The Death of Democracy in Libya

Yesterday, Libya’s House of Representatives held an urgent session in their Tobruk headquarters to vote on an issue of the utmost importance. No, not the peace process. Or the war. Or the terrifying ISIS threat. Nope, the issue that brought an unprecedented number of representatives together (ever since their first session) was, of course, extending their mandate in Libya.

For those of you with hazy memories, the House of Representatives was set up to replace the expired General National Congress, which, to no one’s surprise, also extended their mandate. The idea was that new elections would instill a better legislative body that the Libyan people could put their faith in – faith that the GNC had ripped to shreds.

These elections happened in 2014, right after the launch of Operation Karama in Benghazi. By that point, many citizens were fed up with the process of voting in new officials, hence the low turnout for the HoR elections. Those who did vote were the more optimistic citizens, who held on to the hope that a new governing body might pull Libya back from the abyss.

Elections were held, votes counted, and the HoR – which was to be based in Benghazi – was formed. However, certain political groups did not win as many seats as they had intended, and plans were set in motion to handicap the HoR before it had even begun working. Airports were attacked, representatives threatened, suspicion cast on the relocation to Tobruk (due to the conflict in Benghazi), etc. Ultimately, the GNC refused to hand over power, citing incredibly vague reasons that were a cover for their actual excuse, “Nu uh, we don’t wanna.” In order to cement their position, they strong-armed the Supreme Court into passing an order to dissolve the HoR, under duress by their militias.

I was one of the people cheering on the HoR, because I was fed up with the malicious incompetence of the GNC and their childish attempts to derail what was becoming an increasingly off-balanced democratic transition. Anything would be better than them, and a government that was closer to my own city might actually focus on the multitude of problems we were facing for a change.

But over time, the HoR lost the desperate trust of the people. Their repeated promises to fight terrorism and fix the country never materialized into anything more than bold words spoken through a microphone. The usual divisions predictably appeared within the HoR itself, and they repeated the same unprofessional gaffs as their predecessors. It became harder to defend their actions to those on the other side of the conflict. During one session – at the height of the war in Benghazi – members voted on raising their own salaries, a move that sparked universal fury (the first time all sides in the conflict agreed on something) and marked a steep loss in the tenuous support they had already had. But, the one fact that could be reliably turned to was that the HoR, despite their incompetence, were voted in democratically and recognized by the international community.

In the backdrop of all this was the threat (or, to some, the promise) of a military council, to replace the fragmenting HoR. This threat/promise continues to grow as the HoR’s mandate comes to an end.

According to the amended constitutional declaration of 2011, the HoR’s term ends with the completion of the constitution, or within 18 months from the start of the CDA’s work. In exactly 14 days from now, that 18 month deadline will be reached. We have no constitution, a government in the West that refuses to hand over power, and now a government in the East that is doing exactly the same thing that caused us to demand a new government in the first place. Hope, Libya’s last remaining hope, is a Government of National Accord, that combines the GNC, HoR, and nearly all the political factions in Libya fighting for a piece of the pie.

The HoR, as part of their Roadmap Committee, proposed a backup plan in the event that the national dialogue fails and a unity government isn’t formed; extending their mandate. Yesterday’s vote was a step towards ensuring that this plan was implemented, much to the ire of Libya’s enraged population.

The deadline to accept the national dialogue proposal is supposed to be October 20th, as it coincides with the end of the HoR’s term. By extending their mandate another six months, the HoR is basically inviting UNSMIL to extend this confounding process of forming a new government, which in turn will prolong the war.

Except, Libyans can’t wait another six months. We can’t wait another day. This plan should have been signed months ago so that the process of ending the conflict can begin, a conflict that is now entering its second year. The latest report by the UN indicates that over 2 million Libyans are directly affected by the war and need assistance. This extension is a blatant act of despicable, self-important selfishness that clearly shows how ignorant and insensitive the HoR is to the suffering of the country. Their excuse, that they don’t want to leave the country in a political vacuum, is an exact repetition of what the GNC said, confirming in the minds of Libyans everywhere that these government are just two sides of the same coin.

