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.

Book Review: The Return

“Nabokov and Conrad [were right]…They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved…But Pasternak and Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed…What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” – Hisham Matar, The Return

Libyan expats and exiles often talk about the pain and difficulty of leaving Libya, of being unable to return or see relatives. For them, being deprived of the country for the past few decades has been a bitter loss. However, these recollections are often met with incredulity and disbelief by Libyans in the country, who would give anything for the chance to live in the United States or Britain, or for a brief respite from the overbearing omnipresence of family and social expectations. It’s this chasm between two different kinds of struggle that is difficult to bridge, and a prime source of tension between the two groups.

Hisham Matar is one of the very few Libyans who is trapped in between; stuck in a chasm that is neither here nor there. Raised in Libya and exiled by Gadhafi, his father was kidnapped, detained, and most likely killed by the regime, and Matar has spent much of his life consumed by the search for answers. I was introduced to Matar through his first novel, In The Country of Men. This book, and the one that followed (Anatomy of a Disappearance), were both coming-of-age tales of a young boy who has to come to terms with his father’s disappearance. In The Return, fiction is replaced by the real life account of Matar’s search for his father.

For much of his readership, Matar’s book is a unique glimpse into the life of a person and nation haunted by a dictatorship. But for myself, and for most Libyans, the book is more personal. Every recollection of some small detail in Libya, past or present, evokes a feeling of kinship with the author, as though he is speaking directly to us and acknowledging our shared experiences. This is why my reading of the book has been more critical.

Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of his father’s life, who fought constantly against the regime. Under Gadhafi, these tales of resistance might have once sparked romantic admiration in Libyans who were equally appalled at his rule. But being on the other end of a revolution that failed to transition into a state, it makes one wonder whether the “dissidents” against Gadhafi knew what they were doing. Many fought with the goal of overthrowing him, but very few – if any at all – understood what it took to turn Libya into a democratic nation. Reading about his father’s training and army-building in Chad only brings forward feelings of disapproval now; these dissidents are no longer viewed as heroes but as reckless, irresponsible anarchists.

The same goes for Matar’s account of the revolution and immediate aftermath. The hope and nationalism and potential he wrote about in such beautiful prose is gone in Libya, replaced instead with horror at the movement we had once supported, which is now dismantling the country. One point I really took issue with was the judgement he cast on Libyans. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”

Is that really the most unimaginable thing though? Are the public acts of beheading something we ever imagined happening in Libya? The devaluation of the dinar to the point where Libyans are going hungry, something we could imagine? No matter how much you hated him, to deny that life under his rule could possibly be anything worse than a failing country where hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been forced out of their homes and cities is to convey a supreme ignorance of the current situation.

There was another instance of this judgement that irked me. Matar talks about the “unfinished state of modern Libyan architecture”, blaming it on the nation’s “lack of self-regard”, unaware that many Libyans – who save their modest income for decades to build their houses – oftentimes run out of money when it comes to “finishing” the house. It is a harsh observation, which is a running theme in the book. The only time he seems to praise Libyans is when he discusses their role in the revolution. Of course, as Libyans, we are often harsh towards each other, although we disapprove when it’s done publicly.

All in all, the Libya that Matar writes about is one that is long gone. He dwells on the past excessively, and romanticizes a revolution that has brought about one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history. While the book is called ‘The Return’, Hisham Matar is not returning to the country he knew but rather to a new Libya, one that he is seeing for the first time.

Again, my reading of the book was critical, because I feel such a personal connection to the things Matar writes about. For me, it’s not the account of a heartbreaking story from a third world country. It’s a history that I too have lived, a reality I’m currently burdened under.

But I ultimately recognize that this is his story. As much as I want to be involved, to say, “No, this is how things happened,” it’s not my account, it’s not my history. And its his personal narrative is what makes the book so fascinating. From his life as a child in Tripoli, to the impermanence he carries around while growing up, and that particular feeling of being stuck in time, Hisham Matar has lived an extraordinary life, one that he describes in what is undoubtedly a masterful form of writing.

