The Myth of Libya’s Civil Society

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A parade in Benghazi organized by local community groups (2013)

In almost every single project proposal written by local and international organization on Libyan civil society, the first thing you’ll read is “Libya’s civil society was born after 2011, it is still a new sector” or some variation on this line. Hell, I’ve written this countless times when seeking funding for projects.

The problem is, it’s not entirely true.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. What is civil society, anyways? The official definition is that it’s the ‘third sector’ following public and private in any nation state, and it’s definitely a popular buzzword with the EU and UN. But the exact meaning is a bit murky, and ranges from any type of volunteerism up to professional income-generating institutions. There’s also a tangle of acronyms; CSO, CBO, I/NGO, NPO, etc, the common letter being the ‘O’ for organization. The contemporary definition of civil society seems to revolve around organizations, official registered bodies who normally don’t make a profit.

Jumping back to Libya, Gadhafi had initially quashed any type of civil society movements, along with banning political parties and arresting student protest organizers. The image of students being hanged on university campus was enough to stop any activism in the country for a long time. The only non-state movement that was begrudgingly allowed to operate was the Scouts, although with heavy oversight.

As Libya opened up following the lifting of international sanctions, there were renewed efforts to organize social movements. Careful not to catch the attention of the regime, these organizations were mainly focused on issues such as cancer awareness, the rights of people with disabilities, environmentalism and charity collectives. But even if the focus of the organization was benign enough for the regime, you still had to go through a draconian registration process that included 70 founding members acting as signatories.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the civil society ‘explosion’ happened. Suddenly, there were no rules and no limit to what you could do. Young people came together and started radio stations, training centers, political movements, book clubs, everything and anything that had collective interest. Half finished buildings or donated office spaces became headquarters and it was easy to find business owners willing to contribute anything to help fund projects. It was an amazing time to be alive, when we were fueled by revolutionary fervor and felt invincible. Until reality caught up and it all came crashing around us.

But this post is not about the rise and fall of Libya’s civil society. It’s about what we’re calling civil society. Whether before or after the revolution, the discourse is always on the formal or semi-formal organizations; as long as you had a name, a logo and at least two members, you were a civil society thing of some sort. The aspiration was always towards organization status, and many of those movements institutionalized, registering with the newly created Civil Society Commission and developing an administrative hierarchy. Part of this reason was the experience being gained over time, but the bigger and most compelling reasons was – drumroll please – international funding.

The international community, operating on the multiple acronym-formal bureaucracy-do-you-have-a-finance-officer definition of civil society, would only grant funding to CSOs who were a) officially registered with any government entity and b) had a bank account. In the face of these constraints, organizations and movements picked up the tricks relatively quickly, and many people saw the opportunity of making money by setting up organizations just to get funding.

BUT – and here comes the Whole Point of the Post – what about the non-official, ‘informal’ civil society?

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An art gallery in Benghazi, organized by Facebook group of art lovers (2015)

Libya has always had a civil society, and not just the charity aunts type. You see, civil society is more than just acronyms and logos. Anything outside of the government or private sector structure that organizes and mobilizes people is civil society, and Libyan society has a very long tradition of managing itself. Tribes have been mediating conflicts for centuries, and tribal land trusts are an efficient mechanism of ensuring housing. “Jam’iyat”, a form of community financing in which people collect and distribute monthly savings, has been very popular especially among Libyan women. Entire cities are the protectors of ancient heritage sites like in Leptis Magna or Shahat or Acacus. Neighbourhood watch groups, online forum communities, the zakat system, academic circles, the list goes on and on.

In our country’s legacy of state weakness, Libyans have had to figure out their own way of meeting their needs, bending the official procedures around their own self-made system. It’s a process that is constantly negotiated and renegotiated, but I believe that it’s one of the reasons why Libya has not completely collapsed at this point.

But international organizations don’t fund tribal land trusts or mosque groups that meet every week to teach illiterate women how to read and write. The development system has been configured in a way where informality is not recognized. If you don’t have a government stamp of some kind then you don’t have any claim to ‘legitimacy’, and it’s incredibly problematic for the international development sector to impart their version of legitimacy onto Libya. I worked in an organization where we had dozens of grants to give to ‘civil society’, but a list of regulations and guidelines on eligibility that excluded almost anyone who didn’t know the international development jargon, and who didn’t mold their organization to fit our vision of what civil society was, rather than the other way around. I can’t count the number of times I’ve begged local movements to get any type of registration so we could fund their work, because it was easier to convince them than to tell the EU or UN that their system was bullshit.

