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.

The Politics of Libyan Identity

The most fascinating topics in Libyan society are almost always the ones that people discuss the least. These controversial issues often elicit intense passions and discomfort, which is why they’re usually kept under the proverbial rug. One such topic is that of religion, although in our post-revolution, post-ISIS era, it’s becoming harder to avoid discussing it. While on the surface people resort to the old cliche “we’re a moderate Sunni Muslim country”, there is a noticeable tug away from traditional religious practice, particularly among the youth, towards more critical thinking and investigation. It’s a slow change, but a dialogue has started.

However, there is one issue that seems resistant to dialogue; the Libyan identity. Yes, my favorite topic, one that I’ve blogged about numerous times before and yet, even after all this time, I still can’t comprehend it.

What is a Libyan? What makes a person Shergawi or Gherbawi? Are Southern Libyans subconsciously seen as less Libyan? Do the Amazigh define themselves more by their nation or their ethnicity?

To explore these questions and the broader field of Libyan identity requires a very comprehensive knowledge of Libyan history, society, politics, culture and geography, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to make head or tales of it.

One topic of debate on the Libyan identity is whether Libyans are Arab or North African. Ethnically speaking, Libyans are a mix of many different races, going back to the long history of foreign occupation in the country. The rise of Nasserist Pan-Arabism in the past few decades has strengthened the Arab identity angle, cemented by the Islamic revival movement in the region. But are Libyans Arab? I would argue, based on our local culture, not really. Even the language we speak, our Libyan dialect, is not pure Arabic, but an amalgam of Amazigh, Italian and other influences.

The Libyan Amazigh flatly reject the Arab narrative, due not only to the ethnic basis of their identity but to the history of oppression experienced at the hands of invading Arabs. However, this has also influenced a kind of hostility they hold to non-Amazigh Libyans today, to the point where many Amazigh families refuse to allow their children to marry outside of the ethnicity.

I consider both sides of the argument, the unyielding Arabists and Amazigh, to be too extreme. A non-Amazighi is not automatically an “Arab”, and we definitely shouldn’t let the Arab identity overtake and dilute our unique North African culture.

When gathered with friends or relatives, I sometimes like to steer the conversation towards the issue of Libyan-ness. The results are usually a passionate discussion between various perspectives, and which show that even in Libyan society, there is no definitive answer. In Benghazi especially, where everyone comes from wildly different backgrounds, everyone has their own views on the matter.

I decided to take this conversation to Twitter, following an interesting discussion I had with a friend on tribal perception in Benghazi, a pluralistic city that boasts the elimination of the tribal system. We were talking about the marriage “conditions” that some families place on their kids, including tribal limitations. I was aware that this mentality existed in the smaller tribal towns, but was surprised to learn that even in Benghazi, some people use it as a yardstick. Even more surprising was the knowledge that, here in our supposedly tribal-less city, a person’s roots still mattered. The question was relatively straightforward; “Is a Benghazi denizen of West Libyan origin considered a Shergawi (East Libyan) or a Gherbawi (West Libyan)?”

Benghazi is the historic capital of Barga, a beacon of East Libya but with a large populace of people whose roots come from all over Libya (there was a substantial exodus from West to East over the decades due to war, famine, searching for opportunities, etc.). Unlike other Libyan cities, people in Benghazi do not define themselves based on their tribe or tribal origin. Before the revolution, we just considered ourselves Libyans from Benghazi. But the revolution unearthed and revived regional and tribal sentiments, which have been gaining popularity, much to the chagrin of Benghazinos whose loyalty and identity is linked only to their city.

The question I asked on Twitter elicited dozens of replies and conversations, and showed the complexities and confusion of this identity issue among Libyans.

One of the most common answers was, “What difference does it make if they’re Shergawi or Gherbawi?”, or, “You are Libyan, nothing more”, many claiming that the distinction of East vs. West is something that shouldn’t even be discussed.

