Revisiting Libya’s Federalism Boogeyman

Last week, a new unity government was sworn in by the House of Representatives, formed largely by international actors. In his speech, the interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbaiba made a number of promises, one of which is to ‘move away from the [three] regions’ and towards decentralization.

This type of promise is not new – indeed many Libyan figureheads who claim to push for unity have publicly decried the existence of three Libyan regions, which are seen as divisive components that stand in the way of uniting the fragmented country. This comes from a deep seated fear of federalism, a term that become a boogeyman in 2012 with the emergence of a federal movement in East Libya (I wrote more about this at the height of the debate here).

Federalism in Libya is not a new or novel concept. Libya historically was formed of three distinct regions, divided mainly by geographical elements. These regions were united under the King with significant support (and/or pressure) from international actors (notice the pattern?). The country formed in 1954 was a federalist state with two capitals, Tripoli and Benghazi, although this was dissolved in 1963 with the amendment of the constitution, creating instead a more centralized government. While the popular claims are that federalism failed because of corruption and nepotism, we can’t ignore that the decision came at the start of Libya’s oil boom, making it easier for foreign companies to operate in the country by dealing with only one centralized authority.

Yet, while the motivations for opposing federalism are largely political and economic, the reasons given by decision-makers focus almost solely on the social. “Federalism will divide Libya”, “it will fragment the society and increase animosity”. But Libya has not been more fragmented than in these past ten years, where a very centralized system that favored certain ideologies and groups led to warfare across the country and further entrenched the marginalization of regions outside of Tripoli’s influence. Indeed, calls for separation have increased from all three provinces in the past decade, by Libyans who are fed up with the continuous outbreaks of war and stalemates by actors all vying to control Tripoli at the expense of the rest of the country.

The key flaw in the argument against a federal Libya is that it categorically rejects the historic, social, cultural and geographic basis on which the country’s three regions exist. Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan are not colonial inventions or bureaucratic tools; there is a long legacy that underpins the formation of these regions. For many Libyans, rejecting the existence of these regions is a rejection of their identities, their agency and their right to self-determination.

Conversely, building on the existing local structures that make up regional identity and power is the logical way forward if calls for decentralization are to be taken sincerely. Indeed, with the total breakdown of national governance in 2014, that’s exactly what happened. Networks of tribes, armed actors, local authorities and civil society have filled up the gap left behind by the national government, and in most parts of Libya this ad hoc system is what is still in place today. Indeed, Libya’s de facto governance system today is largely federal except in name.

The system that the new unity government wants to put in place once again throws around the world ‘decentralization’ without specifying what that actually means. The only clear guidelines around local government is enshrined in Law 59, a weak law that has been criticized by countless Libyan academics and decision-makers for perpetuating dependence on central authority. There are currently over 120 municipal councils in Libya, most of which are too weak and under-resourced to provide even basic services to their constituents, or otherwise are breaking the law by collecting their own taxes rather than waiting for a central government budget that always comes too late.

Decentralization is an approach that requires a strong central government and the resources to create nodes of power that reach every Libyan citizen. Neither of these things are present in Libya, and it will take decades to build such a system. But more than this, decentralization does not address the decades of grievances and disenfranchisement, or the identity politics at the heart of the calls for federalism.

I am not naïve enough to believe that federalism will solve all of Libya’s problems. It is a system that comes with its own issues, and the creation of federal states could lead to the dominance of certain tribes and leaders at the expense of other groups, and recreate marginalization on a regional level. But these are problems that are at risk of appearing regardless, and it’s important to remember that Libyan society is a complex entity. A federal system can help foster political legitimacy and lead the way towards building a strong state that doesn’t leave any citizen behind.

The Lost Humanitarian Principle

WFP Assistance_blog post

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.

Chosen for Chevening: How to Make Your Application Stand Out

Greetings from London! If you’ve been following my social media you’ll know that I was awarded a Chevening scholarship to do my Masters’ degree in the UK (self-congratulatory woohoo). (It’s still too early to write a ‘Libyan in London’ observatory post although you know your opinionated blogger has much to say already).