The most fascinating part of the book, for myself, were the encounters and correspondences with Seif Al-Islam. It’s difficult to imagine Seif sitting in a London hotel, having a chat with a dissident’s son, or texting and using emojis. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine Seif anywhere that isn’t in front of a camera, speaking platitudes or threatening destruction. However, Matar’s description of the tyrant’s son aligns with the general impression that I’ve seen; a visible, almost strained, attempt to appear professional while trying to suppress the inherited madness of his father. But Gadhafi junior represented something else to Libyans in the country that was not seen by exiles; an opportunity for change, to finally throw off the Jamaheria and start to become a developing country. Inside Libya, we’re only now realizing how the country was changing before 2011. A friend of mine told me, “If we had waited three years, the revolution wouldn’t have happened, because the people would no longer feel a need to revolt.” I’m not sure how true this statement is, since it was more a revolution of anger than one of demands, but it highlights the noticeable difference between the false ideals of Al-Fateh to the new vision of Gadhafi junior.

Overall, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, and reading it as a Libyan definitely coloured my experience. But I still highly recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the situation in Libya, or to anyone really who really enjoys good prose. I was incredibly thrilled to hear that it had won a Pulitzer prize, and I hope this will motivate more Libyan writers to pick up a pen and share their own narratives. God knows we have such fantastic stories to tell.

Young Exodus

ـــ لماذا ندفن أنفسنا في هذه القرية المنسيّة.. المغبرّة؟”
ـــ ما رأيكم في السفر؟
ـــ إلى أين؟
ـــ العالم واسع.. ثمة آفاق دائماً
ـــ ألن يأكلنا الحنين؟
“ـــ الحنين لهذا القَفْر؟! للعجاج؟! لبلاد أهلها دائماً في عجلة من أمرهم ولا يفعلون شيئاً؟

ـــ أحمد يوسف عقيلة

You hear about the physical death in Libya, the accidental missile strikes or stray bullets, but you don’t hear about the little deaths, the prolonged withering of hope until nothing is left but abject, indifferent resignation. Libya has become a mass grave for the dreams of its young people.

It’s a conversation that comes up when talking about the state of the country. Those who can leave and have the means to have already packed up, three years back when it was apparent that things weren’t getting better anytime soon. Those who want to leave but are stopped by the multiple obstacles in their way (visa rejection, black market inflation) make up many of Libya’s youth today. I’ve heard too many stories from friends about multiple visa applications to study abroad (only to be rejected each time), of working two or three jobs to make the same living that one job could once achieve for you, of applying to any opportunity online that will give them a brief respite from the oppressive uncertainty and chaos. There’s not much left in Libya in the way of good education or promising job opportunities. Even those trying to create their own opportunities know that their success will always be limited by the situation.

Of course, these are the more privileged youth, those who received a decent education or have a supportive family encouraging them to seek their chances elsewhere. Then there are the young people from that section of society that is hidden and ignored, from poor families who have been hit hardest by the crisis (what poor families? say those in denial, those who still believe in the lie about the prosperous oil country). These young people, without enough “connections” to get them a job or scholarship, without any of the opportunities to give them a fighting chance, with a family that needs their support, will sacrifice their own futures for a chance to survive in increasingly impossible circumstances. Young men take up arms to fight in a war that makes no sense to them, young women married off to the highest bidder “to reduce the burden on the family.”

I remember one young fighter who said,  “We’re only fighting for our fallen friends; we know there’s nothing to look forward to when the battle is over.” This is the motivation that drives many Libyans to look for a way out. No notion of nationalism, or patriotic responsibility, is strong enough to keep people in a country that will take your best years and give you nothing in return. Those you know who’ve left call back to say, “Why are you still there? Get out while you can!”

Of course this phenomenon is not new; the country’s legacy of instability and war has always driven Libyans to find better prospects. The large diaspora abroad, disproportionate to the population, is a testament to that. But it’s never been this critical, the need to leave has never felt so urgent. Everything that has happened since the revolution has happened suddenly, so that even the imminent collapse of the country might strike us overnight. The past five years has taught us that it’s only going to get worse.

It’s easy to see Libya as a sinking ship that needs to be evacuated as soon as possible. But there are a few young people who are grappling with the issue through the lens of a moral dilemma. These youth, who rode the wave of hope following the revolution and achieved some level of success in their endeavors, are now wondering whether it would be right to leave. After all, wasn’t the point of the revolution to rebuild a new Libya? (it’s hard to remember what the point of the revolution really was though) If they leave, who will be left to help the country? But this group is a dwindling minority, as it becomes apparent that there isn’t much left to rebuild, that one person can’t change a society that remains steadfastly immobile. It’s a pessimistic and depressing view, but it’s also the reality now.

