Civil society has been getting a really bad rep in Libya these days. That’s not to say that this particular sector has always received adoring praise in the past – far from it, civil society has been the target of universal hate, and the only thing warring factions can agree on is that it should be stifled. But the waves of hatred since 2015 have been tinged with very credible threats of violence, with kidnappings, assassinations and even restrictive legislation, all which has led to the rapidly shrinking space of activism in Libya. This has caused many to disengage, leaving the room open for those using civil society as a means to make profit or leverage political favour.
I don’t like talking bad about civil society even when I do see negative attitudes and practices, mainly because this is one of the few spaces we have left for genuine empowerment, and it doesn’t need another cynical voice. But it pains me to see that civil society – the same one which contributed to my own growth and empowerment as a young woman – make the unfortunate transformation into a monopolizing money-making machine (transliteration not intentional). Back in my day (I know I know, I’m not 50, but bear with me) civil society was made up of – admittedly naive – people who genuinely wanted to make a change. Those people have either grown up and moved on, left the country, lost hope (raises hand), have been scared into being quiet, or instead transformed into one of the machinists. And maybe that’s just the natural progression of these types of spaces, especially in the Libyan context, make money to survive or die.
Libyan civil society today made up an interesting array of characters, each playing a role in the continuing evolution of our country’s particular form of civil society. To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these groups/individuals are “good” or “bad”, only that they are motivated by their own personal interests and contexts. To give you a rough idea, they consist of:
- The Not-An-Activist Activist: This type of person is normally a very active member of their community, someone who knows where everyone lives, the one who distributes fresh bread to the neighbours early in the morning, who brings in the electricity company when there’s a fault wire, and the one who collects donations when a member of the community isn’t doing too well off. This person will be horrified if you call them an activist. “I don’t do that Facebook flashy stuff,” they will indignantly tell you, because in their mind (and the mind of many Libyans today), civil society is synonymous with meaningless shows of altruism. Taking care of your community, they will say, is a citizen’s obligation.
- The Scout Leader: The Scouts in Libya are by far the institutions that has produced the most active, conscientious citizen leaders in Libyan society. That’s the whole vision of the Scout movement in Libya, and many people who are members of the Scouts go on to become important community leaders. Also a group that shuns the ‘activist’ title, the Scouts are purely focused on awareness-raising and diligently avoid politics to preserve the integrity of their institution.
- The Charity Aunts: We all have that aunt who is part of a charity and who spends family gatherings reminding you to donate your second-hand clothing. They are often known as سيدات المجتمع “the ladies of society”, well respected and tirelessly working to help those less fortunate. So well respected, in fact, that many of these CSOs were able to get licenses to work independently under the Gadhafi regime. Each CSO focuses on a number of families who rely on them for assistance and – more recently – have received vocational training to help them support themselves.
- The Grassroots Group: Normally a group of young friends who wanted to do something more with their time, the grassroots activists are sometimes an evolution of the first category, people who are well connected and have an urge to mobilize those around them into action. Like the charity aunts, they also focus on mainly helping the poor, but over the years these groups have gotten into human development and advocacy.
- The Gucci Activist™: You know who I’m talking about. Perfect English-speaking, haute-couture brand wearing, jet-setting to importance conferences across the world, self-important expert on *all* things Libya, this is the activist that INGOs love. They look great in front of the camera and make the best success-story material. This person started working in civil society and by virtue of certain privileges (and great application-filling abilities) was able to catapult themselves to de facto representative of Libya’s civil society. Are they actually representative though? is a question they often find themselves faced with.
Now, this is obviously just a light-humoured list that can include other such characters as the Angry Academic, the Entitled Expat and other fun alliterations, but in seriousness, the fabric of Libyan civil society is as varied and diverse as the people themselves. I would (shamefully) categorize myself as the last group, because I have been that person that goes to every conference and finds myself speaking on behalf of people whose backgrounds and contexts I don’t know well enough about, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been reducing my involvement in civil society. In any case, I wrote this out to expand a bit on the last two groups, where the source of tension has always been.
Essentially, the Grassroots Group are Libyans who come from a much less privileged social class and whose activism and empathy comes from a place of understanding the value of community movements on a personal level. The Gucci Activists, on the other hand, are mainly very ambitious people who see their delegate status as an extension of their social standing (perhaps the legacy of the political bourgeoisie under the Kingdom). Of course these are generalizations and there are exceptions, but broadly speaking these two camps highlight what I believe is a strange and fascinating divide in our civil society. It seems to be a general trend across the MENA region but I’ve yet to see it elsewhere, and probably says more about how deeply rooted our social divisions and inequalities are than anything else. Gucci activists tend to mock the work of grassroots activists as being less sophisticated than what they can produce with their high-end graphics and INGO funds, while Gucci activists are vilified as being all show and no substance. This has created an environment of resentment and hostility.
Many people have said that we should see less of the Gucci activists who are seen at every event and more from those working on the grassroots level who are actually working on the ground. But others would argue that delegates are important to articulate the work happening in Libya in a way that the international community can understand and respond to, and to serve as a medium between the two. There are many ways to argue this, but I will quote one of my professors who said, “We have to work with what we have and start building bridges. We can’t reinvent our societies.”
It would be nice if we could eradicate class divide and live in a happy world with rainbows and cupcakes. But sadly that is not the case, and in Libya it’ll be a long time before we reach a level of stability in which we can meaningfully tackle social inequality. What I find myself frequently thinking about is the new generation of young people, and who will be there to pass on the torch of activism to them. Ultimately they will find their way to one of these groups, and to me that is still much better than to find no one at all, and join the apathetic masses who never became engaged.
And it was this odd grouping of people who, after much lobbying both on a grassroots and international level, helped in the release of jailed activist Jaber Zain, who was imprisoned for almost two years in a militia jail. If there’s one thing I can still put my faith in, it’s that civil society is still learning and growing, and that with time it will ultimately find its bearings. It is, after all, an inherently resilience sector, and successful projects do continue to thrive as activists use their ingenuity to find room for maneuver in what is an increasingly hostile and terrifying atmosphere.