Seeing Libya from the Outside

To my father’s consternation, I began working in the field of international development after I graduated from architecture school. Repeated lectures on how this wasn’t a real field of work still fill our conversations (nothing outside of engineering is a serious profession in my father’s rigid worldview). Every car ride home from the airport on my visits back is filled with conversations of, “You need to get a Masters degree, work in the university, this will ensure your future.” But more than that, my father isn’t really clear on what it is I do, and ‘developing and managing’ projects isn’t a satisfying answer.

In fairness, I can’t always clearly articulate what it is I do. International development is a field in which projects are implemented with goals such as “capacity building” and “improving community resilience”, vague terms that are supposed to give the impression of improving the situation in underdeveloped and war-torn countries. But more than that, this is a field in which you are constantly trying to balance between political and economic interests within these states, in which you compete for funding to ensure your organization’s survival, and where you try to improve your professional image through a tangle of abbreviations and dry technical language. In this constant battle, the lofty goals set out in the projects are often forgotten

As a person who started out in very grassroots civil society organizations – picking up trash, holding festivals – it’s interesting to see the transformation that NGOs go through once they scale up. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to help more people and have more creative license to design projects. But on the other hand, it’s a source of constant frustration to try and work within the increased bureaucracy and procedures – a feeling akin to running a race in a pool of molasses.

But what really makes my own experience unique is the fact that the work I’m doing is for my own country, and not for some far-off nation that I’ve only heard about in the news. For this reason, my work is always coloured by my emotions, my frustrations are magnified, and the satisfaction following a successful project always sweeter.

For the average Libyan, finding fault with the work done by INGOs is part of the overall daily criticism towards everyone that hasn’t “fixed” Libya yet. But when you work within these organizations, you realize that a lot of delays and limited impact usually comes because it takes so much effort not to make things worse. In a country rampant with corruption and little rule of law, a well-intentioned community project could end up empowering mini-despots and fueling a system that disenfranchises the average citizen. So many projects have been stopped by local authorities because their palms weren’t greased enough.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all criticism lobbied at the international community is without merit. The world of development still suffers from lack of transparency, institutional racism and a result-oriented mind-set. Some of the foreign “expertise” hired by these organizations are not looking to save lives or make a difference, they just want a paycheck and a few months exploring an exotic country (often without the necessary sensitivities). Add to that the additional barrier of remote management and you have a recipe for redundancy.

The truth, of course, is always in between; INGOs are doing useful and important work in Libya, despite the difficulty of the situation. But they could definitely be doing better.

In the middle of all of this, I find myself with a new crisis of identity. To defend the work of my institute means that I’m part of the problem, to criticize it means that I am a hypocrite. The reality is that I just want to help my country within a system that allows me to give more than if I were to continue helping on a grassroots level.

More and more though, I’m finding out that Libya is really not a classic humanitarian/development country. The biggest added benefit of INGOs to any country is the money, plain and simple. Truly underprivileged countries need all the support they can get. But Libya is not a poor country. When hospitals turn their nose up at medical shipments, and when displaced people are asking for brand name items rather than the generic stuff that is distributed, then you know that the situation isn’t that bad.

What Libya needs is good management, administration and governance. If this is achieved, everything else will fall into place. But trying to achieve this goal is tantamount to finding a cure for cancer. The legacy left behind by colonialism and dictatorship is still deeply entrenched in the MENA region and will take generations to undo. So for now, everyone working on Libya will gravitate towards the easier, short-term fixes, which is where the funding flows anyways.

For now, I’ll stick to my little development projects, the ones my dad will never understand, and keep trying to create my own change from within. I’ve resigned myself to accept that the outcomes of what I’m doing won’t be apparent anytime soon. But with experience and time, those of us in the INGO world can at least start defining the right path.


