tripoli. (Ironically, the uprising of military officers that brought Qaddaffi to power in 1969 began in Benghazi.) Gaddafi leveled the old bazaar, the heart of the Arab city and the center of civic life, and carved out a swath of prime real estate for an arsenal, parade ground and villa-studded pleasure dome for his elite security forces. And what social welfare projects the regime did undertake, such as a medical center with the pompously literal name “One Thousand Two Hundred Bed Hospital” became white elephants. “They’ve been building it for more than 40 years and it still isn’t finished,” says Marrakis. “Huge hospitals like this are obsolete now anyway. [But] all he cared about was his own glory.”

The neglect of the city’s infrastructure became one of the major reasons why Benghazi turned against the government. With the opening of the country since 2003, Libyans began to learn more about the outside world and realized that they were being shortchanged. The example of the rapid development of the Persian Gulf countries, particularly the Emirati city-sate of Dubai — which doesn’t even have much oil wealth of its own — into world-class economies, was particularly galling. “How is it that they are in the desert, in harsh conditions, but have performed miracles, while we have a wonderful climate and all these resources and are going nowhere,” says Marrakis. “[Meanwhile] the young people get YouTube and see how one of Gaddafi’s sons spent a million dollars to have Beyoncé perform at his party.”

In the last three years, the regime began realizing that its neglect of the city was reaching a crisis point, and the government brought in a slew of foreign construction companies with Chinese, Malaysian and Filipino workers to build badly planned suburban mega-tenements. “They realized they were running out of time,” says Marrakis. But it was too little too late for the dispossessed young people — more than half of Libyans are under the age of 30 — who took to the streets on Feb. 17 and drove Gaddafi’s forces out of Benghazi.

Now Marrakis and many of the other intelligensia who have formed a new provisional government are hoping that Free Libya will turn Benghazi into the tourist mecca that its geography and history could so easily make it. “I’ve been all over Europe and Asia and haven’t seen beaches like we have here; Greek and Roman cities,” says Marrakis, who once lived in Seattle and got his doctorate from the University of Washington. “We had a golden opportunity and Gaddafi squandered it. This time we will do it correctly.”

Meanwhile, the city has a least one new attraction. The burned-out villas, fortresses, and jails of Gaddafi’s pampered and brutal security services — conquered by Benghazi’s street kids — where the city’s families are now lining up to see for the first time how their overlords lived.