This is the logic applied to most controversial issues in Libya. If we deny the problem exists, it’ll just go away. Hostility between the North Libyan provinces has always existed, exacerbated by the recent geo-ideo-political conflict in the country, and people’s solution to this hostility is to claim that there is no East and West, that we’re all just Libyan. Besides being untrue, it also rejects identities that have been formed and affected by centuries of history, and recklessly erases the diversity that makes Libyan communities unique.

Rather than deny our regionalism, we should investigate the foundation it’s built on, and start to redefine what our region or city of birth means to us. Being passionate about your locality is not a sign of weak nationalism but a way to strengthen the plurality of this nationalism. And more importantly, creating a stronger link to your community will combat other societal issues such as tribalism.

I have always been vocal in my disdain for tribalism in Libya. I emphatically reject the notion that my tribe is my identity, my sigil, because it has had no role in formation of my identity as a Libyan and a Benghazi denizen. But it would be the height of hubris for me to act like it means nothing in my interaction with other Libyans. In this post-revolution nation, the Western tribe of my last name will always cast a shadow on my Eastern-ness, and on any political stance I take. If I question the behaviour of the East’s army? Oh well, she’s not really Shergawi, after all. If I criticize a Shergawi politician? Go back to the Western city your grandparents came from!

The identity issue frequently leans on the side of the ridiculous and irrational. My grandfather came from a city in Western Libya, and despite the fact that I have never been there, I will always be linked to that city. Conversely, a person born and raised in that city, and considers it his/her own, will always been seen to some extent as an “outsider”, because they do not belong to one of the tribes.

Why should the tribe be the identifier? Why shouldn’t I be able to define my own sense of self? We fall back on these primitive practices because they are familiar, the norm. The moment I leave Libya, no one cares what my tribe is. I can lie and name any other Libyan tribe as my own, and no one will be able to tell for certain “who I am”, because our tribes are built on arbitrary historic and geographic events and not on any real, tangible differences.

To me, a Shergawi is a person born and raised in the East, who calls the region home and cares about their community. The same should apply to the East and South. We should not impose identities on others. A Libyan should be allowed to define who they are based on where and what they feel most comfortable with. An identity should be constantly changing and developing.

Instead of rejecting the existing regional realities in Libya, we should instead reject the idea that a last name determines our loyalty, our political affiliations and our very sense of self. It is our neighbours, our friends and our community on whom the formation of our identities should be based. I believe Libya will prosper once we begin building resilient societies built on these real foundations.

I want to reiterate that the politics of Libyan identity is a multi-faceted issue. My view are based on my personal upbringing and experiences. There are Libyans who believe that their tribe is the most important aspect of their life, and others, their ethnicity. What I wrote above is a radical outlook specific to my individual beliefs, and the truth, if it exists, lies somewhere in between these radical opinions.

The Blurry Outline of Libyan Youth, and the Struggle Between Generations

Libyan youth from different geographic, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds working together and presenting their demands for the constitution as one group, to representatives of the CDA

Libyan youth from different geographic, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds working together and presenting their demands for the constitution as one group, to representatives of the CDA

I’ve been engaged in several youth-oriented projects in Libya lately, and I’ve come to realize several things about the oft-spoken-of-but-rarely-heard-from character that is the ‘Libyan Youth’. There is this idea of Libyan youth, an archetypal character that is almost a trope. This character is brought up by those in power, those trying to gain power or those who speak loudly of Libyan issues. The most popular platitudes include, “Youth are the flame of the revolution! Youth are the future!”

The “youth” they speak of are often characterized by the mental image of a young man in baggy clothing and a cap (I doubt very much whether anyone visualizes young women when they speak of youth) sitting in a street corner, throwing away their non-existent future while a vague dark shadow of bad influences lurks behind them. Everyone is concerned for the Youth, everyone knows they are important somehow, but this demographic is never investigated beyond the usual talking points.

To add to the unclear image, there is no national definition of who exactly qualifies as youth in Libya. 50-year old politicians like to half-joke that they, too, are part of the youth collective, because they are young at heart, and this should make them just as qualified to work on issues pertaining to youth. This kind of shameless imposition is neither uncommon or surprising; in Libya, the more labels and badges you can forcefully apply to yourself, the more you can control.