This move signifies something more than just another shameless power grab by corrupt Libyan politicians; it’s another nail in the coffin of Libya’s democratic transition. Every succeeding election saw a smaller turnout than the one before it, as every governing body we elect fails us. It’s incredibly common to hear citizens say “I’d rather cut my finger off than dip it in ink again” (a reference to dipping your finger in ink after casting a ballot). It’s one thing for your fellow countrymen to screw the country over while you look on helplessly, but it’s an entirely different thing when you know that you were the one who voted them into office to begin with. There is a phobia now surrounding elections, since our governments seem unable to hand over power without pointless extensions and wars. Libyans who staunchly supported the revolution now lament the loss of Gadhafi, and seriously discuss the potential benefits of reinstating military rule under Khalifa Heftar. The unity government itself is an un-democratic concept, as it centers around the distribution of power to political entities that had refused to hand it over.

It’s been said often since the end of the revolution that Libyans aren’t ready for democracy. I think the problem is that Libyans aren’t ready for politics. Either way, democracy can’t save Libya now, and the term itself has become a hated word. All that is desired is some semblance of stability, regardless of the cost. Some say that you cannot have a stable country without freedom, but Libya has neither stability nor true freedom. We are caught between greedy politicians, a growing terrorist threat and an indifferent international community. If the unity government is not formed, Libyans will not rally around the HoR, and we can’t keep waiting for perpetually unending dialogue negotiations. There are any number of scenarios that could happen by Oct. 20, each one more ominous than the last.

Roundup: Libyan Blogs You Should Be Following

I’ve written before on trends in internet usage among Libyans, and I consider myself lucky to be present at a time where online activity and social media usage has just taken off, because it offers a unique chance to see how a formerly isolated country is now virtually connecting to the outside world. In particular, it’s fascinating to see how this connection is affecting Libyan society on the ground.

Libyan social media migration has moved from Facebook to Twitter and now to blogging, showing an increasing tendency to share thoughts and opinions with a wider audience. Of course, much of these points of view revolve around the current (unfortunate) circumstances of the country. But my hope is that this trend increases and we’ll see more focus on social and development issues.

For now, I’d like to share my favorite Libyan blogs. The list is a mix of English and Arabic blogs with different fields of focus, offering (to me) a well-rounded look at life in Libya. In no particular order, they are:

6. Project SilphiumThis blog began as an initiative to raise the voice of Libyan women as they continue to fight for their place in society alongside men. It brings up issues faced by Libyan women, both young and old, and from various backgrounds. That’s what I really love about Silphium, they give women a chance to share their own stories and provide a safe platform for them to speak their mind.

5.  Mohammed Eljarh’s Blog: There’s something about reading analyses on the Libyan situation from foreign analysts that never feels quite right, as they are often oblivious to the underlying factors and motivators in the country. That’s why reading Eljarh’s takes on Libya are so refreshing; he is an authentic Libyan voice who focuses on the key issues, with an understanding of the political and social composition of the country. Sometimes it’s better to read it from an actual native, ya know?

4. Ahlam Badri’s Blog: I was fortunate enough to meet Ahlam Badri during a workshop here in Benghazi. She’s an active and energetic woman with an eye and an ear for interesting topics and current events. While the bulk of her blog posts focuses on the Scouts (she is a Scout leader), she also writes for other sites, such as HuffPost Arabi.

3. Showbak: Anas Benguzi is a young Benghazino with a wealth of talents. From film-making to graphic design, he shows remarkable skill and an eye for good art. And one of his talents includes amazing writing. What I love about Showbak is that Anas’s writing is like reading art turned into words. You need to know Arabic to fully appreciate this blog, and he captures the spirit of Benghazi and it’s people in their essence. Reading his blog posts is an emotionally grasping experience.

2. Wake Up Benghazi: The thing about a blog written by a practicing architect is that you get good writing AND awesome graphics, all in one post. Mutaz Gedalla, the author of Wake Up Benghazi, covers a wide range of social issues in the city, offering a blend of advice, analysis and the personal insights of a Benghazi resident. It’s one of my personal favorite Libyan blogs (yes, I am biased towards anything Benghazi)

1. Tawfik Bensaud’s Blog: There was a young man from Benghazi who had a way with words. He was active, passionate and left a lasting impression on all those who met him. He was assassinated nearly one year ago for his outspokenness. Tawfik loved writing and reading, and his mature writing belied his young age. The best way to honour his memory is to keep his thoughts and words alive.

