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.

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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.

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.

رسالة مفتوحة الى رئيس وزراء ليبيا, فائز السراج ,من مواطنة في بنغازي

بعد التحيه,

المفروض اني انهنيك على دخولك الى طرابلس باقل اضرار ممكنة. في بلاد زي بلادنا, واللي اي حركة سياسية ممكن تسبب في حرب, دخولك بسلام يعتبر انجاز رائع.

انا حنكون صادقة معك, فكرة حكومة الوفاق ماكنتش مقتنعة بها واجد. لأن الفكرة كلها كانت تدور حول قضية عدم تسليم السلطة من الحكومات السابقة, من شرذمة من السياسيين الفاسدين اللي حطوا السلطة والمال فوق كل شىء. ولذلك انا ماحسيتش ان تكوين حكومة الوفاق انجاز, بل ابتزاز.

لكن مرات الحاجة الصحيحة في العالم الافتراضي والحاجة الضرورية في الواقع يكونان عكس بعضهن, وللأسف هذه كانت هي احدى المرات. شفت مدينتي تمزقت من مجموعات متطرفة وخشت في حرب شعواء. شفت اصدقائي في العاصمة يعانون من صعوبة الحياة اليومية وخائفين من المجموعات المسلحة. سمعت قصص من اهلي في الجنوب عن تدهور وضياع فزان وعزلهم عن باقي البلاد.

لهاذا السبب, انا حندعمك, وحندعم حكومة الوفاق. ربما يكون مش هو الاختيار الصحيح, ولكن لأن الوضع لم يعد يحتمل و مافيش اختيار اخر.

ولكن هذه الثقة اللي عطيتها لحكومتكم غصبا عني, ياسيد سراج, ممكن ان تسلب بكل سهولة. لأن مش عندك حكومة سابقة و لكن حكومتين فلك ان تتعلم من اخطائهم. سبب خراب ليبيا معلق في رقاب هاتين الحكومتين. المؤتمر الوطني العام قووا المليشيات وتحالفوا مع الشيطان, اما مجلس النواب فاختبؤوا في قلعة و زادوا نار الحرب وقود. هم الاثنين سمعوا صراخ الناس و تجاهلوهم.

انا متأكدة ان عندك فريق كامل من المحللين و المساعدين يقولولك في نفس الكلام هذا. لكن انا انقول فيه لك لأني عايشه في وسط هذه الواقع. نجاحك بالنسبه ليا مش نجاح سياسي, نجاحك هو انقاذ ماتبقى من هذه المدينه وهذه البلاد. و فشلك حيعني النهاية بالنسبة لنا. سواء نبو ولا مانبو, حياتنا و حياتك مرتبطات, و انا حندعمك علشان ننقذ حياتي.

لو في حاجة وحدة بس تقدر اتديرها في فترة حكمك, خلي الحاجة هذه انك تسمع للشعب. مطالبنا حاليا مش صعبات واجد, بس وظيفتك مش فقط انك توفر الاشياء الاساسية. ايضاً, وظيفتك مش انك اتعود بالبلاد الى الوضع اللي كانت فيه في 2011, لأن هذا الوقت كان بداية المشاكل لنا. الان عندك الفرصة انك تكون اول رئيس وزراء ينهي عقلية “الثوار”. نحن معش نبو ثورة, نبو دولة. مش دولة لبنغازي فقط, او دولة لطرابلس او مصراته فقط. نبو دولة للجميع.

كون اول رئيس وزارء ليبي لا يتهم الشباب بتعاطي حبوب الهلوسة  لما يتظاهروا ولكن اسأل عليش يتظاهروا. كون اول رئيس وزراء لا ينشر الاكاذيب و المؤامرات على عدوه, لكن يتفاهم معه. كون اول رئيس وزراء يبدأ في حل الازمة, وما يشاركش في ازديادها.