As a recipient of this scholarship, there’s an unspoken obligation to ‘pass on’ the knowledge to others, and to support the next generation of postgrad scholars. There’s already a number of guides from Libyan Chevening alumni available online (for ex. here and here) and lectures (like this one coming up in Benghazi). In that tradition, I’ve opted to take advantage of the little free time before drowning in readings to give my own take, especially since applications for 2019/2020 are open until November 6.

However, this post will not repeat what already exists online on the application process itself. Instead, I want to address the comments I see from unsuccessful applicants who want to know why they were not selected. The application process for any scholarship is not simply about meeting the basic criteria (undergrad degree, work hours, grammatically-correct essays), but about standing out and showing that it is worth investing in your education. Because at the end of the day, a scholarship is an investment, and the return on this investment is an active citizen who utilizes what they learn to contribute to solving issues and positively impact their community and country. With that in mind, I hope this guide will help, well, guide you through the application process to succeed in achieving a scholarship.

A scholarship for a postgraduate degree isn’t something that you should casually apply for. There are several questions to ask yourself and self-reflection before making a decision that can have a large impact on your life, either positively or negatively. Some of these questions are:

1. Will this scholarship help my mission/career path?

This is probably the most important question, essentially being honest with yourself about whether you need to continue your education. In some cases, work placement would be more beneficial. Leaping into academia isn’t easy, because you’ll have an intensive one-year programme that will need your full time and dedication. If you do decide to take this leap, knowing what you want out of the experience will help you in better determining what programme of study would be best for you.

I chose to continue my education because I was working a lot on post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, and my architecture background didn’t prepare me for working on development issues. For this reason, I decided to pursue a masters in urban design for development.

If you do decide that you want to study a Masters, the next question is:

2. Is the programme I want to study important for Libya?

This one is a bit more difficult to answer up front because for a country like Libya, everything is important. We need practitioners and policy makers in almost every field, from urban design to governance to education to health to….you get the idea. Chevening realized this and removed the list of ‘priorities’ for potential Libyan scholars.

But that doesn’t mean what you want to study will automatically get approved. Saying that you want to study a M.Sc in Mechanical Engineering because that’s what you did your undergrad in doesn’t sound like anything particularly important, but saying you want a masters in Mechanical Engineering because you want to support the development of local industry, and you’ve already began working to support a small manufacturing startup will show that your goals are more in line with the Chevening criteria.

What’s cool about the UK is that they offer several programs that focus on merging disciplines with development theory, which means that you can learn how to apply a technical skill in a developing country like Libya. It also means that you don’t have to do your Masters in the same field as your undergrad, if you have work experience in that field.

3. What have I contributed to my community?

Like I mentioned before, winning a scholarship means proving to the selection committee that you are exceptional. High academic grades are important but there are thousands of students across the country who have an A+. It’s your extra-curricular activities that will highlight your creativity and potential. Whether you volunteer in your spare time for issues like women’s rights or environment or education, or have contributed to your university’s student union, or worked to support local authorities in service delivery, the cause you’re passionate about says a lot about who you are as an active citizen. In my case, it was showing the committee that I wanted to work on an issue that was important for the country, namely socially-responsible and holistic reconstruction in Libya.

Now, civil society in Libya is still in its infancy and extra-curricular activities aren’t in high abundance, but it’s here that your creativity will show. Leadership and networking skills are a high priority for Chevening, and how you mobilize people is a great way to show them off. Joining the Scouts or Red Crescent is a great way to get started; network with the people you meet there in order to learn about opportunities elsewhere. What you should avoid doing is volunteering somewhere for a month or two just to pad your application; if you’re not passionate about something, it will definitely show.