Of course, a post on Libyan blogs wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Libya Blog initiative. Sponsored and run by a number of international media outlets and organizations, this initiative trained a large number of Libyans on blogging skills. You can find a list of the blogs that were set up on their site here:

I really do hope that blogging continues to gain popularity in Libya, and I hope we’ll see further initiatives like Libya Blog to encourage more Libyans to utilize this medium of expression. If there’s one thing we’ve gained from the revolution, it’s free expression, and the best way to safeguard it is to use it.

If you have any suggestions for other Libyan blogs that deserve attention, please mention them in the comments!

Surviving War Between Semesters: Life of a Benghazi University Student

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

If I were to apply for graduate school right now, my summer activities list might look something like this:

  • Cultivated ability to identify the areas of a house least likely to be hit by missiles
  • Obtained negotiation skills to survive dangerous check-points
  • Learned to drive around careening tanks

Obviously these activities don’t actually involve architecture or urban planning (unless you count the house part, which I doubt many universities will). Part of being an ‘Arab Spring’ student is that much of our education involved learning skills that don’t raise our employability level so much as they contribute to staying alive, as we gain our academic credentials in almost bold-faced defiance of the reality around us.

But regardless of the circumstances, my academic life in Benghazi University has always been an unorthodox experience. Even before the revolution, students had to navigate the political and social complexities of Libya. Gadhafi’s face stared at us from the ‘Political Theory’ courses that were mandatory for all students, which we swallowed in bitter silence. His revolutionary guard lurked every corner; you never knew who was listening. Three-day conferences for all new university students about the ways of the Jamaheria were unavoidable, as men in badly tailored suits droned at us about respecting the system.

And then the revolution happened, layering the already politically saturated campus with even more confusing ideologies. Life on campus was, to me, a mirror image of our society at large. But the need to graduate and excel in our chosen field dominated over our interest in the political squabbles happening in the halls of the General National Congress in far-away Tripoli. We were all conscious that a degree meant starting a new phase of life, and every civil disobedience that stopped university for days delayed this phase, every fallen rocket threatened to destroy our futures.

Unlike most teenagers on the brink of adulthood, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I’ve always had a passion for visual design, and from a young age I would diligently pull out my accrued collection of art supplies and practice drawing. As I got older, I realized that architecture provided the balance I needed – flexibility and a chance to freely express myself, with a structure that appeased the mathematics-oriented part of my mind that I inherited from my engineer parents. “It’s final,” I declared to my friends one afternoon in the sixth grade. “I’m going to be an architect!”

And then we moved to Libya.

The education institution in Libya is not an encouraging system. Students memorize rather than learn, teachers are punitive rather than nurturing, and the end goal is not to acquire knowledge but rather to acquire a degree.

This is why I fully expected that enrolling at Benghazi University (at the time, Garyounis University) would not be the ivy-league experience I had envisioned for myself. I went to the entrance exams like a person condemned. What could I hope to learn in a place where the furniture was at least 30-years old and the professors a group of aging memories from better days long since passed?

Instead, I found myself in a system that challenged me, that pushed me into doing better, that stretched my limits and my abilities in a way that, I would dare to say, competes with top tier universities. Yes, our furniture was old and our resources were limited, but with the internet and the support between students, we honed our skills and fought toe-to-toe with the multi-headed dragon that is architectural education. Our professors were ruthless; they would expect nothing but the absolute best we could produce. They managed to take a group of students with no background in arts (some had never even made a simple craft before), and turned us into individuals that could define the dimensions of a room by sight, that could cut paper with millimeter precision, and who, with more practice, could become real architects.

My younger self would never admit this, but my education at the architecture department of Benghazi University is one of the richest academic experiences I had ever known.

We were on a semester break when the 2011 revolution happened. Benghazi was freed in five days, and no one knew what would happen next. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. The university was closed, only the staff were allowed inside as they determined what to do with the fate of thousands of students. But the students, being young and seizing the opportunity that freedom afforded them, were already engaged in several activities and projects in Benghazi’s burgeoning civil society. No one was really concerned about resuming our studies. The campus wasn’t going anywhere, and we were learning a host of new skills. Med students got a chance to turn theory into practice as they volunteered in hospitals, media students were being snapped up by the rapidly-growing collection of news channels and press. Others also got the chance to test out new fields, pursuing their true passions rather than whatever they were stuck learning at university. Like many other architecture students, I began using my design skills to produce graphics for various organizations, easily learning new software programs and skills on the spot in the charged atmosphere of the revolution. Anything felt possible in those days.