It’s very easy (and also accurate) to blame the older, aging generations for this blatant restraint and marginalization of Libya’s largest demographic. There are many factors that come into play that aid this injustice; cultural and social norms that place trust in the elderly over others, the lack of adequate education and empowerment for younger generations, and the lack of a national youth strategy or representative committee to protect youth rights. But there are other factors that contribute to perpetuating the status quo.

But this brings us back to the initial question; what is the definition of a Libyan youth?

There is no nationally agreed-upon fixed definition. Most agree that a person is a ‘youth’ by the time they’re 18. But the other side of the limit is fluid. Some youth CSOs consider 30 to be the maximum age a person can consider themselves a youth, while others go as far as 35 or 40. Many youth organizations don’t work with a fixed limit because, in their words, “we don’t want to leave anyone out.”

This is another point I’ve noticed, where youth, even when brought together and explicitly asked to discuss youth issues, will instead focus on issues of the country as a whole. They don’t see themselves as an entity separate from the rest of society, and this extends to their concerns for the country. In a workshop on the role of youth in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, two of the proposed projects focused on providing education to adult Libyans that haven’t finished schools. Let me reiterate; these are Libyan youth, concerned about the education of adults. Whether this reflects the selfless nature of the future generation, or their naïvity, is debatable.

There is a gap, in Libyan society, between the younger generation and the old. This gap became more pronounced after the revolution, especially between the generation that was hit hardest by Gadhafi’s reign of terror and the “February 17th” generation. You can hear the difference in the way they talk, see it in the way they behave, and really comprehend it when you interact with both. My generation has considerably more opportunities than their parents; things like travelling and technological access have helped Libyan youth to become relatively more open-minded and aware. (Of course, that could just be the youth in my own social circles)

This gap means that there is a difference of priorities. But the disproportionate representation and hold on power between the generations means that the priorities, concerns and aspirations of the majority of Libyans go ignored. Like most of the MENA region, Libya suffers from a chronic youth unemployment problem, which breeds more problems like militarized youth and an unsustainable economy. As you can tell from the current status of Libya today, youth issues are not exactly the first thing on the minds of our politicians. When it comes to young Libyans, the only thing the people in power seem to care about is how many they can ship to the front lines.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the elderly. Nor do I think they should all be excluded from political and social life. But the truth is there in plain sight, even if it’s an ugly one; Libya’s revolution was taken over by a power-hungry generation that granted themselves license to run the country the way they saw fit, and bought off the younger generation with empty promises and small sums of money. The exclusion of youth from the process of nation-building has had the consequences you see here today (along with other factors, of course).

This is also why our small-but-resilient civil society have such a high percentage of youth involvement. No, scratch that, youth are the fundamental component of civil society. Their efforts and energy are key to making projects successful, and the older members of civil society are very conscious of this fact.

Libyan youth are more than just a blurry, undefined component of society; they are not a vague campaign promise, and including them in the nation-building process is more than just a favour that you can grant them. Youth are literally the future of the country, so stop using that as a catch phrase and start acting on it.

The Libyan Constitution: A Futile Effort or the Key to Saving Libya?

Disclaimer: If you clicked this expecting a highly technical article on the constitution drafting process, you shall not find it below. I’m no constitutional expert and I detest legal mumbo jumbo almost as much as I loathe militias. I wrote this in a sleep deprived frenzy after writing a catchy title. 

Both the English and Arabic version of the 1951 Libyan constitution can fit into this small booklet, but it seems that the new Constitution Assembly will be forgoing this brevity.

Both the English and Arabic versions of the 1951 Libyan constitution can fit into this small booklet, but it seems that the new Constitution Assembly will be forgoing this brevity.