4. Do I want to study in the UK?

The UK has a lot to offer when it comes to education, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea (pun intended). Some people choose to apply because this is the only scholarship opportunity they can find, while they may have their heart set out on another country. In this case, look into scholarships such as the Civil Society Leadership Award, the Fulbright Scholarship, the DAAD scholarship and others. (If the deadline has passed, follow up on the page for it to reopen for the next year)

5. What do I want to do when I come back?

This one is again tricky to answer, because we’ve gotten out of the habit of planning for the long term in Libya thanks to sudden airport closures, a fluctuating local currency and the political legitimacy crisis. In this context, my advice is always to integrate flexibility into your goals, and plan locally. It’s hard to predict what will happen in Libya a day from now, so it’s safer to work on a smaller scale like your community or city. At the end of the day what matters is that you DO want to achieve something, and regardless of the situation, if you have that drive, you will manage to succeed. I’ve seen countless initiatives, projects and businesses thrive in the most unlikely circumstances, whether in the middle of a war in Benghazi or in the isolated city of Sebha. It’s by no means easy, but it’s not impossible.

If you have any further questions about the application process, just include them in the comments!

Me and My Anxiety

I’ve always associated terms like ‘clinical depression’ or ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ with vague images of soldiers in battle fatigues or patients in a psychiatric ward; they were not concepts that I could immediately link to my surroundings, vague abstractions that always existed elsewhere. After all, what trauma could we have experienced in our sleepy, forgotten country, where nothing really moved forward and nothing of importance was discussed.

When the war broke out, and the sound of guns being fired and sight of blood pooling in the street was still new, we were not aware of what was happening to us internally. Many people made efforts to conceal their inner tumult. But sometimes not well enough. A friend of mine burst into tears suddenly upon arriving to class on day; she had witnessed the second car bombing in a week in her neighbourhood. Others desperately sought help, but there was none. Mental illness is not recognized for what it is in Libya, and we have neither the infrastructure or expertise to handle it.

In the second year of war, I began have reoccurring dreams, mainly of destroyed houses in my neighbourhood. Thinking about certain issues – my education, a family member’s health problems, a friend’s death – brought on feelings of discomfort. I began to recognize that the episodes of difficult breathing and chest tightening were called panic attacks. The irony is that knowing you are prone to panic attacks makes you panic even more, prolonging them. Panic attacks were followed by a nervous stomach and the inability to swallow, which could last for days. I couldn’t eat, nor did I want to, opting instead to stay in bed and avoid the world.

I became easily irritated, angrier and more aggressive, a veritable bomb of stress. I fought often with people, I lost the ability to forgive because I didn’t understand where the rage was coming from. Relationships felt strained, difficult to maintain. Nausea was my constant companion. It felt intolerable to be in my own skin, in a body I had little control over.

It took some opening up to others to realize that this wasn’t a battle I was fighting alone. Friends talked about pills they had to take to sleep, haunting thoughts of suicide, over-drinking to forget, a feeling of indifference to everything. It made me sad to realize how an entire generation is being plagued by these problems. But there is comfort and strength gained from sharing these similar experiences with others.

But we can’t even begin to think of healing while the violence and the madness still rage in Libya. We live in a constant state of hypervigilence, awaiting the next bomb or bullet or fight, which will inevitably happen in our fragile cities. We can’t protect ourselves. But we can prepare. I’ve been trying to practice self-care, which is a series of different habits to help manage the anxiety. It’s been helping me stay in control, and not to feel entirely helpless. The steps I take include:

  • Admit Your Illness – There’s some advice I read online which goes something like this: “Tell yourself that it’s not you, it’s the disease.” One of the worst things about anxiety is the effect it has on your self-confidence. It’s important to recognize that you’re not inherently flawed as a person, that you’re battling something that was forced on you. Separating who you are from what you’re experiencing is an important step to keeping it under control.
  • Let Go of Grudges – One thing I’ve been trying to do lately is contacting everyone I’ve had personal problems with and trying to resolve things. I am obsessive with my anger, but it only exacerbates my anxiety. Letting go of past conflicts has given me peace of mind and allowed me to focus on managing my emotions better.
  • Know When to Stop Working – Overwork = Stress = Burnout, which happened quite a lot to me in the past year. The stress builds up to the point where one triggering event can send me over the edge into panic attacks. As much as you want to achieve in your job, or maybe you bury yourself in your work to avoid being alone with your thoughts, there comes a point where you have to stop and address your needs first.
  • Exercise – Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not an athletic person. I prefer mental to physical exertion. But during one panic attack, I became incredibly restless and had to leave the house. I eventually began running, because I felt this overwhelming ability to just move. While the run was short (again, not an exercise person) I was able to breath better and control the shaking. I now try to fit in some time for a run during my week, because aside from the endorphin, it helps my overall peace of mind.
  • Talk To Others – Opening up about mental illness is probably one of the most difficult things in a country like Libya, but one of the most liberating things for me was being to say out loud that I was suffering. Talking to friends, to family, even to a stranger, is ultimately better than keeping things locked inside. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and be vulnerable.