After the last stronghold in the country fell and the country was ‘officially’ liberated, we were informed that classes would resume.

An incident at university under the Gadhafi regime still comes to mind after all these years. The Gadhafi family had a row with the Swiss government, although the details of the incident were murky, as was everything related to the Gadhafi family in those days. One day soon after I saw two revolutionary guards marching up to the entrance of the library, a miniature coffin covered in the Swiss flag being carried on their shoulders. They put the coffin down and shuffled aimlessly about as students glanced at it in passing, perhaps afraid that even staring too long might rouse suspicion. However, I think the guards realized the comical pitifulness of the effigy. It was removed half an hour later.

Truthfully, I don’t remember much about campus life after the revolution. What I do recall is the enthusiasm of the students and teachers alike. It could have been the 9-month vacation that rejuvenated everyone, or the abstract notion of freedom that still made us giddy. I threw myself back into my work with renewed enthusiasm, developing my abilities as an architect. There were subtle but noticeable changes in the university itself, as students became more vocal about their rights and the administration attempted to boost the reputation of the university. Every grievance was fronted by the question, “Why did we have a revolution if this kind of thing is happening?” Another change was the posters that adorned many of the buildings. On these posters were the names and faces of students who fought and died in the revolution, and each department honoured their fallen comrades.

But it wasn’t long before the deteriorating security situation of the city began to reflect on campus life. There was a sense of general uneasiness, and the campus would clear out by the afternoon. Before, we were wary of the guards, but now we were concerned about something not as tangible; the uncertainty of the situation we were in. Uneasiness also returned on a political level, as the factions forming in Libyan society were also forming among the student body. As the political problems escalated, people were discussing their beliefs less and less, the one tried-and-tested mechanism we knew of to protect ourselves. The backdrop to this tense environment was the ominous sound of rockets from the nearby militia base, which kept everyone on edge. Why did we have a revolution?

The instability in Benghazi came to a head after the army forces decided to fight back against militias and extremist groups. United under the banner of Operation Karama, fighting escalated in many parts of the city. Because of Benghazi University’s proximity to the February 17 militia base, this meant rockets launched by the militia against fighter jets invariably landed in our campus. Just as they had done three years previously, classes were indefinitely suspended.

We thought that the suspension wasn’t going to last more than a few months, but we had underestimated the intensity of the situation. Unlike the revolution, where the fighting happened in other parts of Libya, this was going on within our city. Passing by the empty university, I could see militia cars parked next to the gate of our campus.

But it wasn’t until October 15th that we realized how bad it was going to get. Benghazi University became a battle ground, as army forces attacked the militia groups hiding inside the campus itself. Picture after picture of the campus buildings on fire and in ruins dotted social media as we collectively mourned the loss of our university. The administration had assured the students that all their records were safely moved and were available in a temporary location. But it didn’t quite lessen the blow we felt. Benghazi University was the first university established in Libya, and it was up in flames.

It’s September 4th, 2015, and Benghazi University has been closed for one year and four months. Tomorrow classes will resume. The university has designated several public schools across the city to be used temporarily. The medical college campus is still intact, as it is located in another part of the city.

I’m overcome by feelings of happiness and despair at the thought of returning. Happiness because I finally have a chance to graduate, but despair in knowing that it won’t be the same. Many students have left, either transferred to another university or unable to return because of the war. Many professors, too, have gone.

I won’t get to present my thesis in the studio where I had learned to become an architect. I won’t get to take a graduation photo in front of our department building with the rest of my class, and I will never get the chance to take once last stroll through the faculty as a student. I know these are minor, almost negligible grievances, especially compared with what many others have lost during this war. But it doesn’t hurt me any less.

They say college life is supposed to be the best years of your life, but for us they were years mixed with anxiety and hardship and fear. We didn’t see students hanged on campus like our parents before us had witnessed, but we’ve experienced our fair share of horror. I guess Benghazi University has had a more turbulent history than most other universities.

