BENGHAZI, Libya — The money's running out, the fuel stocks are depleted, the oil has largely stopped flowing and most other financial activity has ceased. But the official running the economy of the rebel-held swaths of Libya says he's not overly worried.
"A ship's on the way," Ali Tarhouni said Tuesday, citing the anticipated arrival by sea of a fuel tanker with stocks for the main power plant in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. "That's why I woke up dancing this morning."
Almost three months after rebels expelled the forces of Moammar Gadhafi, life goes on in "liberated" Libya with a state of mind that might be described as precarious elation, with the fighting in the country at a stalemate.
The rebel-held zones are going broke, but there's no outward sense of panic — or regret. Here in eastern Libya, no one seems to pine for the more than 40-year reign of Brother Leader.
The scene, if anything, is the opposite of the anarchic tableau of looting, power outages and armed conflict that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Cafes bustle with the caffeinated chatter of devotees of the frothy cappuccino that is a blessed legacy of 20th century Italian colonization. Kalashnikov rifles are the de rigueur male accessory, but the incessant gunfire is mostly celebratory.
The rebel tricolor and revolutionary trinkets emblazoned with the crescent moon and star sell briskly at sidewalk stands. Rush-hour streets are jammed with gridlocked traffic.
Schools remain closed, many businesses are still shuttered and most people are out of work.
But keen to fend off social unrest, the self-appointed government nominally running things is doling out salaries and stipends while working with volunteers and aid agencies to distribute food, medicine and other necessities from both foreign and domestic donors. To date, power outages have been scattered and brief.
The shadow government even took the step of declaring that, until Gadhafi steps down, the national central bank and oil company would henceforth be based in Benghazi, not in the capital, Tripoli, Gadhafi's stronghold.
But beneath the veneer of normalcy is a nation verging on economic collapse.
Available funds are only sufficient to keep the rebel zone afloat for three or four weeks "at the most," Tarhouni, the rebel finance minister, told reporters Tuesday. Asked how much it costs to run things, he gave a vague daily range of $32 million to $64 million.
"It's a very hard question to answer," said Tarhouni, an economics professor at the University of Washington who returned after more than three decades in exile, one of dozens of Western-educated exiled technocrats who are helping the opposition cause. "It's the magnitude of the needs, and some of it is unknown, that makes answering that question very hard."
The rebels say their intention is to force Gadhafi out and reunite the nation.
"United Libya" is the mantra here, and no one seems to want the nation to remain divided for long. Many here have relatives in Tripoli, the capital, which is still under Gadhafi's rule.
"We are one country," said Rajab Kailany, 58, a teacher, one of dozens of now-unemployed Libyans waiting in line at a state bank to make a withdrawal.
Mostly, the lines, which can last hours, seem orderly. People appear patient, understanding that this process is going to take a long time, and may hit a lot of bumps, if it is to succeed.
"We don't mind if we have to wait now, we're not bothered if there's some inconvenience," Kailany said, as others waiting at the bank nodded in assent. "We know it's temporary. And we will all have a better future."