These are some of the steps I’m taking to improve my own life, they don’t necessarily have to be yours though. You could practice a hobby to feel better, scream in a pillow, spend a day at the beach. The only important thing to remember is to recognize the anxiety for what is it, and not to give it permission to dominate your life.

How Do You Make Climate Change Relevant in a War Zone?

Guest blogged for the Libyan Youth Climate Movement on how to make environmentalism relevant for Libya through the SDGs. Be sure to check out their fantastic blog!

Libyan Youth Climate Movement

sdg gf.pngThere have been countless studies conducted which have shown that developing countries are the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change. Water scarcity, desertification, and natural disasters are just some of the upcoming challenges facing these countries. And yet, if you talk to citizens residing there, the environment is usually the last thing on their minds.

Libya is one such country. While its geography and unique environmental situation make it particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the civil war in the country has overshadowed all other problems. Right now the main focus is on providing humanitarian relief, temporary shelter and emergency health care to those affected by the crisis. In this scenario, there are many issues that take a back seat, including culture, social equality, and of course the environment.

Yet, we cannot ignore our degrading ecosystem until the war is over and Libya is stable, which…

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Death and Architecture


Phaeno Science Center | Zaha Hadid Architects (Source)

The recent death of Zaha Hadid last week came as a shock to the architectural community. At just 65, one of the most prolific and globally renowned architects would design no more. Her death has come at the height of her fame, as countries across the world having been vying to have a Hadid design built in their cities.

But unlike the recent deaths of Michael Graves or Frei Otto, themselves big names in the field, Zaha’s death has also rippled across the public sphere. Social media has been filled with posts coming from a wide number of countries, all mourning the loss of the architect. People from the Middle East in particular, seeing Zaha has one of the few global success stories that originated in the region, expressed their sadness at losing an important Arab icon. Zaha’s death has, even for a brief moment, united a fragmented world, and connected people through architecture in an entirely new way.

But what is it about Zaha Hadid that created this impact? Was it because of her iconic designs? That was definitely a factor, but she did not have a monopoly on iconic architecture. I believe that the main reason why Zaha’s death is a surprise is because she died before this design era did.

Despite the highly stressful nature of the profession, architects usually outlive their heydays. To put it another way, architectural eras die before their architects do. I.M Pei, a famed architect of the past, is still around at the ripe old age 95, but his designs do not have the impact that they used to. Last year, German architect Frei Otto passed away. Like Hadid, he experimented with building form, materials and new technologies, producing beautiful tensile structures that were considered the height of innovation in their time. But unlike Hadid, by the time Otto had breathed his last, tensile structures were no longer new and unconventional, and his death did not resonate further than the architectural community. In a sense, once the architectural era is over, the architects of that era fade along with it.


Hall at the International Garden Exhibition | Atelier Frei Otto (Source)

But architecture is currently in the middle of a new era, one that has superseded postmodernism and is described by some as ‘parametricism’ or ‘neo-futurism’. It is a style that is characterized by its heavy dependence on new technologies in order to create and actualize the designs that are produced. Whether high-technology produces better architecture is a topic best left for another day, but Zaha was one of the pioneers of this style.

And in the height of this era, Hadid’s passing is untimely. In Matthew Frederick’s beloved architecture student book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, he writes:

“Architects are late bloomers. Most architects do not hit their professional stride until around age 50! There is perhaps no other profession that requires one to integrate such a broad range of knowledge…[it] takes a long time, with lots of trial and error along the way.”

The picture that accompanies this entry is, in a twist of dark irony, a sketch of Zaha Hadid.