There’s a passage from Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” that really gets to the core of the problem in any conflict country:

“…they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real life happened in that somewhere else…”

But they know, to some extent, that leaving the country does not mean leaving behind also the burden of being a Libyan. In that ‘somewhere else’, you will go through the humiliation and struggle of being a refugee, that you will still have to work tirelessly to make ends meet (probably in a job less fulfilling than the one you left behind), that you will be plagued by longing and homesickness and the familiar comforts of your community. I know one young woman who was abroad when her father became very sick in Libya. If she left the country, she may not be able to come back, but if she didn’t return, she might never see him again. Even outside of Libya, you’re still in a prison of sorts. But right now, leaving is the only solution that one has any control over.

Every month or so, I say goodbye to more friends, who leave in search of choice and in escape of war. Every evening, I sit with those who’ve remained and repeat the same questions; stay and fight, or leave? will the country ever get better? if we don’t leave now, will we regret it later? And every night, we walk away without answers.

A Question of Morals

“Morality, too, is a question of time.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Libya’s civil society has never been popular. Since its prominent emergence in 2011, it has been one battle for survival after another. From government institutions accusing activists of fueling instability, to religious extremists targeting CSOs for “importing anti-Islamic ideals”, to average citizens decrying civil society as an unwanted byproduct of the February 17 revolution and subsequent collapse.

And yet, despite the obstacles and the threats, civil society has persisted in trying to make a difference, particularly in areas where no other formal institutions can operate. While the common notion is that of civic activists as privileged youth looking for a photo opportunity, it’s a mostly thankless job that requires an endless supply of patience as you navigate through the countless security procedures and arrangements to implement any kind of project. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to implement anything openly these days without facing a torrent of hate, criticism and downright violence reactions.

I’ve chronicled the difficulties of being a civil society activist in Benghazi over the past few years, from the hope and invincibility we felt after the revolution to the crippling fear in the face of extremist groups. As Benghazi began to heal from the latest war, we felt again that glimmer of hope, only to have it extinguished just as brutally as last time. It seems that the pattern continues; no matter the ruler or dominant ideology, civil society is detested.

And what is it that civil society does that could warrant such repulsion? Last year, a group of grassroots organizations decided to hold a community get-together under the theme “Tea and Milk Unites Us.” Tea and milk is a common breakfast drink in Libya (with well-boiled black tea and condensed milk if you’re a purist like me), and the idea was to unite a society fragmented by war through a symbol enjoyed by everyone.

The backlash was swift; “Men are dying on the field while you hold these useless events!” “You have no respect for the war waging near you!” etc. etc. The general objection was that of holding any kind of event during a time of war, despite the fact that these events tried to help the general population heal and forget for a moment the trauma of war.

During the last Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, an art gallery was held, again in the Children’s Theater (we don’t have many venues because, again, war). And once again, the online reaction was saturated with vitriol. “Talking about violence against women while violence against our troops goes on?” “Look at these girls/how they’re dressed/outside their homes/etc.” The general rule seems to be that the more women appear in these kinds of events, the worse the reaction will be. Here we began to see the accusations of “immorality”. The objection became less about the war and more about what’s considered decent in our “conservative Muslim society.”

Cue yesterday’s Earth Hour celebration in Benghazi yesterday.  Held on the campus of the Faculty of Medicine, the event consisted of candles that filled the quad, the traditional one hour lights-off, and a concert. This time, the criticism was almost entirely focused on the offense to our cultural decency and morality as Libyans.

On the internet, it’s advised to never read the comments. Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya, I do read the comments. People will express things online that they’d never say in person, and it’s interesting to know what the general attitudes shaping public opinion are in a city like Benghazi. For this event, it appears that increasing conservatism is sweeping through society. Here the reactions ranged from, “pop songs have nothing to do with Earth Hour awareness” to “Look at these devil worshipers!”

It went one step further, with demands that those who organized the event should be arrested, a move reminiscent of the days when Ansar Shariah were targeting activists. These calls, along with recent orders restricting CSO activity in the East, is a worrying sign that once again, civil society isn’t safe.

But is civil society immoral? A concert, particularly one in which both men and women are on stage and singing English-language songs, isn’t entirely natural in Libya, but not entirely uncommon either. If we’re speaking of customs and traditions in Libya, conservatism is a relatively new concept. But if the issue is of what’s acceptable today, it becomes a more complicated discussion. Benghazi and the East opposed extremist ideology because of how violent it was, and more importantly, how foreign it seemed. And yet, people are quick to vilify these events as being against public decency, deaf to the fact that they sound very like the ideology they fought so vehemently against.