نحن الاثنين معماريين, ونعرفوا كيف انصمموا مباني و مدن للناس. و نعرفوا ايضا ان افضل تصميم في نظرنا احيانا لا يستجيب الى احتياجات الناس. نحن مش طالبين افضل تصميم و تحقيق اهداف خيالية, اللي نبوه فقط هوحياة طبيعية. نبو نمشوا لمدارسنا وجامعاتنا وأعمالنا بدون خوف من القذائف العشوائية. نبو انسافروا بدون مانحسوا بالذل والمهانة اللي قاعدين انتعرضوا لها توا. نبو العدالة, والامن و الامان, والحرية. نعم, الحرية. صح, نحن الان ضعفاء, لكن هذا لا يعني انا نردوا الى القيود من جديد من اجل الامان.

حضرتك قاعد الان في منصب سلطة, و تقدر ان تقرر اي حاجة, من ضمنهن قرارات تكبح الحريات. لكن من فضلك لاتنسى, ياسيد سراج, ان بنغازي, حتى و هي مكسورة, مش حتسكت لأي شخص يحاول ان يكبت حريتها. خلينا نشتغلوا مع بعضنا, مش ضد بعضنا, وننقذ هذه البلاد.

مع تحياتي,

ندى عبدالقادر,

بنغازي ليبيا

31\03\2016

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Faiez Serraj from a Benghazi Resident

Dear Prime Minister Sarraj,

I guess I should start by commending you on entering Tripoli as peacefully as possible. In a country where any political move can set off a chain reaction of violence acts, this is a promising achievement.

I have to be honest. The idea of a unity government has never really appealed to me. It is centered on the concept of pandering to a corrupt group of politicians and war lords who refuse to hand over power, and flies in the very face of the principles of democracy that we destroyed our country to obtain. It feels not like achievement, but like blackmail.

But, what is right in theory and necessary in practice are occasionally two very opposite things. I have watched my city become torn apart by extremist groups and plunged into an ugly war. I have seen friends in Tripoli live in fear and dread under militia rule. I have heard heart-wrenching accounts of Libyans in Fezzan as they describe a deplorable way of life in complete isolation from the rest of the country.

For this reason I support you, and I support the Government of National Accord. Not because it is right, but because the current situation is unacceptable and intolerable, and we have no one else.

But trust that is begrudgingly given, Mr. Sarraj, can be easily revoked. You have not one, but two failed governments to learn from. Do not repeat their mistakes, for the appalling state of Libya today lies mainly on their shoulders. The General National Congress allowed itself to become fragmented and manipulated by illegal armed groups, and allied themselves with the devil. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, sat in a safe, stately castle, fanning the flames of war, as they watched Libyans suffer below, ignoring their pleas for help.

I’m sure you have a team of advisers and analysts telling you the same things I’m writing here. But I am writing it to you because I am living in the middle of it. Your success to me will not be a political achievement, it will be the return of life to my city, to my country. And your failure will mean our doom. Whether we want it or not, our lives are intertwined with yours, and my support comes from my sense of self preservation. Don’t ever forget that.

If there is only one thing you can do differently from your predecessors, please make it that you listen to the people. Our demands have become very basic, but that doesn’t mean you should only provide the bare minimum human needs and consider your job done.

Your job is also not to return Libya to the state it was in following the end of the revolution in 2011, because it was that period that eventually got us here. I ask you, on behalf of a nation sick of instability, to be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the “thuwar” mentality. We do not want a revolution, we want a country. Not a country for Benghazi, or a country for Misrata or Tripoli, but a country for everyone.

Be the Prime Minister that doesn’t accuse youth of taking pills when they protest, but instead ask why they are protesting. Be the Prime Minister who, instead of propagating conspiracy theories about his opponents, reconciles with them. Be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the destruction, instead of being another contributing factor towards it.

You and I are both architects. We know how to design spaces and cities for people to exist in, to live in. And we both know that even the best laid designs can fail to meet the needs of the people. We are not asking for fantastical plans and lofty goals; we just want some semblance of normal life. We want to go to work or school without fearing falling missiles. We want to travel without being treated like pariahs in other countries. We want justice, and security, but also freedom. Yes, freedom. We are weak, but that does not mean we want another set of chains on our wrists in exchange for security.