The institutionalization of civil society does not work well in countries where communities are held together by networks of trust and reciprocal benefits rather than paperclips and rubber stamps. The reason why civil society thrived in 2011 was because there was no formal funding, everyone contributed what they could and it was led by collective efforts, in the spirit that has kept Libyan society together until this day. This is a huge missed opportunity for any kind of development work.

I’m not against formal organizations, and I’m so proud that in the space of only eight years and in difficult circumstances we’ve witnessed the rise of truly remarkable civil society institutions in Libya. But this institutionalization should happen on our own terms, away from the exclusionary language of ‘legitimacy’. If international organizations want to work better in Libya then they should work within the system in place. And please, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saying that Libya never had a real civil society.

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Grassroots vs The Gucci Activist: Class Division in Libyan Civil Society

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Lost Humanitarian Principle

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A oddly arranged picture from some of the UN’s promotional material which prompt questions: Who are these 90,000 people? Do they actually need the food? Why a picture of an old woman in a traditional cloak who could literally be anyone’s grandma?

I’ve found myself reading quite a lot about Gadhafi’s early days of rule and the vision he had for Libya. Growing up in an anti-Gadhafi household meant that I was never able to see past his brutal regime, but in the wake of Libya’s destruction I have found myself questioning so much of what I used to believe, and that includes a more nuanced and critical view of the Gadhafi era. What I found most notable was his passion for a country that was completely autonomous, one that meaningfully tried to heal from its colonialist legacy. I believe that many Libyans who today long for the days of Gadhafi are most nostalgic about that feeling of true sovereignty and independence away from the meddling of outside actors.

This interference has become the target of a growing wave of anger and discontent from Libyans at the way embassies, development organization and NGOs are conducting work in and about Libya. It is dawning on many citizens that the political stalemate in the country is being prolonged by various nation-states who have competing interests in Libya, as the country has become the site of a proxy war. This can also been seen in the type of programs implemented by international cooperation agencies and where they do (and don’t) work.

It can also be witnessed in the “Twitter diplomacy” of some countries. No one can easily forget the bizarre antics of the American ambassador “Safira Debora” of a few years ago, who posted teenager-style tweets from within high-level diplomatic discussions. And the current Italian ambassador and embassy frequently write very ham-fisted tweets, including how the days of Italian occupation in Libya were a glorious time for the country, ignoring the fact that Libyans were dying in Italian concentration camps during that same period. Indeed it appears that the Italian policy in Libya is to blatantly step all over the nation’s sovereignty.

Recently it has been the work of aid organizations that have enraged Libyans across the country. Pictures of UNICEF distributing light-blue backpacks emblazoned with their logo were circulating last week, with objections coming from all sides. Most people lamented on the depths Libya has reached that we rely on international organizations to give our children backpack. But others still were angry at the prominent size of the logo and the demeaning way in which the photo op was conducted. Among other things, the depiction of beneficiaries as weak and helpless is frowned upon in NGO circles. But in the case of Libya, it is also creating resentment among a nation of proud people towards these agencies and their hand-outs.

Another inflammatory picture by WFP depicted a young boy in what appeared to be a camp, with the caption (I’m paraphrasing here) “We asked why this young boy wears his Eid clothes during food distribution days, and his mother said it was because these are days of celebration!” While one can debate the size of logos and importance of documenting aid distribution, the above example cannot really be justified. To depict a family as being so happy to get food distribution that they dress up for it is not only humiliating and demeaning, it also erroneously portrays food security as an issue in Libya.

I might need to put up some disclaimers here. Firstly, I come from a middle-class family from Benghazi, and the extent of my knowledge is obviously limited when it comes to Libya’s marginalized groups living under the poverty line. I also worked with an international NGO, and we weren’t perfect when it came to our programming and communication either. However, after working with and various groups across the country, I can say that we never encountered food security to be a prominent issue, for several reasons. The first is that local charities, the zakaa system and the CSR office of national companies already covers the basic needs of vulnerable groups. Secondly, basic food items are subsidized in Libya, making it still relatively affordable. But more crucial than all of this is the fact that WFP has been trying to import food assistance to Libya since 2014, and it has usually come in spoiled and unfit for human consumption, and is routinely thrown out. And yet, despite this massive inefficiency in management, Libyans haven’t starved without their assistance.