A page from Matthew Frederick’s book 

But it is not the sudden stop of a career in bloom alone that has made Hadid’s career resonate with people. Her designs were iconic, putting her in the top tier of the professional known as ‘starchitects’. Starchitects are known for creating buildings so fantastical and unique that they capture the interest of the public, which, in a profession that is often ignored by its complexity, is a new phenomenon. Their designs invite people to stare, to take pictures, and to get a conversation going about the buildings we use. And let’s face it, with a field like architecture, where complex philosophy accompanied by a convoluted terminology are mixed with confusing mathematics about loads and structure, it’s not exactly inviting to the average layman. And so those like Hadid and Gehry and Libeskind, with their new, fun forms, bring architecture that much closer to the people they are meant for.

But like I stated previously, these architects are not the pioneers of icons. What is different about their icons is that they have come at a time when the world is more connected than it has ever been before. You can view thousands of iconic buildings at the touch of a button, and explore the achievements made in architecture without leaving your room. And with the internet’s constant thirst for the unusual and buzzworthy, starchitecture is perfectly suited for that need.

Of course, in architectural circles, there is a constant debate over whether starchitects cheapen the profession, and rely on spectacle rather than design integrity for their fame. I’m going to be honest, I often stand on the anti-starchitect side of the debate, being an architect that believes in the human scale and preferring the role of architecture for social change over the soaring cantilevers and exaggerated glass of overpriced starchitecture.

But seeing the effect of Zaha’s death has led me to soften my stance a little on this issue. I can’t deny that her designs have enriched the field and have sparked important debates. And while I’m not a fan of her less-than-moral approach to designing buildings for dictatorships, I have been inspired by her work and can recognize the genius behind it.


Palacio do Planalto | Oscar Niemeyer (Source)

But I would like to see more appreciation of architectural genius from the general public, even if that genius is around long after the fads they create have faded into the past. One such person that I wish had received more recognition is Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect who passed away in 2012. The engineer of the city of Brasilia, Niemeyer’s modernist interpretations of civic buildings are now beautiful relics of a bygone era. While Zaha’s buildings can be described as ‘a bold vision of the future today’, Niemeyer’s idea of futuristic architecture was more grounded, using curving white surfaces and stark forms to create expressive yet rational buildings. Just as Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center captured hearts today, Niemeyer’s Palácio do Planalto or Niterói Contemporary Museum evoke a similar grandeur, albeit one that is tethered to its time.

One may grieve at the death of great architects, but that sadness comes mainly from the knowledge that we will never see them design more buildings. But they leave behind a legacy that is rarely achieved by any other profession. Hadid joins the annals of architectural history alongside Niemeyer and Otto and the countless others who have shaped the built environment. One could say that, as long as their buildings still stand, an architect never truly dies.


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


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.


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).


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.

Flying While Libyan

السفر قطعة من العذاب” – سيدنا محمد”

The infamous green Libyan passport, soon to be a relic of a bittersweet era

The infamous green Libyan passport, soon to be nothing more than a relic of a bittersweet era

Libyans don’t agree on much these days. But there is one thing that seems to be universally accepted; the quality of life in the country has dive-bombed after the 2011 revolution. Aside from the physical struggles to achieve the most basic day-to-day tasks, or the staggering loss of life, there’s another more abstract concept that Libyans yearn to have; leadership. Or, to put it another way, a strong sovereign nation.

The void of a national authority that has some respect (or at least sway) on a global level is most felt when travelling abroad. Since the revolution and subsequent wars, it has become increasingly difficult to fly in and out of the country. The number of countries that allow Libyans to enter visa-free can be counted on one hand, and even to these nations, heavy restrictions have been placed.

Historically, the ease of travel in Libya has fluctuated between simple enough to horribly frustrating. There was a time (or so we’re told by our parents) where Libyans could travel to most countries easily and be treated with the utmost respect. The Libyan passport used to carry significance abroad. Fast forward to the Gadhafi-era sanctions imposed on Libya, and all flights in and out of the country were completely stopped. Anyone who wanted to travel abroad had to take a car or bus to a neighbouring country (often Tunisia or Egypt) and fly from there. During the more difficult trips I take now-a-days, my parents like to remind me that they once had to drive the 24+ hour trip from Benghazi to the Tunisian border, and get searched by border guards, often in extreme weather conditions.