*Disclaimer: This piece does not reflect the work being done in the migration sector in Libya, which is one big fucking mess on its own

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The Militia War Against Libya’s Youth

Since 2011, militias have always posed a threat to Libya’s young male population, who – without many economic opportunities or sense of belonging – become susceptible to the recruitment campaigns that promise youth the chance to “protect the revolution”. Of course, the biggest incentive is not ideological but financial; the salary offered by militias dwarfs that which can be obtained in the public or private sector. The militarization of youth is a problem that requires a strong nation to tackle, but in Libya’s fragmented system of governance, the problem is only getting worse.

There is a small but active group of young people, made up of civil society activists, culture enthusiasts, tech geeks, and others, who are creating their own spaces within this chaos. They organize events and sessions to come together and celebrate their passions, and along the way attract other disillusioned youth in the country. These small but strongly bonded networks are often the only outlet for creative self-expression, and a lifeline for young people who feel “different” from the mainstream.

But the militias and military, increasing affected by religious influences, are now beginning to crack down on these safe havens. A few days ago, a Comic Con event was raided in Tripoli by Salafi militia, who accused them – among other things – of “inciting violence” and “crimes against public morals and Islam”. Despite the fact that the organizers had received a security clearance for the event, many of them were still arrested, and there are reports that some attendees in custody have been abused.

This kind of action has become a trend in Libya, where a popular youth event – after gaining publicity online – leads to outraged responses from people and a swift reaction from the dominating military group. The Earth Hour event in Benghazi witnessed the almost exact same crackdown, when, despite obtaining security clearance, negative online reactions led to the arrest of the organizers. What’s incredibly frustrating is that the outrage is incited by young people behaving, well, like young people. Hosting concerts, singing, dressing up as favorite characters, things that are typical behaviour for youth in any country, are shocking for a population that has grown up in isolation from the rest of the world.

This year has been particularly bad for Libyan culture. Tanarout, a popular cultural center in Benghazi, was forced to shut down because of the harassment of neighbours. Youth writers who contributed to a book – Sun on Closed Windows – received death threats when an explicit excerpt of one of the stories made its way online. This particular incident also led to the closure of another cultural center in Tripoli for several days. Earlier this year, books were confiscated in Marj on the basis that they were also spreading “immoral” ideologies.

The list of ideologies that militias and the conservative populations seem to be terrified of is rather extensive and thematically incoherent: Satanism, atheism, shi’ism, Freemasonry, Zionism, homosexuality and, ironically, ISIS ideology. In most cases, it’s young people who are the victims of these bizarre allegations and highlights the growing divide between generations. The misunderstanding of youth and their trends happens in any society, but in Libya it can put your life at risk.

What’s particularly problematic is that the medium which puts young people in danger is social media, the same platforms that youth use to get together and share their ideas, interests and points of view. It’s saddening that this same medium which gives them some escape from their reality also poses a threat to their safety. Any online post that shares info about an event will inevitably see the comments section filled with enraged citizens worried about the morality of their society. In particular, the pictures of women seem to rile up the more vitriolic trolls. “Look at those whores,” one commenter says about a picture of girls who are modestly dressed and holding books. In order to respond to this public outcry, the militias swoop in and “save” these susceptible youth by arresting and beating them.

The crises and war have turned Libyans into a nation of people who can readily accept violence and death, in the process making them intolerable to the celebration of life, culture and the vibrancy of youth. As spaces for self-expression continue to shrink in the country for young people, more and more are looking towards countries where being yourself isn’t a crime. Meanwhile, the militias continue to protect a revolution that started as a call for individual freedom, by taking those freedoms away one by one.

Me and My Anxiety

I’ve always associated terms like ‘clinical depression’ or ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ with vague images of soldiers in battle fatigues or patients in a psychiatric ward; they were not concepts that I could immediately link to my surroundings, vague abstractions that always existed elsewhere. After all, what trauma could we have experienced in our sleepy, forgotten country, where nothing really moved forward and nothing of importance was discussed.