You are in a position of power, and you may be tempted to make restricting decisions. But never forget, Mr Sarraj, that Benghazi, even when broken, will not tolerate those who lord power over it. Work with us, not against us, and let us save Libya together.

Yours sincerely,

Nada Abdulgader

Benghazi Libya

March 31, 2016

Roundup 2: More Libyan Blogs to Follow

Have I ever told you how awesome it is seeing Libyan growth on the internet? I probably have, but there’s no harm in emphasizing how important it is to see Libyans utilizing this flexible platform. Last year I wrote about five Libyan blogs that I enjoy, and now that list has grown.

Over at the Young Writers of Benghazi, we wrapped up another online writing contest, this time in cooperation with Wajeej Blog. The theme was to write a blog post, with the winning entries to be published on Wajeej. The aim was to get people to view blogging as a viable form of self-expression, and perhaps encourage them to start their own blogs. I’m currently brainstorming ideas to hold blog-writing workshops in Benghazi with other bloggers, to get more people familiar with this medium. With my university thesis and the dozen other things I have on my plate, I may not be able to actualize these plans anytime soon, but it’s definitely a goal I hope to achieve in 2016 (perhaps make 2016 a year of Libyan blogging?)

Another Libyan organization, the Tanweer Movement, also held a blogging contest, to award the best Libyan blog. The winner was announced during a great cultural event in Tripoli (you can see highlights of the event through the hashtag ). The winning blog is Khawater Bint Shareef, a blog on the thoughts of a young Libyan woman. You can check it out here.

And now, without further ado, here are more Libyan blogs that you, faithful reader, should check out:

7. The Silphium Gatherer: Started by a Libyan academic, Silphium Gatherer is a great resource on academic material about Libya’s history, politics, culture and a number of other topics. With material on Libya being as scarce as it is, this blog is a invaluable place to learn more about the country.

6. Abdulkarim Dwaini’s Blog: Abdulkarim is an active young Libyan who is the director of the Libyan Youth Culture Changemakers organization, which operates from Waddan, Libya. His blog highlights the key issues and events that he feels are important for civil society and Libya’s growth. It’s a refreshing look at Libyan civil society through the eyes of a motivated, inspiring young man.

5. Amjad Badr’s Blog: Another active young Libyan, Amjad is the director of Hexa Connection, an organization that promotes technology and tech activism among young Libyans. Amjad’s blog covers a range of topics, from personal recollections to thoughts on important Libyan issues. He also started the initiative #أنا_ادون to encourage more Libyan bloggers.

4. Fetrasha: Started by a good friend of mine and a great Libyan thinker, Ahmed Mahmoudy’s stream of consciousness posts are food for thought, offering insights into the mind of a Libyan youth who’s experienced both revolution and war. While the blog is still new, it’s definitely one to follow. Ahmed also runs Yes We Can, a youth organization based in Benghazi.

3. Wissamiyat: A seasoned Libyan writer, Wissam has been blogging for a number of years now. His writing covers current events in Libya, personal musings and trends in Libyan society. He’s also part of the Libyanblogs.org collection (which I mentioned in part 1), and also does his part to encourage Libyan blogging.

2. Tehrees: The author of this blog was also the 3rd place winner of our blog-writing contest. Tehrees is a blog popular particularly among Libyan youth, as it touches on important social issues through a unique writing style. An example of this is a modern day interpretation of dialogue between Sidi Khraibish (representing Benghazi) and Sidi Alasmar (representing Zliten), two historic Libyan figures, touching on the terrorist attack in Zliten and the war in Benghazi. It’s a personal, emotional way at looking at the events in Libya, a reprieve from the bland, empty political analyses we’re so used to hearing.

1. Rawad Radwan’s Vlog : This one is actually an exciting addition, because it’s a vlog (video blog), one of the first Libyan vlogs to appear on my radar, in fact. Rawad Radwan is an active Libyan with a mission to constantly seek out the silver lining in the Libyan situation, but with doses of pragmatism. Rawad vlogs about his personal interests as well as Libyan current events.