Fast forward to just before the revolution, and aviation in Libya was picking up. International carriers offered flights from Libyan airports to a wide range of destinations, including London, Rome and Malta. Libya was beginning to reconnect once again to the rest of the world. Sure, our hand-written bright green passports elicited a few raised eyebrows from customs, but no one had any reason to think badly of Libyans flying to other countries.

And then the revolution happened, and the aviation industry went down the drain. Benina airport has been closed for over a year, Sebha airport for almost two years, while Tripoli International Airport has been reduced to ash-covered arches standing in the middle of smoldering rubble. Many of the planes belonging to the Libyan Arab Airlines, Afriqiyah Airways and Buraq Air (the three biggest Libyan airlines) were lost in the attack by Fajr Libya on Tripoli’s airport. (Meanwhile, a new airline has miraculously appeared, going by the name of Libya Wings. Its history, like its sudden appearance, is shrouded in mystery and controversy).

The few smaller airports that still function in Libya (Maetiga, Labrag and Tobruk) are woefully unequipped to deal with the number of passengers and flights that have suddenly been forced to resort to them. Labrag airport in particular has gained a notorious reputation due to the staff’s tendency to randomly prevent passengers from flying for any number of personal reasons. Maetiga airport, purportedly run by a militia, has enacted a primitive rule whereby young women are not permitted to travel alone unless a male relative signs a consent form. A few airports in the South (Ghat, Temenhint and Kufra) are still limited to local flights, which are anyways still badly needed as the roads in and out of Fezzan become increasingly dangerous. The only international flights available to Libya these days are to Istanbul, Amman, Tunis, Khartoum and Alexandria.

These cities, which are jokingly referred to as “the new Libyan capitals”, (on account of the high influx of Libyans who pass through them), have recently put in motion more restrictive measures for Libyan citizens. Istanbul, shortly followed by Amman, now require visas for Libyan citizens. Tunisia has “temporarily” rerouted all Tunis-bound flights to Sfax airport. Aside from these destinations, many countries will not grant Libyans a visa due to the current state of affairs in Libya.

Another facet of difficulty was added when it was declared that new electronic passports were to be issued for Libyan citizens. The green passport will soon be obsolete (any passport issued pre-2008 is already obsolete in Tunisia) and citizens need to get the new passport as soon as they can. This has proven to be a Herculean task, as the online registration site for a passport appointment is either overbooked or filled with glitches, and people have begun resorting to bribery out of desperation, adding another unneeded layer of corruption. I’ve heard of bribes reaching up to 3000 LYD for a single passport. Even ‘wastas’ (connections) are no guarantee of getting a new blue passport. If you don’t have the older green passport, you’re essentially stuck inside the country until you can somehow miraculously get a new passport. For Libyans who depend on overseas medical treatments (which, considering our local heathcare system, is a lot), this passport crisis can be fatal.

If you can manage to get a new passport, and a visa to the country you need to visit, and you managed to book a flight (which will probably be delayed by several hours, which is the norm), you will then need to tackle another beast; the black market currency rate. Since the Libyan dinar is no longer a hard currency, you cannot convert dinars at other airports. With the banks closing off most financial services, Libyans are stuck with the black market exchange, in which the value of the dinar has been steadily plummeting. A US dollar is now worth over 3 LD, meaning any trip you plan could end up clearing your savings. If you run into any trouble while abroad, whether financial or otherwise, there’s no guarantee that our ineffectual embassies will help you out (one embassy per government, in some countries) as they are too embroiled in the legitimacy crisis.

Picture for a moment the feelings of the average Libyan citizen, who, after suffering through a dictatorship, war, and terrorist invasion, is now treated sub-humanly by other countries, because they either don’t want you in their country for too long or because they fear that you might harm them. Imagine being utterly helpless to even get a new passport for your ailing parent who needs medical treatment abroad. Imagine losing most of your life’s earnings over what should be a typical trip to a neighbouring country, or having to sleep in an airport because of the constant flight delays. Just like the days of the sanctions, Libyans are being treated like pariahs and are forced into isolation. It’s a humiliating experience to be told to stand in a “special” line and watch as everyone’s bags (whether old, young, sick, handicapped) are thoroughly searched, enduring scornful glances from the local authorities because you happened to be born in the wrong country. Especially for Libyans, who have a lot of pride (perhaps the last remaining evidence of a better time) this kind of treatment is hurtful.