There is always the constant speculation over what is gained by such depictions in the communication material of these agencies. Libya is definitely suffering from severe problems including infrastructure failure, a weak education and healthcare system, but these are problems caused by a corrupt and mismanaged administration, not lack of money. Instead of addressing these key issues, why deliver bags of food? The unsatisfactory answer is that it’s easier to employ band-aid solutions than to spend years addressing root causes. The easy answer is that the aid industry relies on this system in order to provide jobs for thousands of expat workers. But there may still be a more insidious answer in the realm of conspiracy theories on how a weakened Libya serves certain interests.

In any case, the growing anger is leading to more and more NGOs and agencies being denied a license to work inside the country, and could potentially put their employees at a higher risk. More discretion, and a return to the principles of humanitarianism, are definitely required.

Film Review: Freedom Fields, and the Perpetual Struggle for Choice

I’ve been in London for three weeks now, and I’m already dreadfully homesick for Libya. I know right now that every Libyan’s dream is to get out of the country, but there is so much emptiness (at least for me) outside the enclosure of our society. There’s no familiarity here, and it’s probably a side-effect of the war but I’m finding it difficult to bond with people who haven’t been through that same experience that I have. I’m probably being annoyingly pretentious to my Libya readers (my double-shafra-ness is showing *hides in shame*) but there you have it. Home is home, even if it’s broken.

I got a chance to briefly go back when I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Freedom Fields’, which chronicles the struggles of the Libyan National Women’s Soccer Team (“football team” for you annoying non-North Americans). I got a ticket by being my Libyan self and looking for a wasta (connection) because it sold out quite quickly. I’m sure you’re digging through your memories right now and remembering ‘oh yeah, there was a thing about a women’s soccer team a few years ago’. There was a lot happening in Libya back in 2012 and after the sensation died down we didn’t hear about the team anymore.

This film covers what did happen after the huge controversy, and follows the lives of these women over five years. Specifically it covers three main storylines; Na’ma, a Tawerghan woman living in a camp in Tripoli who’s circumstances have given her a nothing-to-lose iron will; Halima, a bombastic and passionate doctor-to-be; and Fadwa, an ambitious and headstrong young woman.

I think the film is geared more towards foreign audiences, to give them a rare glimpse into the lives of Libyans, but it really struck a chord with me as a Libyan viewer, simply because even we don’t have access to the kind of media that gives us a perspective on how different Libyans across the country live (how many of us have seen the inside of a Tawerghan camp?) but also how similar we all are (that constant societal pressure for women to get married and ‘settle down’ affects us all regardless of tribe or social class). The women portrayed in the movie could have been anyone I know, neighbours or friends or colleagues. For this reason the movie felt so personal to watch.

This point is particularly notable for me (and I believe for other Libyans) because I’m sure many people never looked into the issue of the women’s soccer team, we never realized that behind the controversy and Facebook wars, there were regular Libyan women who just wanted to play soccer (which is not that outlandish an idea, women have always played sports in Libya, it’s just that they’ve never played so visibly before). It’s incredibly sad to realize this in hindsight but the lost battle of the team set the tone for all the struggles that activists fought after the revolution, as our rights as women and citizens were put on the chopping block. If we had known this now, I think more people would have been vocal about this cause back in 2012.

The filmmaker is British-Libyan Naziha Areibi, who came to the premier decked out in a farmela and silver ‘abroug jewelry. She is completely invisible throughout the movie, acting only as a camera, but I’m sure that her relationship with the people played a large part in how she was able to shoot (and because Libyans aren’t the kind of people who would let you just passively watch but get you involved in the conversation), and it would have been interesting to see behind-the-scene footage into how the women interacted with this documentary process.

What I admired most about the structure of the film is that it is free from any kind of political or social statement. To be sure, there are a lot of political undertones in the film, but only in how it immediately ties with the lives of the players, and always told through their voice. You hear of the frustrations they have with a revolution that didn’t fulfill its promise of freedom, of the increasing isolation Libya faced after the 2014 war and all the restrictions that came with it. Even with the social aspect, you just see Libyans living their everyday lives, without any sensationalism or exaggeration. You know how merciless I get when it comes to representation of Libyans, but this film gets my Authentic Libyan™ seal of approval.