When the war broke out, and the sound of guns being fired and sight of blood pooling in the street was still new, we were not aware of what was happening to us internally. Many people made efforts to conceal their inner tumult. But sometimes not well enough. A friend of mine burst into tears suddenly upon arriving to class on day; she had witnessed the second car bombing in a week in her neighbourhood. Others desperately sought help, but there was none. Mental illness is not recognized for what it is in Libya, and we have neither the infrastructure or expertise to handle it.

In the second year of war, I began have reoccurring dreams, mainly of destroyed houses in my neighbourhood. Thinking about certain issues – my education, a family member’s health problems, a friend’s death – brought on feelings of discomfort. I began to recognize that the episodes of difficult breathing and chest tightening were called panic attacks. The irony is that knowing you are prone to panic attacks makes you panic even more, prolonging them. Panic attacks were followed by a nervous stomach and the inability to swallow, which could last for days. I couldn’t eat, nor did I want to, opting instead to stay in bed and avoid the world.

I became easily irritated, angrier and more aggressive, a veritable bomb of stress. I fought often with people, I lost the ability to forgive because I didn’t understand where the rage was coming from. Relationships felt strained, difficult to maintain. Nausea was my constant companion. It felt intolerable to be in my own skin, in a body I had little control over.

It took some opening up to others to realize that this wasn’t a battle I was fighting alone. Friends talked about pills they had to take to sleep, haunting thoughts of suicide, over-drinking to forget, a feeling of indifference to everything. It made me sad to realize how an entire generation is being plagued by these problems. But there is comfort and strength gained from sharing these similar experiences with others.

But we can’t even begin to think of healing while the violence and the madness still rage in Libya. We live in a constant state of hypervigilence, awaiting the next bomb or bullet or fight, which will inevitably happen in our fragile cities. We can’t protect ourselves. But we can prepare. I’ve been trying to practice self-care, which is a series of different habits to help manage the anxiety. It’s been helping me stay in control, and not to feel entirely helpless. The steps I take include:

  • Admit Your Illness – There’s some advice I read online which goes something like this: “Tell yourself that it’s not you, it’s the disease.” One of the worst things about anxiety is the effect it has on your self-confidence. It’s important to recognize that you’re not inherently flawed as a person, that you’re battling something that was forced on you. Separating who you are from what you’re experiencing is an important step to keeping it under control.
  • Let Go of Grudges – One thing I’ve been trying to do lately is contacting everyone I’ve had personal problems with and trying to resolve things. I am obsessive with my anger, but it only exacerbates my anxiety. Letting go of past conflicts has given me peace of mind and allowed me to focus on managing my emotions better.
  • Know When to Stop Working – Overwork = Stress = Burnout, which happened quite a lot to me in the past year. The stress builds up to the point where one triggering event can send me over the edge into panic attacks. As much as you want to achieve in your job, or maybe you bury yourself in your work to avoid being alone with your thoughts, there comes a point where you have to stop and address your needs first.
  • Exercise – Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not an athletic person. I prefer mental to physical exertion. But during one panic attack, I became incredibly restless and had to leave the house. I eventually began running, because I felt this overwhelming ability to just move. While the run was short (again, not an exercise person) I was able to breath better and control the shaking. I now try to fit in some time for a run during my week, because aside from the endorphin, it helps my overall peace of mind.
  • Talk To Others – Opening up about mental illness is probably one of the most difficult things in a country like Libya, but one of the most liberating things for me was being to say out loud that I was suffering. Talking to friends, to family, even to a stranger, is ultimately better than keeping things locked inside. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and be vulnerable.

These are some of the steps I’m taking to improve my own life, they don’t necessarily have to be yours though. You could practice a hobby to feel better, scream in a pillow, spend a day at the beach. The only important thing to remember is to recognize the anxiety for what is it, and not to give it permission to dominate your life.

How Do You Make Climate Change Relevant in a War Zone?

Guest blogged for the Libyan Youth Climate Movement on how to make environmentalism relevant for Libya through the SDGs. Be sure to check out their fantastic blog!