There is one type of Libyan who hasn’t experienced much trouble with travel, however. At Labrag airport recently, I saw members of the House of Representatives, the Transitional Government and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly, all milling about waiting for a flight to Tunis (no doubt to cozy up to the new president of the GNA). In their hands was the red diplomatic passport, just another symbol of the ever widening chasm between the average Libyan citizen and their representatives. Their obliviousness to the struggles of the citizens they represent is only too apparent in these kinds of situations.


The aim of writing this post isn’t to set up a pity party, but rather to raise attention to this issue. The media, government agencies and even the airlines themselves are indifferent, particularly since they don’t hear a unified voice calling for improved conditions and hell, even just for a modicum of respect and help. Libyans deserve better than this, and war or not, things can, and SHOULD, get better.

A Tale of Two Cities

By the fourth year, the bombings and assassinations had become common in Benghazi. The sounds blended into the city’s background noise. Traffic horns, supermarket crowds, booms. We never accepted it, but there it was anyways.

These sounds, familiar to us, took Paris by surprise this week, shattering the pattern of the city’s busy existence. Terrorism is a hideous thing, but it’s made more horrifying when it catches you unaware, filling your surroundings with violence and bloodshed.

But unlike Benghazi, there’s a system in place, a procedure to follow, to protect the city from falling into further chaos. Also unlike Benghazi – where our own young men turned on us – these men came from somewhere else, filled with unexplained anger and blood lust. While nothing has been properly confirmed yet, there’s a lot of speculation that these attacks were carried out “in revenge” for France’s role in combating ISIS. Why they would target innocent civilians who have nothing to do with the jets over Deir al-Zour, nobody speculates on, because this is not an ideology based on rational thinking. It’s built on reactionary propaganda and the manipulation of emotion.

This wound will hurt France now, but its pain will continue to affect the refugees, Muslim or otherwise, long after the last bullet-ridden window pane is fixed. And it wasn’t just France that lost people. Morocco, Spain, Tunis, nationals from many countries were killed in the attack, “in revenge” for something they had no control over.

And Paris is the kind of city where people come together, a hub for travelers from across the world, discovering a beautiful city with a rich history, remarkable architecture and a good-hearted people. On my first trip there, I was slightly anxious. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were reports of hate crimes against Muslims, so I didn’t know what to expect. But my fears were alleviated on arrival; everyone was kind, helpful, welcoming. Which makes these attacks, to me, all the more heinous.

Social media, as usual, has misdirected the incident and broken it down into a series of talking points, arguments and other irrelevant drivel. Suddenly Paris is about defending “true Islam”, suddenly its about the bombing in Beirut, it’s about the forgotten Palestinian cause. A whole host of flags of different Arab countries become profile pictures, trying to out-number the France-flag picture in some kind of twisted competition. Those flags should be accompanied with the slogan “I only express solidarity with Arab countries when a Western one is attacked.”

In this tangle of self-righteous expression, the message of global solidarity against a merciless terror is lost. Yes, Islam doesn’t advocate senseless slaughter, but clearly some Muslims believe it does, a problem we ignore in our scramble to reassure the rest of the world that we’re not secretly murderers. Instead, prove it to the world by working to prevent another massacre. Yes, the Beirut bombing was severely under-reported, but why would you take that out on the fallen in Paris? They didn’t ask to be gunned down and get media attention, so pay your respects and direct your anger to the wider problem. Yes, Syria and Palestine and Libya are all forsaken, but they won’t be remembered if you only bring them up to prove a point about misdirected media.

If one thing is to be concluded from all this, it’s that we’re all suffering, whether prolonged in years or in a sudden bursts. Instead of turning on each other, it would be wiser to turn on the enemy. Not the young men who are brainwashed and confused, but to the radicalization process itself, to the vacuum of opportunities and the lost chance at a decent life.

