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Libya’s Idiosyncratic, Internet-Free Revolution

“Back in civilization!” my companion in Libya exclaimed as we drove from Libya into Egypt in late April. “I’ll be able to get my e-mail and my newspapers!”

I thought we had just left civilization.

Two weeks in Benghazi and three days in other towns in eastern Libya had shown me civilization as I wished it were: public civility, private effort, generosity, responsibility, egalitarianism. And part of the magic of Libya al Hurra (“Libya the Free,” as the eastern part of the country is known) was the absence of the Internet.

You could still check your e-mail—very slowly on laptop at my hotel, the Uzu, where the link was too weak for my BlackBerry to get e-mail, or quickly on BlackBerry at the Al Jazeera Net Café, which, on the other hand, had a terribly slow connection for laptops.

But most of the Libyans I met who were most active in the Revolution of the 17th of February had only sporadic Internet access. They were too busy to go to the Al Jazeera, and although a fair number were well-off enough to have satellite links at home that still worked, they were hardly ever at home. I’d sometimes get late-night e-mails from them responding to mine, but other times days could go by before I heard from them.

Day and night, Libyans from teenagers to grandparents were in meetings, talking to each other about politics. Sometimes I wondered how they could possibly have so much to talk about—but then I hadn’t been deprived of the opportunity to talk freely about politics for 42 years.

My Libyan friends—and in two visits over just 24 days, I felt that I made friends—say that they got e-mail on their handheld devices and at home. I wondered if the special flavor of the February 17th Revolution doesn’t have a lot to do with the way it got people out from behind their screens, first into the streets with their fellow citizens and then into those endless meetings.

In late May, I returned to spend a week in eastern Libya and there was still no Internet. People were getting tired of that, but they were still in meetings all the time, and the utopian spirit still held. There was little to distract from the great business of forming a society.

For one thing—and this is a fascinating but little-remarked aspect of the Libyan revolution—Qaddafi’s Libya allows for next to no consumer culture. The idea of shopping as an amusement was almost unconceivable, and dining out only a bit more possible. Most stores and restaurants were closed when I arrived April 8th, though more were opening when I left on the 25th and still more were open when I returned on May 20th.

This is doubtless a legacy of Qaddafi’s forcible socialism, but there is just about no place you’d want to shop in Benghazi, much less any of the other cities of eastern Libya. Besides a few bookstores in Benghazi—most of them ominously heavy on Islamic books; whether for the sake of religious law or market demand, I could not tell—the only store I was curious about was a bizarre, solitary Virgin Records in an upscale residential area and an equally odd scuba shop. It was very refreshing, the freedom from the obligation to be fashionable, or to think about fashion. And the idea of shopping as “therapy” so common in the US would, I bet, make no sense at all to Libyans. I wouldn’t have dared to mention it, in the context of an ongoing war.

Nor was there a habit of dining out. For a New Yorker living for weeks in a hotel, this was a shock. Initially it was hard to find any place to eat outside my hotel. You could walk miles without seeing an open restaurant. The food in the restaurants that gradually re-opened ranged from barely serviceable (most) to crudely tasty (the seafood place on the corniche). With the possible exception of one upscale but not very good (think Olive Garden) Italian place that Benghazi’s upper middle class frequented for lunch, there didn’t seem to be any place to see and be seen. This probably has something to do with the conservative nature of Cyrenaica, the country’s eastern coastal region; unlike in Tripoli (as I was told), most eastern Libyan restaurants have separate sections for families and for single men.

At any rate, most Libyans I hung out with seemed to skip most meals, fueled only by endless cups of espresso, and, for the men, endless cigarettes. (It is, thankfully, less socially acceptable for Libyan women to smoke; Libya remains one of the few paradises for smokers, where it is completely fine to light up unannounced in a closed car or almost anywhere except a hospital.)

The lack of places to spend money or be seen to spend money contributed to a sense that money was barely necessary. It is doubtless easier to think that in a rentier oil state. But unlike, say, the Emirates or Saudi Arabia, there is a fundamental egalitarianism and ascetic quality to Libyan life. Libyan expert Dirk Vanderwalle refers again and again to Qaddafi’s “preoccupation with equality” and from what I saw, it either reflected existing elements of Libyan society (possibly Bedu?) or Libyan society came to reflect this aspect of the dictator’s 42-year-long rule. Many Libyans whom I unhesitatingly labeled upper class or upper middle class were quick to tell me that Libyans did not think like that, that they did not have classes, that they watched TV with their maids and invited them to parties.

There was also an allegria, an improvisatory, speedy quality to revolutionary life that may also be a combination of traditional aspects of Libyan’s Mediterranean culture with Qaddafi’s influence. “Deliberate, state-sponsored unpredictability” (in DirkVanderwalle’s words) may account for some of the impetuousness of the Libyan temperament, the constant consumption of cigarettes and coffee, and of a bizarre confection of cornflakes drenched in sweetened milk and topped with chocolate syrup (this an improbable favorite of young men). Even the preferred idiosyncratic form of coffee—Nescafé mixed with water at espresso strength and topped with frothed milk—struck me as the crack cocaine of cappuccino drinks. God help the Libyans if they do get crack.

When American friends ask me about the “tribes” in Libya, or speak of it as though it were Afghanistan with oil, I get exasperated. Libyan society surely has its fault lines, and I am sure it will have growing pains as it eases into a post-Qaddafi democracy. But Libya is its own place, and the Libyan revolution sui generis.

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