In Libya these days, the discussion for every topic seems to be made up of polar extremes. The political situation has people divided into factions that are themselves further subdividing, and the war between the two most prominent groups (they both start with the letter D and make regular arch-enemies look like buddies) has severely frayed the collective nerves of this abandoned country. The Constitution Drafting Assembly, the council that was voted in by the people to create a new constitution for the new nation, has, well, failed to produce anything apart from a highly questionable draft of suggestions that only succeeded in casting doubt on the assembly’s capabilities. Legally mandated to produce this essential document in 120 days, the assembly overstepped their timeframe. Perhaps overstepped is a bit of an understatement, seeing as they celebrated their one-year anniversary just a few days ago. This prolonged delay has had much of the nation asking this burning question; what the hell is taking so long? Of course, this answer will vary depending on who you ask, but the standard answer seems to be, ‘Well, how can we draft a constitution when you people keep blowing stuff up?” It’s a reasonable answer, and the turmoil that has become the new norm in Libya has limited and, in some cases, halted, many essential services and processes. However, many believe that it’s this precarious edge that Libya teeters on that makes the production of the constitution so vital, nation-saving even. And here we reach the crux, the polar extremes. Libyans are now roughly divided into two camps; those who believe that the constitution must, absolutely must, be written with the greatest haste and urgency possible, and those who think that the constitution will change nothing for Libya without political stability/military conquest/ whatever other numerous alternate solutions are being proposed.

A comic pamphlet to raise awareness on the rights of Libyan women in the constitution, produced by the 'Lematha Ana' charity for women's rights. Several efforts have been made to create awareness in the general public on the importance of the constitution

A comic pamphlet to raise awareness on the rights of Libyan women in the constitution, produced by the ‘Lematha Ana’ charity for women’s rights. Several efforts have been made to create awareness in the general public on the importance of the constitution

Why should the constitution be written ASAP? For one thing, a document that lays out the foundation of the Libyan law and order system would help revive the law and order that went out the window on that fateful day four years ago. It would also define the form the nation should take and provide a clear political roadmap. And since the constitution would be voted on through a national referendum, it just might be the first document that all members of the warring factions can agree upon. This would be a minor miracle in itself, as finding things that all sides agree on is about as easy as looking for Waldo in a striped t-shirt convention. The constitution has the potential to become the focal point where the peacebuilding process can begin for Libya and the foundation on which a stable nation can be formed. But, while having a constitution is nice in theory, will it actually make a difference on the ground? And to assume that the constitution would save the country means that you have to have an actual constitution ready to do the saving, which, as I mentioned earlier, has not yet happened. As the CDA continues to draft at their leisure, millions of the nation’s dinars has gone into paying the bills for the 56 members and their entourages. In case you aren’t aware, the country is quickly going broke thanks to the war, and soon we might be faced with the problem of whether Libya can even afford a constitution. There’s also the issue of the referendum, and the difficulty (in some cases, impossibility) of holding nation-wide voting. Both sides raise very valid points. It is this humble citizen’s opinion that both are right (a sentence people don’t like hearing, I know). We do need a constitution, but we also can’t expect it to magically repair the country. We have to work on both fronts in parallel, finding the appropriate solution for the Libyan conflict while working on a constitution that provides a long-term vision that will contribute towards the country’s healing process. I think that many Libyans cling to the CDA because they see it as the only government institution left that isn’t involved in the war. During the craziness last year before the HOR elections, the CDA was asked to take power and govern the nation, which they rightly refused because they wanted no part in the conflict. This was a wise move and has earned them the respect of the warring factions and general public. But there’s a critical component to the constitution drafting process that needs attention, and that is the assembly itself. Are the 56 people that make up the assembly responsible enough to draft this crucial document? Sure, we voted them in, but we don’t exactly have much democratic experience, as evidenced by the condition we’re in today.

Dr.  Ibtisam Ibhaih (left) hositng a meeting of civil society organizations in Benghazi

Dr. Ibtisam Ibhaih (left) hosting a meeting of civil society organizations in Benghazi