It’s a tricky issue, one that is being used by various groups to sway public opinion to the point where the definition of Libyan morality is being molded before our eyes (if we assume morality is subjective and not universal). And the victim in the middle, as usual, is civil society.

Inside Libya’s Burgeoning Youth Art Scene

The Berka Barracks in Benghazi, known colloquially as the Turkish Castle, is a U-shaped building in the middle of the Keesh district. A double row of arched windows line the length of the building’s walls and gives the building a stately look. Once a military outpost that housed Ottoman soldiers, the barracks have become abandoned and neglected over the decades, like most of Benghazi’s historic and cultural sites.

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

But during the first week of February, the castle played host to a cultural event, the first to take place on the premises in years. The event in question was the ARRA Gallery, a three-day art event organized by a group of civil society organizations and activists to highlight the young Libyan talent. Consisting of discussion panels, live drawing sessions and film screenings, visitors could also browse the temporary exhibition of work.

“The aim of this project is to give young Libyan artists exposure to the rest of society,” said Aya Mohammed, the main organizer of the event. “We want to encourage these artists to showcase their work, but we also want to show the world a different side of Libya.” Aya told me that the gallery is just the first phase of a bigger project to make Libyan art more global.

In a city like Benghazi, where intense fighting and a dire humanitarian crisis has plagued the residents for over two years, the idea of an art gallery may seem counterintuitive. But this gallery is just the latest event in a steadily growing art scene among Libyan youth. While politicians and fighters destroy the country, disenfranchised young people are using art as an outlet for creative expression, and, increasingly, paving the new for a new profession and new opportunities.

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

The 2011 revolution and subsequent war was a catalyst for new art movements in the country. Music, graphic design, photography and even graffiti were taken up by young people who were eager to express their passion in the rapid changes happening around them. Galleries, book fairs, carnivals and other cultural events were being organized in Benghazi, bringing together artists from the past generations with the new generation.

There was a lull in artistic creativity in the years after as Benghazi’s security situation rapidly deteriorated. Civil society, one of the main promoters of culture, was facing threats by religious extremists who saw no need for art in their post-revolution vision. The 2014 war made humanitarian relief the most urgent priority for the besieged city.

But, as life had begun to slowly return, so did the art scene. A popular Facebook group, ‘Art Lovers’, is an online forum with tens of thousands of members from across Libya to share their art and get tips on how to improve. This group organized one of the first art galleries in Benghazi after the start of the war, a statement of resilience in the face of conflict. A series of art events followed, from the publishing of the first Libyan manga comic, Habka Magazine, to the opening of Tanarout, a culture club that celebrates the arts and humanities. These events have created a momentum that has encouraged more youth to engage in creative hobbies.

This growing trend is not confined only to Benghazi. Cultural events are being frequently organized in Tripoli’s many art houses, covering everything from painting to writing to music. A new center called Warraq Art Foundation has recently opened its doors, and a new project aims to set up cultural palace in a historic public building. And art galleries and crafts fairs continue to be organized in more disenfranchised cities like Ajdabiya, Waddan, Ghat and Sebha.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

The use of art has grown as well, not just as an expressive medium but also to shed light on important social issues. The Aegis Gallery held last November was organized to commemorate the Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, and cartoonist Suhaib Tantoush draws satirical images on the everyday struggle of Libya citizens. Popular musician Fuad Gritli is known for his tongue-in-cheek songs on Libya current events, and artist Abdullah Hadia uses themes and symbols from Libyan folklore to revive cultural traditions.

But while the will and passion persist, there are still obstacles that deter the growth of these art movements. Weak infrastructure, worsening financial problems and a lack of cultural awareness still cripple the art scene, as the shadow of war still looms over the country. Citizens whose basic needs are not met do not have the luxury of focusing culture, and art has a historically infamous reputation in Libya as not being a “real” profession. “Art is a new market,” said Noureldine Elhouni during a panel on art magazines in Libya. “Investors are afraid to put their money in such a new sector.” And Libya is not exempt from problems faced by aspiring artists around the world, including a lack funding and sustainability.

A new movement of religious extremism has also emerged as a threat to this burgeoning youth art scene, particularly in East Libya. A shipment of books was confiscated by a police check point on its way to Benghazi, and religious authorities in the area claimed that the books promoted, among other things, secularism and atheism.  While this act was met with strong outcries – even prompting a widespread hashtag on social media which pressured the police to make a statement – it is a worrying indicator of things to come.

