On the Benghazi Express

The Arab Spring transports a veteran reporter back to Egypt and his naive younger self

| January-February 2012

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    Greg Betza / www.gregbetza.com

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During this Arab Spring, when the sting of tear gas mingled so easily with the scent of jasmine, I was glued to the nightly Al Jazeera live feed on my iPad and transported back to my days as an idealistic public-radio reporter passing through Tripoli and Benghazi, Ismailia and Cairo. Though my time in Libya and Egypt, nearly 40 years ago, was brief, it was enough to experience the corruption that would harden over the following decades and crack so dramatically with last year’s uprisings.

I was 22 when I was sent to cover the Yom Kippur War from the Egyptian side. I can say today with only the slightest cringe that with the Cold War raging I had a rather romantic naïveté about the Arab world. The very sound of it all held some promise to my ignorant self. The Syrian Baath Socialists. The Libyan Revolution. Anwar Sadat following in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Non-Aligned, anti-imperialist footsteps. There was even some sort of socialist revolution, it seemed, in a place called Iraq. All of it appeared to be a refreshing contrast to the dark night of military dictatorship. To be fair to my younger self, I had few illusions about the then five-year-old Gaddafi regime, which already seemed rancid.

One learns only from experience that political labels are deceiving. Left and right mean little when there are no civil liberties, when material needs are not met, when independent thought is suppressed.

Libyan reality hit me hard as soon as my plane from Paris touched down in Tripoli. The airport was a crowded, steaming-hot mess. My task was to take a connector flight to Benghazi and, from there, find a car and driver to transport me 18 hours across the Sahara Desert into Cairo (the airport there was closed because of the war). Fellow journos would soon dub this trek the Benghazi Express.

The squalor of the airport and the steely-eyed stare of the guards were overwhelming. Gaddafi, in a fit of defiant nationalism, had banned the use of any language other than Arabic in official venues. Sweating like a pig in a leather jacket and packing a whole lot of radio stuff, I was lost. With not one English sign to direct me, I had no idea which of the endless lines was the right one for the flight to Benghazi. I ran into an equally confused Brit, who, eyes watering and skin flushed, blabbered about two of his countrymen who had just been pulled out of a line by Libyan secret police and hauled away.

Spooked, I joined a promising-looking queue, tossed all my stuff on the floor, and exhaled out loud, “Shit!”