Benghazi’s CDA representative, Ibtisam Ibhaih, recently visited the city to hold a meeting of civil society organizations and discuss the constitution drafting process, along with the obstacles encountered. It should be noted that Ms. Ibhaih has made several such efforts before to reach out to her constituents, and visiting Benghazi while the war is still ongoing is a commendable effort on her part. During this meeting, Ms. Ibhaih spoke of the state of the assembly and some of the reasons behind the delay on producing the constitution. Among what she listed were the numerous long vacations that the CDA has been taking (at one point there was a 3-month long vacation), the lack of attendance by many of the members and the corruption in the administration. There is also a coordinated effort to try and move the CDA out of Libya, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and it’s obvious that there are sensitivities between members in the assembly. These revelations are hardly earth-shattering, but they do not bode well for the future, particularly for those who have hung what’s left of their hopes on the CDA. But Ms. Ibhaih emphasized that she would do all she can, and that the work is still ongoing. In her own words, “My biggest concern is saving this country.” Pretty words, but words alone just don’t cut it. Libya’s situation is worrying in the extreme. We are rapidly reaching a breaking point, and the chance of finding a holistic, effective solution is getting slimmer by the day. All sectors in society need to do more to both support the CDA and pressure them into doing a better job. Civil society must act as a link that connects the CDA to the rest of the nation, and we must ensure that the constitution is drafted in an inclusive and transparent manner. In short, we have to be better people. I know it’s difficult, and I know the situation doesn’t exactly encourage forward thinking, but we have to try. If we were as good at constitution-making as we are at negativity and creating problems out of nothing, we would have had a constitution a long time ago.

The Electron Youth Network, a Lifeline for Activists in Benghazi

DSC_0286You probably haven’t heard about Benghazi lately. Coverage of the city is a seasonal thing it seems, and we’re not currently ‘in’. The media has already milked our situation dry, and there hasn’t been anything new to report on. You might occasionally hear lamentations from people (usually people who don’t live in Benghazi and probably never will) as they shed crocodile tears over the destruction of the city.

As usual, the media fails to cover the human aspect of the city. Time and time again, my amazing city is reduced to a political talking point in the struggle over Libya. But it doesn’t matter, because Benghazi doesn’t need anyone to speak for it. It is a city of actions, not words.

The Electron Youth Network is one of those inspiring actions. A regional MENA youth network that began in 2013, Electron was started with the aim of connecting youth organizations together on a national and regional level. Its main focus is capacity-building for active youth.

In Libya, Electron’s partner was the Attawasul organization, and implemented by a group of passionate youth activists, including assassinated hero Tawfik Bensaud. They began with data collection to learn about the concerns and aspirations of Libyan youth, and went on to implement successful projects throughout Libya. What makes the Libyan Electron Network so significant is the context they were operating within. Libya has been experiencing some of its worst years, and yet the amazing Electron activists continued to persevere and support youth groups.

Session with the National Dialogue Council during the Electron Youth Project (May 2014)

Session with the National Dialogue Council during the Electron Youth Network (May 2014)

I was fortunate enough to be involved in a number of Electron activities, including the National Electron Youth Forum held in Benghazi last year, the crisis management workshops and resulting Coordination Team, a discussion session on constitutional recommendations and, most recently, I was fortunate enough to give a workshop on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in cooperation with Electron. I met so many incredible people through the Network, and it truly gave me hope to see these young, intellectual Benghazi activists all working to make a change in their city.

2014 was a very rough year for us, the worst that most of us had ever experienced. We had just come out of a very bloody Ramadan, and Ansar Shariah were still continuing to terrorize the city, when I got a call inviting me to a crisis management workshop. The night before was particularly bad, with violent clashes around the militia base nearby. I left the house rather hesitantly, not knowing what to expect. I mean, the city was a mess, who would even attend a workshop now? Civil society was laying low due to the increase in assassinations that targeted activists, and it wasn’t safe for anyone to involve themselves in activities.

When I arrived, I found a group of young people, many of whom I already knew, who all had that same wary look on their faces. But it didn’t take long for us to get back in stride, discussing the conflict and ways to resolve it. There’s something about team spirit, particularly in a close-knit society like Benghazi, to keep you hopeful despite the odds. The crisis workshop was followed by another, and led to a Coordination Team where we designed quick-response projects for the crisis.