I’m sure that one day, in the future, the buildings will be repaired, the campus will be cleaned up, and new books will line the library shelves. The university will continue to produce doctors, lawyers, engineers and others professionals for Libya. My only hope is that these new generations will not have to experience university life the way we did, and that campus life will finally reflect a city at peace.

A Benghazi Resident’s Take on Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” Movie

Benghazi just can’t catch a break. As if an all-out war isn’t enough, the city is being vilified nation-wide by those who see the war as a misdirected endeavor, and the people of Benghazi are being accused of, yes, destroying their own city! I won’t point out the insensitivity and blatant ignorance of this stance. If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll be familiar with the slippery slope that led our city to the circumstances it’s in today. The war is horrific and it’s hurting us, but it was also an inevitability brought about by the same people currently pretending like there were other options.

One of the very first incidents that sparked the descent down this slope was the killing of American ambassador Chris Stevens. This event launched the start of Benghazi’s international vilification, as pundits and citizens alike decried the Libyan revolution and the international intervention that bolstered it. “We shouldn’t have gotten involved at all!” they screech, oblivious to the fact that if NATO hadn’t intervened on March 19, 2011, there would be a pile of cold ash where I’m currently sitting. Vacuous terms like BenghaziGate and Benghazi Truther were coined by people who most likely could not point out Benghazi on a map. Possibly most comical of all, my city’s name has become almost permanently linked in the media with Hilary Clinton, a politician who hadn’t even seen Benghazi.

So you can imagine my ire one afternoon when I received a message from a friend with a Youtube link and the message, “watch this and start tweeting.” The link was for the trailer of the new “13 Hours” movie, based on the book by the same name. I had heard rumblings about this movie before, knew that it was being filmed in Malta, but other than that I dismissed it as just another attempt to cash in on the Libyan revolution. There have been myriad books and movies made dramatizing and/or analyzing the events of 2011 onwards, mostly from  Western journalists who seemed to have left their professionalism at the airport when they walked into this country. But this movie takes unprofessional and irresponsible Western arrogance one step further.

Pictured: Above, the actual city of Benghazi.  Below, NOT Benghazi.

Pictured: Above, the actual city of Benghazi.
Below, Malta, I guess? Basically some place that ISN’T Benghazi.

Right off the bat, the film starts off so very wrong. You get an overhead shot of a seaside Middle Eastern town. How can you tell it’s Middle Eastern? Why, there’s a dome and minaret! And all them Middle East places look alike, don’t they? It’s not like Benghazi has it’s own unique and rather gorgeous architectural composition accrued from various eras in its history. Nope, just show people a dome and tell ’em it’s Benghazi, same thing.

The opening shots are followed by a scene of Americans being stopped by armed men, who accost them in the standard “Hollywood Arab” accent. This scene sets the tone of the rest of the trailer, an explosion-laden standoff between “the good guys” (our valiant Americans) and the evil Benghazians who like to eat Westerners with their breakfast sfinz. It’s basically a sausage-fest filled with heavy artillery, fire and well-groomed beards. So, yeah, a typical Michael Bay flick.

Benghazi Boy Scouts, marching during a culture parade in the city. Not pictured: Flip flops

Benghazi Boy Scouts, marching during a culture parade in the city. Not pictured: Flip flops

Interspersed through the movie are clips of disheveled children wearing grimy flip flips, standard scenes for any movie on this region. If you don’t have domes and dirty kids in flip-flops, your audience may not recognize where the movie is taking place.

I think what primarily bothers me about the movie is that the people of Benghazi are either the gun-wielding terrorists or confused onlookers. What about the Libyan guards that lost their lives defending the compound? What about the regular citizens who arrived on the scene and tried to help the Americans? What about the medics who tried to resuscitate them? What about the protests the next day decrying the heinous and barbaric attack? Benghazi is well-known for its hospitality and kindness to guests, especially those from abroad. The terrorist attack that night was a shock to the entire city, it wasn’t just another day-in-the-life-of-an-Arab-city.

Scary Benghazi residents wielding frightening weapons. Cuz there's only one type, right Mickey?

Scary Benghazi residents wielding frightening weapons. Cuz there’s only one type, right Mikey?

What the movie will also probably ignore is the repercussions that the incident had on Benghazi. International organizations and offices all packed up and left, leaving the government with no real reason to resolve the security problem. On the contrary, they continued to indirectly support Ansar Shariah and the other militia groups, leaving Benghazi’s residents at the hands of unstable murderers. Our name was smeared in international media, becoming synonymous with conspiracies and chaos. Instead of being helped, we were shunned and ignored, left to combat terrorism on our own. This is a fight we’re still fighting to this day.