Libyan Youth Climate Movement

sdg gf.pngThere have been countless studies conducted which have shown that developing countries are the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change. Water scarcity, desertification, and natural disasters are just some of the upcoming challenges facing these countries. And yet, if you talk to citizens residing there, the environment is usually the last thing on their minds.

Libya is one such country. While its geography and unique environmental situation make it particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the civil war in the country has overshadowed all other problems. Right now the main focus is on providing humanitarian relief, temporary shelter and emergency health care to those affected by the crisis. In this scenario, there are many issues that take a back seat, including culture, social equality, and of course the environment.

Yet, we cannot ignore our degrading ecosystem until the war is over and Libya is stable, which…

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Benghazi’s Liberation is Just the First Step: Post-Conflict Recovery and the Upcoming Challenges

It’s been a day years in the making. Over the sound of fireworks, car horns and people’s jubilant cheers, Benghazi is filled with the chants we’ve waited so long to finally say; Benghazi is liberated, the war is over!

Since the killing of the US ambassador Chris Steven in 2012, to the deteriorating security situation in the years after, up until the declaration of war on May 16, 2014 and subsequent battle on October 15th of that same year, these years have been one of the most destructive and traumatic since the Second World War. Hundreds of people were assassinated or killed in car bombs, terrorizing the city. According to UNHCR, there were at least 105,000 people displaced from their homes in Benghazi in 2015, with hundreds of them forced to find shelter in public schools. Schools and universities were stopped, the health sector collapsed and infrastructure was barely functioning. We lost heroes like Tawfik Bensaud and Salwa Bughaigis as civil society became a primary target, and the city turned into a ghost town.

Today, Benghazi is barely recognizable. Most businesses and public services have reopened or are planning to, most displaced people have returned home, and there is a very strong feeling of safety and security among the inhabitants. While the official declaration of liberation was made on July 5th, 2017, the city has already begun the recovery process. Key institutions were restructured and reactivated, giving East Libya some semblance of a state. But it is also unrecognizable in a less positive way. The liberated districts have been badly hit, with many buildings destroyed or burned. The social fabric has also been damaged, as differing ideologies have created a rift between families, friends and neighbours. More worryingly, there are new ideologies slowly creeping into state institutions, a cause for alarm in a city that just won a war against extremists.

People in Benghazi now are less naive today than they were in 2011 after the announcement of Libya’s “liberation” in 2011. We know that the state is weak, weaker than it’s ever been. We are also acutely aware that the next form of governance will most likely take the form of a quasi-dictatorship, although people are between ambivalent to hostile when it comes to concepts like democracy. The joy on July 5th was not happiness at being “liberated” but rather because the war itself is over, because the hostile groups who terrorized us for years have been defeated. Liberation is the relatively easy first step, but the recovery and reconstruction from the war will be insurmountably harder. The challenges we face today can be divided as:

  1. Physical Reconstruction: Schools, hospitals, administrative buildings, electricity, water, these are just a handful of the biggest urban issues that need to be addressed directly. Benghazi already suffers from bad urban planning, and reconstruction needs to address the existing underlying problems. Along with this, the environmental problems is also crucial, particularly the issue of mines and pollution.
  2. Social Rehabilitation: Post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise, and everyone has been psychologically affected by the war to some degree. In particular, soldiers on the front line require intensive and long-term psychosocial care to help reintegrate them into society. As Libya barely has the technical expertise or infrastructure to deal with mental health issues, this will be a huge challenge.
  3. System of Governance: I mentioned before the establishment of military rule, although it is purportedly due to the current exceptional crisis situation. While this is understandable, civil society and civic actors must continue to push for the eventual transition into civil rule once again. With the increasing threats coming from groups like the Salafists and tribal actors, this is becoming more imperative.
  4. Corruption: This is probably the biggest challenge we’ll face in the next few years. Corruption has practically become part of our culture, and all eyes are now on the reconstruction plans for the city. Embezzlement and nepotism is expected to permeate this process. While it will be difficult to tackle this problem, having a strong independent media to blow the whistle on corruption, and strong NGOs and legal system to fight it, will be a step in the right direction.
  5. Reconciliation: It is now almost unanimously recognized by Libyans that the steps we took after the revolution (or rather lack of), with regards to reconciliation, was one of the main reasons why the country fell apart. We cannot repeat this mistake, and we can’t build a city or country by excluding and marginalizing anyone, even those we fundamentally disagree with. Benghazi needs to be the city that takes the first steps to reconcile between the different groups engaged in the conflict, and to ensure justice for all.