Crisis management workshop (August 2014)

Crisis management workshop (August 2014)

I learned a lot from Electron, but the lesson I prize most is resilience and perseverance in the face of war. I’m not saying this to sound like some dime-a-dozen self-help guru. One of the biggest effects that war has on a person is the complete destruction of their psyche and spirit. It wasn’t easy for us, especially after the murder of Tawfik, to even contemplate a future that wasn’t filled with doom and destruction. I’m still not completely recovered from the horrors I’ve experienced, and I probably never will be. But Electron gave me something to look forward to and a sense of purpose in my life, and for that I will forever be grateful.

Today was the closing ceremony for Electron. The organizers held a presentation of everything that they’ve accomplished. We discussed our experiences and (happier) memories, as well as what we’d all do in the future. None of the activists in the room with me today showed any signs of wanting to slow down or stop their work. On the contrary, we talked about what other projects to work on, how to join our efforts and do more for Benghazi.

Debate on the role of youth in leadership (April 2015)

Debate on the role of youth in leadership (April 2015)

At the end of the ceremony was a debate, held by the Libyan Debate Club. The motion was “Youth Should be Placed in Leadership Positions”. The whole thing was organized very quickly but very professionally (the Libyan Debate Club in Benghazi is the best in the nation). And of course, the team for the motion won by a majority of the votes.

It’s interesting also to see the growth that Benghazi’s civil society has witnessed since those distant days in 2011 when none of us really knew what we were doing. Activists now have the experience of two crises under their belt, and while the reality of our situation these past few years has been difficult to live with, it has ultimately made us stronger. We’re now more experienced, more pragmatic and definitely more competent.

This is just a small sample of the events going on in Benghazi today. The city is doing much better now than it was a few months ago, and it’s improving by the day. I don’t brag about my city out of bias alone, but because it truly is an awe-inspiring place with some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet. It will continue to get better, despite the level of abuse and opposition it’s getting from those who would rather see it crushed under the flip-flop of militia rule. But as long as its people and its civil society are here, Benghazi will endure.

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

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

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

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

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

1. حملة أقرا (“Read” Campaign)

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

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

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

2. حملة نورني (“Enlighten Me” Initiative) 

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

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

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

3. جمعية ايادينا (Helping Hands Charity) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benghazi's scouts distributing aid

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

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

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

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

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

Defining a Vision for Libya

I was recently very lucky to be part of a conference hosted by Oxfam in Tunisa about, what else, Libya. Unlike the previous conference I attended, this one focused less on youth initiatives and more on Libya as a whole. Activists were brought from across Libya for this two-day event. While the event consisted of a diverse range of topics, the overall theme was determining a “vision” for Libya.

Opening session of the Oxfam Talks

Opening session of the Oxfam Talks

The first day consisted of panels, each discussing the work that the speakers have done, which altogether painted a picture of the activities/issues going on in Libya. Yours truly was asked to be a panelist, speaking on freedom of speech for civil society, under the banner of ‘Opportunities and Challenges for Civil Society’. I’m adding a transcript of what I said here, partly for records and partly to hear if anyone has any feedback/criticism about what I said.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

My name is Nada Elfeituri, a civil society activist from Benghazi. I began my civil society work after the revolution, writing opinion columns about the Libyan revolution for a local charity newspaper, Uprising of the Free. There were several newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other media that emerged in Benghazi, a natural result of being quieted for 42 years. People were even expressing themselves on the walls of the city. Of course, at that time, we all had the same general opinion; that the Gadhafi regime must end and that we should all work towards a better Libya. Especially in Benghazi during the revolution, the majority of the people were unified by this goal.

It was only after the revolution ended and opinions began to differ that things began to change. We’re not used to hearing different point of view, and friction emerged between people of different mindsets. I felt that there was a need to teach Libyans how to better channel their methods of expression, which is partially why I started The Young Writers of Benghazi.

It’s an organization that strives to encourage Libyans from a young age to express themselves creatively, especially since the Libya education system lacks in encouraging creative writing. We started with a story writing contest in a public school, to see how the students would contribute.

Because of the security situation on the ground, we decided to host online writing contests, which would also help us involve Libyans from across the country. The use of the internet as a platform for free speech was used numerous groups and initatives, such as Project Silphium and Libyan Youth Voices.