Being reminded of my own experiences as a woman in Libya, coupled with the heartbreak of what our country is capable of and yet unable to attain because of the situation, left me in tears at the end of the movie (it might have also been the homesickness). Yes there are still good and strong people in Libya who are trying to resist the hopelessness, but there is always that fear of how long they can last. How long can a person put up a fight and pick themselves up when they’re down, when the fight is against the very reality of your country?

This film is one of a few but growing number of media that covers Libya without casting the war as the main character, including the Tatweer Enjazi documentary on the entrepreneur contest of the same name, and the work of the Elkul channel. Yes, they are few and far in-between, but it’s a great start to begin magnifying Libyan voices and counter the wave of Western-produced garbage about our country.

I’m not going to spoil the film too much because you should definitely go and watch it for yourself. The next screening will be in Amsterdam, and the production team is currently trying to organize screenings inside Libya itself (if the situation permits). Whether you like it or hate it, as long as we can start a discussion in our country on what choices we give to our women and our society at large, maybe one day we’ll have a national women’s soccer team again.

Seeing Libya from the Outside

To my father’s consternation, I began working in the field of international development after I graduated from architecture school. Repeated lectures on how this wasn’t a real field of work still fill our conversations (nothing outside of engineering is a serious profession in my father’s rigid worldview). Every car ride home from the airport on my visits back is filled with conversations of, “You need to get a Masters degree, work in the university, this will ensure your future.” But more than that, my father isn’t really clear on what it is I do, and ‘developing and managing’ projects isn’t a satisfying answer.

In fairness, I can’t always clearly articulate what it is I do. International development is a field in which projects are implemented with goals such as “capacity building” and “improving community resilience”, vague terms that are supposed to give the impression of improving the situation in underdeveloped and war-torn countries. But more than that, this is a field in which you are constantly trying to balance between political and economic interests within these states, in which you compete for funding to ensure your organization’s survival, and where you try to improve your professional image through a tangle of abbreviations and dry technical language. In this constant battle, the lofty goals set out in the projects are often forgotten

As a person who started out in very grassroots civil society organizations – picking up trash, holding festivals – it’s interesting to see the transformation that NGOs go through once they scale up. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to help more people and have more creative license to design projects. But on the other hand, it’s a source of constant frustration to try and work within the increased bureaucracy and procedures – a feeling akin to running a race in a pool of molasses.

But what really makes my own experience unique is the fact that the work I’m doing is for my own country, and not for some far-off nation that I’ve only heard about in the news. For this reason, my work is always coloured by my emotions, my frustrations are magnified, and the satisfaction following a successful project always sweeter.

For the average Libyan, finding fault with the work done by INGOs is part of the overall daily criticism towards everyone that hasn’t “fixed” Libya yet. But when you work within these organizations, you realize that a lot of delays and limited impact usually comes because it takes so much effort not to make things worse. In a country rampant with corruption and little rule of law, a well-intentioned community project could end up empowering mini-despots and fueling a system that disenfranchises the average citizen. So many projects have been stopped by local authorities because their palms weren’t greased enough.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all criticism lobbied at the international community is without merit. The world of development still suffers from lack of transparency, institutional racism and a result-oriented mind-set. Some of the foreign “expertise” hired by these organizations are not looking to save lives or make a difference, they just want a paycheck and a few months exploring an exotic country (often without the necessary sensitivities). Add to that the additional barrier of remote management and you have a recipe for redundancy.

The truth, of course, is always in between; INGOs are doing useful and important work in Libya, despite the difficulty of the situation. But they could definitely be doing better.

In the middle of all of this, I find myself with a new crisis of identity. To defend the work of my institute means that I’m part of the problem, to criticize it means that I am a hypocrite. The reality is that I just want to help my country within a system that allows me to give more than if I were to continue helping on a grassroots level.

More and more though, I’m finding out that Libya is really not a classic humanitarian/development country. The biggest added benefit of INGOs to any country is the money, plain and simple. Truly underprivileged countries need all the support they can get. But Libya is not a poor country. When hospitals turn their nose up at medical shipments, and when displaced people are asking for brand name items rather than the generic stuff that is distributed, then you know that the situation isn’t that bad.