Of course, this is only a handful of the major challenges we face. There are others, such as inherently weak institutions, the continued collapsing economy, and the brewing hostility between East and West. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start local. It’s said that Benghazi has always been the city that has influenced all of Libya, and its our responsibility to make sure that this influence is always for the good of the country.

 

Benghazi Comes Home

20170622_150551“Benghazi Comes Home”, emblazoned on gradiented green billboards, can be spotted around the city. Commissioned after the liberation of the Western front lines, this slogan has a powerful meaning for the million-strong city. For many families in Benghazi, tomorrow will be the first Eid they can celebrate at home after more than two years of war and displacement. And with the recent gains made in the city center, it seems that next year will be a homecoming for all of Benghazi.

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A damaged classroom in Guwarsha, Benghazi

However, the return is bittersweet. Once thriving districts have been reduced to disaster zones where rabid animals roam and the stench of gunpowder is still thick in the air. The distinct architectural details of Benghazi’s downtown are hardly recognizable now, heritage sites lost in piles of rubble. Cleaning up the districts and providing them with basic infrastructure services is slow work for the politically-fractured municipality. But IDPs, unable to cope with renting temporary homes or living with relatives, are returning anyways.

According to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, almost 250,000 Libyans have returned to their homes after being displaced, with 53% of this number constituting Benghazi residents. But returning home does not mean returning to stability. Many of these areas lack services, as public buildings such as schools, clinics and stores were destroyed during the fighting. A family that returns home to a suburban area will find themselves having to make a long commute daily just to drop their kids off at school or even do basic shopping.

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Preparation of food baskets for families in need

The unseen issues might be even more concerning. The effects of pollution in the area might take time to manifest, and the psychological implications of displacement and a shaky return are also a concern, as Libya lacks the psychiatric infrastructure to treat these cases. All in all, there needs to be more concentrated efforts to improve the return process for IDPs in Benghazi. The war has affected much more than just displaced families, though. According to the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are rising fast, and the Kwaifia Respiratory Hospital has reported a spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis.

But the list of necessities and priorities and “why isn’t the government addressing this issue??” just gets longer as each issue goes ignored, and Benghazi’s citizens are once again left to help themselves out. Around the city, the signs of reconstruction and rehabilitation can be seen everywhere, despite the overbearing political and economic crisis dominating Libya. Family, friends and neighbours pool money to resolve critical needs, or unite together to pressure municipal services to act, and charity services have been in full swing this Ramadan. Benghazi has historically been built and tended to by its own people, and it will be reconstructed by them.

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Reconstruction of the civil engineering department of Benghazi University by its staff and students

The Power and Pitfalls of Libya’s Social Media

If you’ve been following events in the MENA, you’ve probably stumbled across headlines of this type before; “Tyrant Toppled by Twitter”, or, “Social Media Creates a Revolution in the Middle East”. These are in reference to the events of the Arab Spring and subsequent overthrow of the regimes. Of course, a more nuanced analysis of the events of 2011 reveals that, while social media did play some part in promoting the uprisings, there was a whole host of factors and causes. In Libya especially, the role that social media played was considerably less than in its neighbouring countries, as internet access was still limited and the extent of social media was still being discover.

But while the role of the internet during that watershed year is debatable, the effect that it’s had in the subsequent transitional years is readily apparent. I’ve written before on the online trends and campaigns which have made a significant impact on the ground, and with shrinking civic spaces and civil liberties in Libya, there’s a growing utilization of the online digital world to advocate for causes and raise attention on important social issues.