But the issue of free speech began to escalate from a social problem into a life-threatening one. People like Muftah Bouzaid, Abdulsalam Mismary, Salwa Bughagis and Tawfik Bensaud were not fighters, they did not call for war. But they were assassinated for what they said and what they believed. And so in Benghazi, it was like returning to the days of Gadhafi. You were told to write under a fake name, not to talk about politics or anything sensitive, so that you could be safe.

Freedom of speech is still a controversial issue worldwide, especially after the recent events in Paris. What is the definition of free speech, should it have limits, should there be limits? These are all questions that everyone is debating, not just Libya. Different countries have different laws, but there are no free speech laws in Libya.

It is imperative for Libya’s civil society to stress the importance of safeguarding free speech within a Libyan context, because without it we will lose many of our other rights. We will have returned once again to the age of the dictatorship.”

Among the other speakers on this panel was Wafia Sayf, my partner in crime and all-around inspiration gal. Wafia is the director of Volunteer Libya, an organization that works on many fronts but is ultimately focused on encouraging youth participation in civil society. So naturally she spoke about youth empowerment, and how she has worked to bring more young people into the civil society scene. The main point she wanted to convey was the importance of providing opportunities for Libya’s youth, by getting them out of the house and fostering a culture of volunteerism. There was also Aladdin Alharaty, who spoke about good governance in civil society through initiatives such as OGPs (open government partnerships), and Mustafa Abdulkabir, a Tunisia activist who works on “Across the Border” initiatives between Tunisia and Libya.

A group session working on one of Libya's priorities

A group session working on one of Libya’s priorities

The panel before us was on “Key Actors and Processes”, and involved the issues of the Libyan constitution, Libyan media and the role of youth in state building. A lot of interesting points were raised here, such as whether a quota did any good for Libyan women in the Constitution Drafting Assembly, the misuse of media in the conflict and importance of having a free, independent press, and how youth (who comprise many of the fighters currently on the front line) are key players in the direction the Libyan conflict can take.

Among the other panels were “Concerns for Libya“, covering the role of religion in state building, the diversity and marginalization of Fezzan (South Libya) and the situation of human rights as told by a Benghazi lawyer and her eye-opening work within Libya’s prison system.

One of the most moving talks was the panel on “Experiences and Initiatives by Libyan Citizens“. An activist from the border city of Wazzin gave a case study summary on the city. Like most of Libya, Wazzin is marginalized and ignored by governing authorizes. The speaker, Mr.Said El-Kurdi, told us about the attempts of civil society in the city towards development, and the challenges they face. The city lacks some of the most essential things, like a proper doctor or dentist. However, Mr. El-Kurdi main point was that the city required human development. The citizens are more than willing to work for their city, but they need the tools and the know-how to do so.

I’m not going to write out an entire summary of the first day, but if you’d like to learn more about it you can check out the hashtags ,  and  on Twitter.

The second day was more interactive, and we rolled up our sleeves to work on pressing concerns for Libya now. After a vote, it was determined that Libya’s most urgent needs were refugees, the media, dialogue between fighting parties and youth involvement. We drew up charts on the actors who are positive/negative role players and least/most effective, as well as how to maximize/minimize their impact, respectively.

One of the groups presenting their work

One of the groups presenting their work

Overall, it was a very productive workshop, and one of the best I’ve attended in some time. My narrow focus only on Benghazi is partially why I’m ignorant about the rest of Libya, and this was a good wake-up call, not only on the other problems in Libya but how it could affect us. I’m working on article about Libya’s South to shed more light on this forgotten region, and there’s plans in the works to expand the Young Writers of Benghazi to other Libyan cities.

I think the take away from the event is that defining a vision for Libya must be an inclusive process. The event also helped me realize that Libya needs a clearly defined set of visions, not just one, and that generalizing the problem will keep us out of focus. The ultimate vision is obviously of a stable, democratic country for all, but achieving this means stopping the current armed conflict, reestablishing some semblance of national unity and working together to root out extremism. This requires collecting all the weapons, strengthening the national army, and yes, dialogue. We need all segments of society involved in these steps on every level, and yes, even with the people we dislike or disagree with. The sooner we start, the sooner the country can start to heal.