What Libya needs is good management, administration and governance. If this is achieved, everything else will fall into place. But trying to achieve this goal is tantamount to finding a cure for cancer. The legacy left behind by colonialism and dictatorship is still deeply entrenched in the MENA region and will take generations to undo. So for now, everyone working on Libya will gravitate towards the easier, short-term fixes, which is where the funding flows anyways.

For now, I’ll stick to my little development projects, the ones my dad will never understand, and keep trying to create my own change from within. I’ve resigned myself to accept that the outcomes of what I’m doing won’t be apparent anytime soon. But with experience and time, those of us in the INGO world can at least start defining the right path.


*Disclaimer: This piece does not reflect the work being done in the migration sector in Libya, which is one big fucking mess on its own

The Militia War Against Libya’s Youth

Since 2011, militias have always posed a threat to Libya’s young male population, who – without many economic opportunities or sense of belonging – become susceptible to the recruitment campaigns that promise youth the chance to “protect the revolution”. Of course, the biggest incentive is not ideological but financial; the salary offered by militias dwarfs that which can be obtained in the public or private sector. The militarization of youth is a problem that requires a strong nation to tackle, but in Libya’s fragmented system of governance, the problem is only getting worse.

There is a small but active group of young people, made up of civil society activists, culture enthusiasts, tech geeks, and others, who are creating their own spaces within this chaos. They organize events and sessions to come together and celebrate their passions, and along the way attract other disillusioned youth in the country. These small but strongly bonded networks are often the only outlet for creative self-expression, and a lifeline for young people who feel “different” from the mainstream.

But the militias and military, increasing affected by religious influences, are now beginning to crack down on these safe havens. A few days ago, a Comic Con event was raided in Tripoli by Salafi militia, who accused them – among other things – of “inciting violence” and “crimes against public morals and Islam”. Despite the fact that the organizers had received a security clearance for the event, many of them were still arrested, and there are reports that some attendees in custody have been abused.

This kind of action has become a trend in Libya, where a popular youth event – after gaining publicity online – leads to outraged responses from people and a swift reaction from the dominating military group. The Earth Hour event in Benghazi witnessed the almost exact same crackdown, when, despite obtaining security clearance, negative online reactions led to the arrest of the organizers. What’s incredibly frustrating is that the outrage is incited by young people behaving, well, like young people. Hosting concerts, singing, dressing up as favorite characters, things that are typical behaviour for youth in any country, are shocking for a population that has grown up in isolation from the rest of the world.

This year has been particularly bad for Libyan culture. Tanarout, a popular cultural center in Benghazi, was forced to shut down because of the harassment of neighbours. Youth writers who contributed to a book – Sun on Closed Windows – received death threats when an explicit excerpt of one of the stories made its way online. This particular incident also led to the closure of another cultural center in Tripoli for several days. Earlier this year, books were confiscated in Marj on the basis that they were also spreading “immoral” ideologies.

The list of ideologies that militias and the conservative populations seem to be terrified of is rather extensive and thematically incoherent: Satanism, atheism, shi’ism, Freemasonry, Zionism, homosexuality and, ironically, ISIS ideology. In most cases, it’s young people who are the victims of these bizarre allegations and highlights the growing divide between generations. The misunderstanding of youth and their trends happens in any society, but in Libya it can put your life at risk.

What’s particularly problematic is that the medium which puts young people in danger is social media, the same platforms that youth use to get together and share their ideas, interests and points of view. It’s saddening that this same medium which gives them some escape from their reality also poses a threat to their safety. Any online post that shares info about an event will inevitably see the comments section filled with enraged citizens worried about the morality of their society. In particular, the pictures of women seem to rile up the more vitriolic trolls. “Look at those whores,” one commenter says about a picture of girls who are modestly dressed and holding books. In order to respond to this public outcry, the militias swoop in and “save” these susceptible youth by arresting and beating them.

The crises and war have turned Libyans into a nation of people who can readily accept violence and death, in the process making them intolerable to the celebration of life, culture and the vibrancy of youth. As spaces for self-expression continue to shrink in the country for young people, more and more are looking towards countries where being yourself isn’t a crime. Meanwhile, the militias continue to protect a revolution that started as a call for individual freedom, by taking those freedoms away one by one.

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.