A visitor to the ARRA Gallery remarked to me that the gallery was an important statement in light of the recent fears, made all the more significant by its location in a culturally historic building. It will be more difficult to stem the tide of art in Libya as the community continues to grow, especially as new artistic avenues and techniques are explored. While the policy makers and government authorities continue to stall the development of the country, it’s clear that the youth have become the new safeguards of art and culture.

 

The East Libya Dilemma

Why would a city that rose up against dictatorship and oppression suddenly embrace totalitarianism once more, less than five years later? This is the question that many are speculating on these days, following the almost near total control of Eastern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

There have been many analyses and attempts to answer this question, especially now that military rule has permeated almost all aspects of life in the region. With the replacement of elected municipalities by military mayors and the daunting return of the omnipresent intelligence services, many are drawing parallels between the Gadhafi regime and what Khalifa Heftar is currently trying to achieve. But the folly of most of these analyses (I’m looking at you, clueless foreign Libya experts) is that they do not take into account the full picture and the causes that led to the current situation.

Before going in-depth, I need to make a disclaimer here; I do not, in principle, support military rule. As a person who believes wholeheartedly in civil society, I know that military might alone cannot build a country. But civil society will not be able to fulfill its purpose without the safety and security established by the rule of law, which, expediently, is enforced by security forces. It is not a choice between one and the other, but rather a balance that Libya needs during this transitional period. However, it would be naïve to deny that the country is undergoing incredibly exceptional circumstances, one that requires exceptional action.

I will not go over the five or so years of history that led to the appearance of Khalifa Heftar, as it needs much longer than a single post and I’ve already documented what I’ve witnessed ad naseum on this blog. Suffice to say that this situation in Benghazi drastically deteriorated after 2011 until the all-out war on October 15, 2014. It was this point that Benghazi had reached its lowest point in recent history. The city was crippled, a ghost town with barely functioning services. Almost half the population of the city was displaced, evacuated from their areas by the intense fighting.

Fast-forward two years. It is the beginning of 2017, and Benghazi has become almost unrecognizable from the ruin of a city it was. Bustling with life and renewed hope, the war here has reached its last leg, and reconstruction has already begun. But more noticeable than the physical changes to the city are the security changes. Military cars patrol the streets at all hours, the police are working at full capacity, and, most notably, the intelligence services are back in full swing. The mayor has been installed by the military ruler, and all civic services now have a large degree of oversight by the intelligence.

It is, for all intents and purposes, military rule. But ask the people of Benghazi how they feel about this, and you will get very positive reactions. There are no more street wars, no more assassinations, the judiciary has begun to function again, things are actually getting done.  That’s not to say the situation is perfect. There are still a number of IDPs who have not returned, and the reconstruction process will take years to complete. But the fear and terror is gone, those elements that had paralyzed the city for years.

Many people (mainly those who have never visited Benghazi) are decrying these developments. “Benghazi wants to return to the Gadhafi era!” they screech. “You have sacrificed your freedom for return to oppression; you will be once again under a dictator’s boot!” The only problem with these accusations is that we have never really experienced “freedom”. We went from oppression under one man to oppression under chaos.

And yeah, it’s not an ideal trade-off to go back to what we had. But it’s also pure stupidity to assume that the current situation in Libya will somehow evolve into a stable democracy on its own. The unity government solution has collapsed on itself, and our politicians, regardless of ideology, are all unfit to run a country. And yes, Heftar has ulterior motives, East Libyans are not deluded enough to believe that he noble ideals. But he presented a solution that achieved results, something no one else has been able to do.

To answer the initial question, it first needs to be reexamined. The current situation in East Libya is not the same as under Gadhafi, nor can it be called despotism in the traditional sense. East Libyans are not embracing dictatorship; they are embracing stability and a chance to live in peace for the first time in six years. The alternative is not freedom. It only takes one look into the harrowed face of a Benghazi resident to realize that they will support and defend this current peace no matter what accusations are hurled against the city.

And so what remains are the real questions that should be asked; Will East Libyans ever have faith in democracy again? In what direction will this military rule evolve? And if it does evolve into a Gadhafi-esque system, are Eastern Libyans prepared to give up the basic freedoms they regained in 2011? This is the dilemma that we’ll have to confront sooner or later, and one that might determine the future of the country.