I was recently very lucky to be part of a conference hosted by Oxfam in Tunisa about, what else, Libya. Unlike the previous conference I attended, this one focused less on youth initiatives and more on Libya as a whole. Activists were brought from across Libya for this two-day event. While the event consisted of a diverse range of topics, the overall theme was determining a “vision” for Libya.
The first day consisted of panels, each discussing the work that the speakers have done, which altogether painted a picture of the activities/issues going on in Libya. Yours truly was asked to be a panelist, speaking on freedom of speech for civil society, under the banner of ‘Opportunities and Challenges for Civil Society’. I’m adding a transcript of what I said here, partly for records and partly to hear if anyone has any feedback/criticism about what I said.
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,
My name is Nada Elfeituri, a civil society activist from Benghazi. I began my civil society work after the revolution, writing opinion columns about the Libyan revolution for a local charity newspaper, Uprising of the Free. There were several newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other media that emerged in Benghazi, a natural result of being quieted for 42 years. People were even expressing themselves on the walls of the city. Of course, at that time, we all had the same general opinion; that the Gadhafi regime must end and that we should all work towards a better Libya. Especially in Benghazi during the revolution, the majority of the people were unified by this goal.
It was only after the revolution ended and opinions began to differ that things began to change. We’re not used to hearing different point of view, and friction emerged between people of different mindsets. I felt that there was a need to teach Libyans how to better channel their methods of expression, which is partially why I started The Young Writers of Benghazi.
It’s an organization that strives to encourage Libyans from a young age to express themselves creatively, especially since the Libya education system lacks in encouraging creative writing. We started with a story writing contest in a public school, to see how the students would contribute.
Because of the security situation on the ground, we decided to host online writing contests, which would also help us involve Libyans from across the country. The use of the internet as a platform for free speech was used numerous groups and initatives, such as Project Silphium and Libyan Youth Voices.
But the issue of free speech began to escalate from a social problem into a life-threatening one. People like Muftah Bouzaid, Abdulsalam Mismary, Salwa Bughagis and Tawfik Bensaud were not fighters, they did not call for war. But they were assassinated for what they said and what they believed. And so in Benghazi, it was like returning to the days of Gadhafi. You were told to write under a fake name, not to talk about politics or anything sensitive, so that you could be safe.
Freedom of speech is still a controversial issue worldwide, especially after the recent events in Paris. What is the definition of free speech, should it have limits, should there be limits? These are all questions that everyone is debating, not just Libya. Different countries have different laws, but there are no free speech laws in Libya.
It is imperative for Libya’s civil society to stress the importance of safeguarding free speech within a Libyan context, because without it we will lose many of our other rights. We will have returned once again to the age of the dictatorship.”
Among the other speakers on this panel was Wafia Sayf, my partner in crime and all-around inspiration gal. Wafia is the director of Volunteer Libya, an organization that works on many fronts but is ultimately focused on encouraging youth participation in civil society. So naturally she spoke about youth empowerment, and how she has worked to bring more young people into the civil society scene. The main point she wanted to convey was the importance of providing opportunities for Libya’s youth, by getting them out of the house and fostering a culture of volunteerism. There was also Aladdin Alharaty, who spoke about good governance in civil society through initiatives such as OGPs (open government partnerships), and Mustafa Abdulkabir, a Tunisia activist who works on “Across the Border” initiatives between Tunisia and Libya.
The panel before us was on “Key Actors and Processes”, and involved the issues of the Libyan constitution, Libyan media and the role of youth in state building. A lot of interesting points were raised here, such as whether a quota did any good for Libyan women in the Constitution Drafting Assembly, the misuse of media in the conflict and importance of having a free, independent press, and how youth (who comprise many of the fighters currently on the front line) are key players in the direction the Libyan conflict can take.
Among the other panels were “Concerns for Libya“, covering the role of religion in state building, the diversity and marginalization of Fezzan (South Libya) and the situation of human rights as told by a Benghazi lawyer and her eye-opening work within Libya’s prison system.
One of the most moving talks was the panel on “Experiences and Initiatives by Libyan Citizens“. An activist from the border city of Wazzin gave a case study summary on the city. Like most of Libya, Wazzin is marginalized and ignored by governing authorizes. The speaker, Mr.Said El-Kurdi, told us about the attempts of civil society in the city towards development, and the challenges they face. The city lacks some of the most essential things, like a proper doctor or dentist. However, Mr. El-Kurdi main point was that the city required human development. The citizens are more than willing to work for their city, but they need the tools and the know-how to do so.
The second day was more interactive, and we rolled up our sleeves to work on pressing concerns for Libya now. After a vote, it was determined that Libya’s most urgent needs were refugees, the media, dialogue between fighting parties and youth involvement. We drew up charts on the actors who are positive/negative role players and least/most effective, as well as how to maximize/minimize their impact, respectively.
Overall, it was a very productive workshop, and one of the best I’ve attended in some time. My narrow focus only on Benghazi is partially why I’m ignorant about the rest of Libya, and this was a good wake-up call, not only on the other problems in Libya but how it could affect us. I’m working on article about Libya’s South to shed more light on this forgotten region, and there’s plans in the works to expand the Young Writers of Benghazi to other Libyan cities.
I think the take away from the event is that defining a vision for Libya must be an inclusive process. The event also helped me realize that Libya needs a clearly defined set of visions, not just one, and that generalizing the problem will keep us out of focus. The ultimate vision is obviously of a stable, democratic country for all, but achieving this means stopping the current armed conflict, reestablishing some semblance of national unity and working together to root out extremism. This requires collecting all the weapons, strengthening the national army, and yes, dialogue. We need all segments of society involved in these steps on every level, and yes, even with the people we dislike or disagree with. The sooner we start, the sooner the country can start to heal.