If this selection doesn’t keep you busy enough, you can head over to Wajeej to read the three winning entries of our Blog-Writing Contest. They are:

Third Place: “Here is Benghazi” by Ahmed Ben Omran

Second Place: “When You Plan to Emigrate” by Ghada Twair

First Place: “Why Do I Go On?” by Mohammed Ezzawi

You can also check out Huna Sotak (translated to, Here is Your Voice), an initiative started by Radio Netherlands Worldwide to give Arab youth a platform to express themselves. They have a Libya project entitled “Here is Libya”, with posts from different contributes. One of my personal favorite contributors is Ali Latife, an introspective young Libyan who writes on the situation in Libya and the hardships of being a young Libyan in the Middle East today. (you can read samples of his work here, here and here).

The most salient features of this list are that the writers are both young and active in their communities. These are Libyans with something to say, and who hold important insights on the state of the country. As more Libyans continue to use social media, and as social media becomes one of the few outlets left in the country for self-expression, I think we’ll be seeing an increase in the number of Libyan blogs. My hope is that, if our country eventually stabilizes, this will transition into published literature. In any case, I hope that the digital thoughts of Libyan, both young and old, won’t be confined to cyberspace, but will find its way into our collective culture.

A Brief History of Local Libyan Governance, and Carving Out Community Libyan Spaces (Pt.1)

Untitled-2

City Hall Model 3

It’s an architectural post, oh my god! You know what that means. Yes, my graduation project is going very well, thank you for asking! The reason for the excitement is, obviously, that I’m going to be a graduate very soon (and removing the insolent ‘student’ description from my IDs, huzzah). I’ve also been bedridden for over a week due to a nasty concussion, which meant no coffee, so the five or so cups I had today to make up for it might also be a small contributing factor to the energy.

So, what is my graduation project, (or, more formally, my “thesis”, a term that totally wigs me out). If you had asked me during the first four years of school, I would’ve adamantly insisted that I’d be designing a community center, for a number of reasons. It’s a dynamic architectural building type, it’s a space that’s badly needed in a country of people that don’t have many places to publicly congregate. And, more importantly, a community center perfectly marries my love of architecture with my firm devotion to civil society, a design project that will keep me in my element and allow me to launch my career in public-use architecture and design.

That is, uuuuntil my professors had a talk with me. Now, we’re big on the number three in the architecture department, so by the time you hit your final year, everything is in threes. Case studies, program proposals, and of course, theses statements. I presented my first statement, the community center, with all the pomp and circumstance I could muster. I then added a library as statement numero duo, to show that I was serious about doing a community building, and I threw in the city hall almost as an afterthought. A city hall is a political building, and the last thing any Libyan wants is to deal with more politics.

“We’ve reviewed your thesis proposals, and we feel that a city hall would be the best project for you,” the committee told me.

“Umm, well, you’ll actually find that I present a much stronger case for the community center, several pages of case, actually, haha,” I countered, barely able to keep from rising out of my seat and slapping someone.

“No one in the department has ever done a city hall before. We want you to go for it.” And they walked out of the studio, leaving me shocked and with a rapidly growing desire to lunge at my lead supervisor’s thick neck.

I had practically already designed the goddamned community center in my head, could they not sense that through my adulation of the building type and my pristinely printed words of longing that I wanted a COMMUNITY CENTER?

I (or the coffee) may be embellishing the devastation I felt at not getting the thesis I wanted, most likely a symptom of the war and the need for dramatics. I was pretty bummed out at not getting the center, but the more I read about city halls and municipal architecture, and the more I investigated Libya’s own unique municipal situation, the more I realized that this would be an interesting, if politically saturated, project.

It’s really been an eye-opening experience these past few months to work on a design project that is linked to a government structure that is constantly evolving and changing, which is in fact in the midst of a historic change. When I undertook the thesis, Libya had just implemented the temporary local council system, meant to act as a place holder for the real deal. When I presented my initial findings a year later, Libya had a completely new legislative body, a completely new set of alterations to the local governance law, and, perhaps most starkly felt, a completely new power struggle.

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Preliminary abstract conceptualization; What is Benghazi?