I know people will tell me not to jump to any conclusions til the movie is released, that it is, after all, just a movie. But many others have already pointed out that the release of this movie will coincide with Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign launch. So it seems that this entire movie boils down to the spoiled bickering of Americans as they grapple for power, using the murder of a good man to gain political leverage over one another. Not unlike Libyan politicians, then. Between all this, a beautiful city, my city, is reduced to so much hyperbole in a debate that lost relevance long ago.

Benghazi is not anyone’s conspiracy theory, and it sure as hell isn’t just a single unfortunate incident that defines a city with a rich history. Benghazi is Euesperides, a prosperous Greek city founded centuries ago. Benghazi is Berenice, a city named after princesses and queens. Benghazi is ‘the mother of the orphans’, lovingly named so by the orphans that make up this eclectic, strong, resilient city. Part of me is almost glad that the depiction of Benghazi in this movie is so hilariously inaccurate, because then people won’t associate the real Benghazi with it.

And who knows, maybe in the future, it an ironic twist, the term ‘Michael Bay’ will be adopted into colloquial Benghazi speech to refer to a colossal, factually incorrect screw up.

Hashtag Activism, from the Digital World to the Streets of Libya (Part II)

Around this time last year, I wrote an article entitled “The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged“, which focused on the way Libyans were utilizing social media to try and create change. The article is no longer online, but just to give a rough summary of it, I pinpointed several hashtags used on Twitter and events set up through Facebook to mobilize people on a number of pressing issues for Libya at that time.

A year later, the use of social media by Libyans has continued to expand. Despite the crippling circumstances that has brought civilian life to a halt in many parts of Libya (such as the 14+ hours of power outages witnessed on a daily basis in most cities nation-wide), there has been a noticeable influx of Libyan users on social media sites. There is a “migration”, as many have put it, from the familiarity of Facebook to other platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. While these platforms offer a variety of ways for Libyans to express themselves, it has also given them a chance to voice their concerns and criticisms on their failing state.

“Hashtivism” has been a growing trend worldwide, with Libya being one of the latest to use the internet as a platform for social change. These types of movements are not without their detractors though. Many have accused online campaigns of being the lazy man’s activism, or “slacktivism”, allowing everyone to feel a sense of fulfillment by liking or retweeting something without actually making any impact.

And this criticism has been voiced by Libyans too, who are skeptical about what internet initiatives can actually do for the country. Many efforts on the ground have failed to make an impact, as evidenced by Libya’s slide into civil war. Indeed, many have called for the complete shut down social media sites in the country because of their propensity for spreading rumors and calls for violence.

But one actually needs to be here to see the extent that the digital world has spilled onto Libya’s streets. An ideal illustration of this is the online hashtag campaign  (Reduce the rent, have a blessed Ramadan), which called on landlords to reduce the cost of rent, particularly for displaced families. This campaign saw a fair bit of success, as people began reporting on landlords lowering the cost of rent, in some cases making rent free for a month or two.

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Another laudable campaign began as an initiative by a Tripoli resident to promote peace. Salah Sokni, a popular online satirist, visited four cities in Western Libya with a sign that simply said,  (Libya towards peace). He posted the pictures of his visits on Facebook, and this sparked a nationwide campaign, complete with Facebook page, as Libyans posted pictures of themselves with the same slogan, calling for an end to the conflict. Sometimes it takes one person to voice a sentiment that is there under the surface, for everyone to express it. This slogan was later adopted by H2O, a Tripoli-based youth CSO, as part of a project to promote peace through soccer matches, entitled  (In the field for peace).