To Benghazi, all this arguing and anger and confusion blends into the background, along with the explosions. We’ve given up on profile pictures and empty hyperbole a long time ago, and have taken matters into our own hands. We are, very slowly, recovering, having to do it, as usual, by ourselves. Paris will recover too, and probably faster, because they have more support. I don’t resent them for that, I’m glad that they do, because I’ve had to witness the same nightmare first-hand and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. We’re both cities made up of a rich diversity with a passion for culture, we’ve both experienced the same shock and heartache from the same sick, twisted ideology, and we’ll both, in time, move on.

Roundup: Libyan Blogs You Should Be Following

I’ve written before on trends in internet usage among Libyans, and I consider myself lucky to be present at a time where online activity and social media usage has just taken off, because it offers a unique chance to see how a formerly isolated country is now virtually connecting to the outside world. In particular, it’s fascinating to see how this connection is affecting Libyan society on the ground.

Libyan social media migration has moved from Facebook to Twitter and now to blogging, showing an increasing tendency to share thoughts and opinions with a wider audience. Of course, much of these points of view revolve around the current (unfortunate) circumstances of the country. But my hope is that this trend increases and we’ll see more focus on social and development issues.

For now, I’d like to share my favorite Libyan blogs. The list is a mix of English and Arabic blogs with different fields of focus, offering (to me) a well-rounded look at life in Libya. In no particular order, they are:

6. Project SilphiumThis blog began as an initiative to raise the voice of Libyan women as they continue to fight for their place in society alongside men. It brings up issues faced by Libyan women, both young and old, and from various backgrounds. That’s what I really love about Silphium, they give women a chance to share their own stories and provide a safe platform for them to speak their mind.

5.  Mohammed Eljarh’s Blog: There’s something about reading analyses on the Libyan situation from foreign analysts that never feels quite right, as they are often oblivious to the underlying factors and motivators in the country. That’s why reading Eljarh’s takes on Libya are so refreshing; he is an authentic Libyan voice who focuses on the key issues, with an understanding of the political and social composition of the country. Sometimes it’s better to read it from an actual native, ya know?

4. Ahlam Badri’s Blog: I was fortunate enough to meet Ahlam Badri during a workshop here in Benghazi. She’s an active and energetic woman with an eye and an ear for interesting topics and current events. While the bulk of her blog posts focuses on the Scouts (she is a Scout leader), she also writes for other sites, such as HuffPost Arabi.

3. Showbak: Anas Benguzi is a young Benghazino with a wealth of talents. From film-making to graphic design, he shows remarkable skill and an eye for good art. And one of his talents includes amazing writing. What I love about Showbak is that Anas’s writing is like reading art turned into words. You need to know Arabic to fully appreciate this blog, and he captures the spirit of Benghazi and it’s people in their essence. Reading his blog posts is an emotionally grasping experience.

2. Wake Up Benghazi: The thing about a blog written by a practicing architect is that you get good writing AND awesome graphics, all in one post. Mutaz Gedalla, the author of Wake Up Benghazi, covers a wide range of social issues in the city, offering a blend of advice, analysis and the personal insights of a Benghazi resident. It’s one of my personal favorite Libyan blogs (yes, I am biased towards anything Benghazi)

1. Tawfik Bensaud’s Blog: There was a young man from Benghazi who had a way with words. He was active, passionate and left a lasting impression on all those who met him. He was assassinated nearly one year ago for his outspokenness. Tawfik loved writing and reading, and his mature writing belied his young age. The best way to honour his memory is to keep his thoughts and words alive.

Of course, a post on Libyan blogs wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Libya Blog initiative. Sponsored and run by a number of international media outlets and organizations, this initiative trained a large number of Libyans on blogging skills. You can find a list of the blogs that were set up on their site here:

I really do hope that blogging continues to gain popularity in Libya, and I hope we’ll see further initiatives like Libya Blog to encourage more Libyans to utilize this medium of expression. If there’s one thing we’ve gained from the revolution, it’s free expression, and the best way to safeguard it is to use it.

If you have any suggestions for other Libyan blogs that deserve attention, please mention them in the comments!