Despite the east sitting on 60 percent of Libya’s oil wealth, buildings in Benghazi are dilapidated. Many houses built by Italian colonial rulers still show damage from air strikes during World War II when the city changed hands between British and German troops.
Tripoli’s government, hampered by infighting and militias refusing to disarm, has done little to improve public services. Aged hospitals, schools and universities have yet to be refurbished. At night, Venice Street is lit by sparkling shop fronts, not street lamps.
That has fueled calls for more autonomy from Tripoli under a federal system to share wealth and power under post-colonial divisions of the Cyrenaica region to the east, southern Fezzan and Tripolitania to the west.
A Cyrenaica movement has already grown, declaring itself independent and set up its own administration and oil firm. Protesters have controlled oil ports in the east for months. It is still uncertain how much autonomy they can really exercise.
“We have many problems with the government in Tripoli,” Baksheshe said. “For any project we need to go to Tripoli.”
If there is development in Benghazi, it comes from the private sector such as Chinese firms planning 20,000 housing units. Four large building projects and eight tower blocks are under way, and a Turkish firm plans an American University campus like in Cairo or Beirut.
However, the biggest obstacle in Benghazi remains the lack of security. Car hijackings are widespread, and assassinations of army or police officers are commonplace.
New luxury also attracts unwanted attention. When an armed gang attacked one perfume shop, some locals blame radical Islamists who tend to consider perfume or makeup as haram, or forbidden, under their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
“You can have growth for this, and the next, maybe three years, but what then?” Lara said, sitting in his office in a high-rise tower in central Benghazi.
Baksheshe’s institute is trying to persuade investors to come by guaranteeing them protection.
“We had a Turkish firm ... which was afraid to come and demanded security. They’ve been here for three months and everything is going well,” he said.
Even Islamists publicly welcome the shop bonanza, and say they reject violence. They said the Islamists would always respect others’ beliefs, but hint they can show who is in charge when they are unhappy with Benghazi’s direction.
“We only have a problem with violations of Islamic law like interest payments, alcohol or immoral places,” said Ahmed Zlietny, spokesman for a local Islamic group campaigning for the introduction of Shariah law. “If we really wanted to impose Islamic law on Libyans we could do so by force.”