(Source: Salah Sokni's FB page)

(Source: Salah Sokni’s FB page)

But hashtag activism isn’t just growing to promote specific concepts. It’s also being used increasingly to pressure policy makers and those in positions of power. After the announcement by UNSMIL of the final draft of the peace agreement between the warring factions, Libyans from both sides of the conflict called on their representatives to sign the agreement using the hashtag  (Yes to signing the agreement), and expressing their frustration with the ongoing war and instability. The Constitution Drafting Assembly has also been looking for feedback from citizens through the hashtag   (Libya’s Constitution)

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

As internet use in Libya continues to grow, government institutions have begun to take notice too. Following in the steps of the dictator before them, online sites have been blocked or have become difficult to access. This began shortly after the end of the revolution when users were reporting that +18 sites were blocked by the main internet provider in the country, Libya Telecom and Technology (LTT). This company took it further when online news site Alwasat was blocked in Western Libya, itself leading to an online campaign decrying this censorship. It’s been reported several times that accessing Facebook had become incredibly difficult, leading to speculation of whether LTT had manufactured this block. Today, to access Google in Libya through LTT, Google Libya (with safe search turned on), is the default mode, and cannot be changed even manually. While these restrictions are relatively small, they signal a worrying trend in online freedom, especially with the growth of internet activism.

Hashtags continue to rise in popularity among Libyans, who use them not just for activism, but to share laughs, to commemorate and commiserate, and learn what their fellow countrymen are thinking. It can be a rallying cry, such as the phrase (Libya, even if the struggle is long), coined by murdered activist Abdulsalam Almismari and the final tweet by Tawfik Bensaud. As the war continues and Libya’s public places remain inaccessible for protests, online platforms have been transformed to become the new public squares.

War and Eid

I’ve been actively avoiding social media these days. Everyone is filled with the holiday spirit, and I don’t want to infect anyone with my grumpiness. I mean, I do wish that everyone would have a joyous and festive Eid, but I also want to mope and complain that I’m still displaced, that the electricity keeps getting cut, that the bombs haven’t stopped, etc. etc.

That’s not something people want to read on Eid, and especially not people in Benghazi, who do not need to be reminded of the reality we still continue to live in. That’s why I have stayed my tongue (or rather, my fingers) from writing anything and being this year’s Eid Grinch.

And then I remembered that I’ve been neglecting my blog. I have been rather busy these days, but that isn’t why I’ve been avoiding writing anything here. I think it’s because I’ve discovered that more people are reading it than I thought, which kinda weirds me out. I write the way I talk; to hear my thoughts out loud. The fact that people are listening means I have to be more careful with what I say. And that’s just annoying.

But it’s Eid, and people are too busy celebrating to read a blog post, and I really need to get some stuff off of my chest.

Like, for example, the fact that this Ramadan was much better than the horrific, blood-soaked one we experienced last year, but that it still wasn’t very good. That it has now been seven months since I’ve last seen my house, and I have no idea whether it’s still standing or not. That all of my friends are in different countries around the world, and that I might never get to see them again.

Celebratory events and occasions help to push these things out of the way for a time, coating our grim existence with a veneer of mindless joy. But it no longer helps me, I feel that every uncertain day is eating away at me, as I try to grasp onto any constant in my life but finding nothing. I imagine that this is what it must be like to float out to sea, completely stranded and surrounded by miles of nothing in every direction. I guess have some kind of existential agoraphobia.

It could just be a funk, and I’ll bounce back in a day or two. It could just be that while celebrations help people forget, they just brings things into a more focused perspective for me. We say, hopefully next Eid we’ll be back home, and things will be back to normal. But I don’t want to wait until the next Eid. What if things aren’t normal by then? Where will I even be at that time? When you live through a war, long-term thinking is a dangerous pastime.

People in Benghazi are trying to celebrate as normally as possible, as though we can’t hear the missiles overhead, or ignore the 12-hour power cuts. We’re exchanging plates of Eid pastries and people are uploading pictures of themselves in traditional outfits as they greet each other in our streets and houses. You can almost tangibly feel the conscious effort people are making not to brood on the war. We fasted for a month, and in difficult circumstances, we deserve to celebrate! We need to forget, and this is as potent an opium as we can find.

So we’ll revel for a few days, pretend like everything’s tolerable, all the while secretly hoping and praying that this will end soon. Dear God please let it end soon.

I hope you have a happy Eid.

After Months of Dialogue, UNSMIL’s Peace Plan Falls Short

This week in Libya: murder, mayhem and the continued push towards total state failure. While the army in Benghazi continues to inch towards complete liberation of the city, the conflict in Derna becomes more complicated. The South continues to be ignored as smuggling, immigration and the ethnic fighting goes on unchecked. And in West Libya, ISIS casts a longer shadow with each passing day.