The growing power of this medium was tested earlier this year, when a truckload of books were seized at a checkpoint near Al-Marj by police forces. A video posted on the police station showed an officer, and later a sheikh, condemning the books as promoting a variety of ideologies, from atheism to the Shia practice of Islam to satanism. The books themselves were ordinary novels ranging from Dan Brown thrillers to Paulo Coelho stories to Russian literature, but the security forces – perhaps unfamiliar with these works or confused by the symbolism on the covers – felt that they threatened the “moral religious fabric of society”.

The backlash was swift; a hashtag was launched hours after the incident #الكتب_تقرأ_لا_تصادر. Several organizations and groups, including the Ministry of Culture, decried the act, and the Al-Marj police station made a televised statement the next night changing their initial charge. Instead, they claimed the books were confiscated due to “illegal shipping” issues. The books are still widely available for purchase today, being openly sold in bookstores.

This incident is unique for several reasons. It was previously unheard of for officials and security forces to feel pressured enough to clarify their behaviour, and for this to happen purely through online pressure is a new paradigm for Libya. This paradigm was put to the test again a few weeks later, when the military governor of East Libya, declared that women would not be permitted to travel internationally through Labrag airport except with a male “companion”.

Again, the reaction was swift. Rather than a hashtag, the anger expressed online was less organized and greater in size. People lamented the steps backwards that Libya was taking, arguing that a war started against religious extremism was pointless if the same forms of oppression were being implemented by the other side. While the military governor appeared that same night to clarify the decree, saying it was for security reasons rather than religious, it only succeeded in angering the online protest further. Two days later, the decree  was stopped, revised, and completely rewritten. Instead of using religious terminology and singling out women, the new decree stated that all citizens – male and female – between 18 – 45 years old would require a security clearance to fly out of the country.

Now, the decision to restrict civil liberties is itself lamentable, but that social media was able to raise the voices of average citizens in a way that rewrote the decree is a small achievement that should be celebrated – and utilized. This year has seen more and more Libyan officials feeling the online pressure and clarifying their positions, sometimes as soon as 24 hours after the digital picket signs go up. In a country where those in power behaved with absolute impunity, this fundamental change in institutional behaviour is remarkable. To know that they are answerable for their decisions, and not having the means to intimidate online protesters (for now), has finally given Libyan decision-makers a sense of accountability.

Of course, that’s not to over-exaggerate this new-found power. Constant complaints aimed at decision-makers over issues like the collapsing state of the economy in Libya has produced little to no effect, although this is less of a sudden decision than a slowly increasing phenomenon, one that has crept up unsuspectingly on citizens. Perhaps the reaction from the ground would have been more intense had these changes happened abruptly. But as with the frog-in-boiling-water metaphor highlights, it was too late by the time the effects were felt.

It’s also important to note that while social media’s power is increasing for the good in Libya, it’s not without pitfalls. Where people can be mobilized over a cause, they can also turn into a mob. Many have used the power of social media to engage in targeted attacks of people, organizations and events that they don’t like or agree with, a form of online bullying with far reaching consequences in a country without laws or security. A hashtag is free, anyone with a connection create make one, and tapping into petty grievances can produce a very ugly reaction. There is now an increasing market in Libya for cyber security training, and knowing how to protect yourself and your information online, especially in the absence of digital rights legislation protecting citizens.

In a country where people are targeted for the opinions they express, it’s also interesting to see these online platforms now used as a form of protection – and not just by private citizens. One official told me, “I feel safe criticizing [high-level officials] through my Facebook, because I’m doing so transparently through a personal platform. It becomes harder for them to touch you without compromising themselves.”

As Libyans continue to tailor online platforms for their own use (one noteworthy trend I’ve noticed is the use of Facebook pages and groups for online marketing business), the parameters of this newfound dynamic between citizen and statesman will continue to be tested and explored. One can only hope that extreme measures will not be taken to quell these digital voices – although as past experience has shown, it’s almost impossible to control the internet.