Crisis Response: Benghazi’s Civil Society in Times of War

There have been two times in Benghazi’s history now when the presence of civil society has been urgently needed. The first was in February 2011, when the country witnessed a revolution. And now, during the armed conflict that has continued for three months and counting.

That first appearance of Benghazi’s civil society was cause for celebration. It was the first time since the dictatorship that society could act freely without restraint or threat, and this opportunity was used to the fullest by the city’s active citizens, especially the youth. This second time is less joyful. There is no more of the innovative work to raise the voice of citizens and improve the city. All the initiatives now are focused on humanitarian relief and trying to avert a major disaster. Instead of working towards a promising goal, civil society is just another passenger on the sinking ship that seems to be Libya these days.Civil society hasn’t stopped working, but the uncertainty surrounding the entire Libya crisis has given many concerned citizens pause, wondering if all our efforts will be drowned along with the country.

This is not a pity post, and I don’t enjoy wallowing in misery. My aim here is to analyze how civil society is currently addressing the crisis, the potential threats that loom in the future, and how efforts can be focused into strategically and effectively combating these threats.  I’ll spread this throughout my CS network and work from there. I’m publishing it here for posterity, but if any international organization wants to use the information present here to help Libya, you’re more than welcome.

Active Civil Society Organizations As much of Benghazi has now been secured by the army, movement and activity has been easier than during the first months of the war. Many organizations have re-started their work, but mainly focusing on the crisis at hand. Let’s take an overview of these organizations:

1. حملة أقرا (“Read” Campaign)

Students participating in the Iqra campaign (Source: Red Crescent FB page)

Students participating in the Iqra campaign (Source: Red Crescent FB page)

The Read Campaign was started by the Benghazi branch of the Libyan Red Crescent to supplement the educational vacuum that Benghazi is going through due to the closure of schools. For a few hours a day, school kids go to designated schools and engage in educational activities. Aside from this, the Red Crescent is also hosting emotional support sessions and festivals to boost the morale of Benghazi’s citizens

2. حملة نورني (“Enlighten Me” Initiative) 

Preparations for the educational videos  (Source: Nawurni FB page)

Preparations for the educational videos
(Source: Nawurni FB page)

Like the Red Crescent’s Iqra campaign, “Nawurni” is an initiative that is focused on education. However, unlike Iqra, Nawurni aims to restart the school year in Benghazi. Sponsored by the National Council for Freedom and Human Rights, Nawurni is working on providing the curriculum, securing the schools and coordinating with the Education Ministry to ensure that the school year resumes. Along with these efforts, the initiative is also working to create a series of educational videos to be aired on national Libyan television.

3. جمعية ايادينا (Helping Hands Charity) 

Volunteers bringing aid to refugee families in a public school (Source: Ayadina FB page)

Volunteers bringing aid to refugee families in a public school (Source: Ayadina FB page)

“Ayadina” is one of the oldest charities in the city, started by a group of active Libyan women. In this crisis, Ayadina has been working on providing humanitarian and financial aid to families in need, including refugee families residing in Benghazi’s public schools.

4. Electron Youth Network Electron is an initiative that takes place in many countries world wide. Part of Electron’s mission is holding forums where youth can meet up and discuss important issues, and helps create networks in which activists can stay in contact and support one another. Electron’s Libya chapter held a national forum in 2014, bringing in activists from across the country. Now it is working on facilitating youth-driven initiatives in Benghazi to address the most urgent issues in the city.

Libyan women participating in a first aid workshop (Source: Charity's FB page)

Libyan women participating in a first aid workshop (Source: Charity’s FB page)

5. منظمة الملك إدريس السنوسي الخيرية (King Idris ElSanussi Organization) 

Named after Libya’s former monarch, the King Idris organization engages in a wide range of volunteer work. During this current conflict, they have held a number of workshops on safety and first aid, with a noticeably high participation of Libyan women.

6. فريق سمحة بنغازي (“Benghazi is Beautiful” Team) 

A picture of the 'Charity Store' (Source: Samha FB page)

A picture of the ‘Charity Store’ (Source: Samha’s FB page)

This team consists of a group of Benghazi youth who volunteer their time to help their city. They have implemented a number of projects and campaigns during the current conflict. One of them has been a ‘charity store’, a supply of donated and purchased goods that families in need can come and take from. It is a dignified way to help those who need these supplies. They’ve also held a festival at the beginning of the year to celebrate Maylud at the Benghazi Orphanage. Another campaign that they’ve just launched is ‘A Million Quarters’, asking residents of the city to donate just 25 dirhams towards helping rebuild Benghazi.

7. منظمة لأجلك بنغازي ابادر (“Initiatives for Benghazi” Organization)

A volunteer packaging food for refugee families (Source: Ubader's FB page)

A volunteer packaging food for refugee families (Source: Ubader’s FB page)

The Ubader group has been one of the most consistently active in Benghazi since the end of the revolution. They have held clean-up campaigns, park renovations and charity work, among other initiatives. During this crisis, they have been collecting supplies and donations for refugee families. They are also launching the ‘Tawfik Bensaud’ campaign to help people with special needs and infants born in refugee families.

8. بنغازي نحن هلها (We’re Benghazi’s Family)

Providing psychological help to Benghazi's children (Source: Organization's FB page)

Providing psychological help to Benghazi’s children (Source: Organization’s FB page)

The Benghazi Nahna Halha campaign is a collaboration of many civil society organizations (around 30, last I heard), that has been opening and preparing public schools to aid the internally displaced families in Benghazi. They were one of the first campaigns to start working since the beginning of the conflict. Along with aiding the families in the schools with financial and humanitarian aid, they’re also working with doctors to provide psychiatric help.

9. ‎مفوضية بنغازي للكشافة والمرشدات‎ (Libyan Scouts, Benghazi Branch)

Benghazi's scouts distributing aid

Benghazi’s scouts distributing aid (Source: Scout’s FB page)

The Scouts are one of the oldest (if not the oldest) civil organization in Libya. They have been involved in countless initiatives and campaigns after the revolution, aside from the work they do to keep Benghazi’s youth always prepared. During this conflict, Benghazi’s Scouts have organized a blood donation drive, distributed relief and medical supplies and spreading awareness on war debris & mines. Tomorrow (Monday) they’ll be holding a tree-planting to commemorate their 61st anniversary.

The latest problem that threatens Benghazi is the impending health crisis as medical supplies are running low in Benghazi’s Eastern regions, and hospitals are not able to bring in more. There has already been an issue with bringing in dialysis materials in the Eastern region, and the last I heard, dialysis sessions were cut down from three to two per week. Civil society should now focus on trying to prevent a medical disaster from happening in the city.

There is another issue that is currently dormant, but also poses a threat to Benghazi’s society, and that is the issue of reconciliation and re-assimilation. Everyone has their own opinion on the war, and while the overwhelming majority of Benghazi’s citizens do support a certain side, there are those who support the other. Those from both sides, even families and friends, are engaging in very heated debates on the issue and there have been instances where these arguments have led to violence (as if we needed more of that already). There should be some initiative taken to reconcile the two parties, because we won’t be to rebuild our city if part of the community is ostracized. What we failed to do after the revolution with Gadhafi supporters should be done now, lest we end up in the same vindictive cycle.

Apart from all this is the need for rebuilding the infrastructure of the city, reviving the media, removing the residues of war, along with a whole host of other jobs. We’ve got our work cut out for us. In the absence of a proper government, or governing bodies that actually care about the average citizens, it is our civil society that will carry out this work. This is why I implore everyone who wants to help Benghazi, whether regular citizens or international groups, to work with our civil society.

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