But hey, that’s what all this around-the-world dialogue is for, right? In case you’re one of the growing number of people who are cutting news and social media out of their lives, here’s some background; the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is conducting a series of national dialogue sessions with the warring factions of the Libyan conflict (which includes the GNC, the HoR, prominent (or so they say) members of Libyan society, and war lords, among others). The ultimate goal of these talks is to reach a ‘peace agreement’ between all sides, in order to lift Libya out of civil war.

Several drafts of the peace agreement have been released to the public (although how these drafts were reached is hard to determine, as UNSMIL remains tight-lipped on the particulars of the dialogue sessions). The fourth (and supposedly final) draft was released last Monday, to a less-than-enthusiastic Libyan audience.

Within an hour of the release of version 4 of the draft, Libyan social media erupted with comments. Using the hashtag  (#FourthDraft), Libyans remarked (and in some cases ranted) on the document that is touted as the saving grace of the country. Opinions ranged from “This is a reasonable and workable draft” to “This is all a conspiracy against us!!”

So, what makes this final peace agreement draft such a debated and heated topic? From my own observations:

1) The High Council of State: In the peace agreement, the House of Representatives remains the legislative authority of the country, and a new ‘National Accord’ government is designated as the executive.

But a third body has been created, ‘the High Council of State’. According to the draft, this body is purely ‘consultative’, although it does appear that they hold some legislative powers as they are granted ‘binding opinions’ on draft laws.

However, it’s not just the blurry role this council has. In the last draft, an article has been added that states that 90 seats of the 120 seats of the State Council are to filled by members of the General National Congress.

Yes, THAT General National Congress. The same one that has led us to this mess in the first place. It appears that this move was taken solely to appease the GNC so that they can agree on the draft. However, bringing back half this defunct body and giving them a place in the new government structure isn’t exactly a popular move. In fact, most of the outrage about draft #4 has been over this move.

Besides the fact that the GNC doesn’t exactly have an impressive record of achievement for them to be consulted on matters of state, the current body as it exists continues to show support towards groups like Ansar Shariah. Giving them three quarters of the seats in this council is also an inordinate percentage.

2) Councils, Committees and Commissions Galore: The State Council isn’t the only body to be created if this agreement is implemented. While I haven’t counted the exact number, there appears to be at least a dozen councils and committees to be formed. These councils are specified for a wide array of jobs, from a ‘Women’s Support and Empowerment Unit’, to a specialized council for reconstruction of war-affected areas.

In my limited experience, the councils and committees that are set up in Libya are done so for the primary goal of providing a fancy position for people who want one. With this draft, there will be a seat for everyone who’s currently clamoring for some kind of power, probably with some to spare, too. But how effective (or even necessary) some of these committees will be is not guaranteed. Among them is the ‘Libyan Political Dialogue’, which apparently transforms from the group orchestrating the dialogue process into an actual body. They will continue to exist with questionable levels of authority.

3) Who’s Who?: As many observers have noted, the distribution of powers in the new government structure is rather vague. The HoR is supposed to be the legislative authority, but the State Council seems to have some sway with regards with legislature. The ‘Libyan Political Dialogue’ also seems to hold exceptional powers.

Aside from the power division, there is some confusion over the terminolgy. The Libyan army is recognized as the regular military force, but who is officially covered under the term ‘army’? One of the problems in the conflict is the double meanings that various terms have. One man’s ‘revolutionary’ is another man’s ‘terrorist’, and one person’s ‘army’ is another’s ‘azlam’.

Overall, I believe the draft is an acceptable document. I think I speak for many, many Libyans when I say that the war has gone on for too long. Any solution at this point is welcome, as long as it means an end to the bloodshed and the return of normal life.

However, with that in mind, a peace agreement must be one that ensures peace, not one that simply divides power. The current document, as it stands, has a number of loopholes that can keep the conflict going on indefinitely. Aside from that, there’s really no guarantee that any of the people who will be appointed into the overall structure will actually work towards creating and maintaining peace, or some kind of mechanism that deals with those that attempt to obstruct the process.

The final date to accept this peace deal is June 17. So far, all sides are still deliberating on it, and a meeting in Germany today hasn’t produced any tangible results. I’m not sure what will happen next week, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that hopefully, we see an end to the war soon.