I’m not gonna lie, it may have been filled with politics, but my preliminary thesis defense was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I spent a full hour going toe-to-toe with the 6-headed dragon that was the thesis committee, discussing everything from federalism to tribal politics to responsible administrative design to Benghazi’s evolving public life. It was like a large Twitter debate in real life, but actually respectable and intelligent. I loved how my professors were acutely aware that the situation in Libya would have the biggest impact on my project, that I am working on a building that is akin to handling mercury.

Which brings me back to…local governance in Libya; what’s going on, what was going on, and what will the future hold?

To sum up everything I’ve read, Libya has all the necessary elements to make it the type of country to rely heavily on decentralization. We have always had, at every point in history, some form or other of decentralized power distributed among the land. This was most clearly manifested through the federal system under the newly independent Kingdom of Libya in 1951, with three provinces, two capitals and one hell of a lot of territorial baggage. It’s interesting to note now that, with the decaying of any and all concrete state-structures today, an organic return to the old system has been the most persistent feature of this brave new Libya.

I was also surprised to learn that Gadhafi actually began his rule pushing for further decentralization, allotting a lot of power to the governorates. This was, of course, in the few years before he lost in marbles and abolished the governorate system entirely. But, while the complex system of the shabiyat and Jamahiriya still mystifies me, I’ve learned that there was a method in his madness. It is, or so I postulate, a form of extreme decentralism, so localized that it hardly even feels like there is power on a municipal level. Those I spoke to who experienced the full force of the mu’tamarat shabiya recall only hazy memories (we still haven’t reached a point in our post-revolutionary recovery where people will openly admit that they attended those meetings, sadly enough).

Enter February 17, a complete reshuffle of the country, and along with it, many strong and rising voices calling out for decentralization. It’s important to note that the decentralism demanded post-Feb 17 wasn’t just about having more administrative decisions, it was strongly linked to the regional and tribal identities that were largely oppressed/manipulated by the Gadhafi regime.

To understand local governance today, one needs to read Law 59 of Year 2012, the Local Governance Law issued by the Ministry of Local Governance under the Transitional National Council, and its numerous addendum. You’ll also need to get your hands on the bylaws governing each independent Municipal Council (something a friendly smile and some wasta with the council can help with) to understand the structure governing each. There’s also numerous other laws all detailing the sleep-inducing minutiae of the municipal council’s many roles, responsibilities and duties. All I can tell you is, I’m so glad I did not major in political law, and I have a new-found respect for people who do (not really, why would you do that to yourself?)

Now, the general structure should be, Ministry -> Governorate -> Municipality -> Municipal Council -> Municipal branches. We’ve jumped over the governorate stage, which is supposed to come later, and went straight to the councils. Elections across Libya led to the formation of initially 99 municipal councils (later expanded to 112 or so, such as the Benina municipality’s decision to break off from Benghazi). We still don’t have any governorates, but even defining that at this point is iffy because the draft writers of the local governances chapter on the new Libyan constitution haven’t really made any definitive choice in whether we should have governorates (preferred by those who don’t want/like federalism) or “regions” (a term used so butthurt anti-federalists feel less afraid.) Hell, they haven’t even been able to decide on the capitals of Libya (latest draft stating some wishy-washy nonsense about a political, economic and cultural capital, intending to appease all and pleasing none).

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Facade lighting study for Model 2

Now, a question posed by the thesis committee was, what difference does it make if Benghazi is the capital of the province of Barga, or the capital of the Benghazi governorate, or just another city in the Libyan vastness, for a city hall project? The answer is, quite a lot actually. A city hall, as building typologies go, carry a lot of symbolism in the exterior design. What kind of city Benghazi was, is and will be should be represented in some way or another in the edifice. No one can deny the rich political and historic significance of Benghazi, and this needs to be represented not only on the facade but also in the way the building is used, how the people and surroundings interact with it. Five years ago, we had mu’tamarat shabiya. Today, we have a municipal council. Five years from now, who knows what form of local governance we’ll have in Benghazi, and it’s necessary, nay, imperative, that the building is designed true to the turbulent and important city that it stands in.