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

Civil society has been getting a really bad rep in Libya these days. That’s not to say that this particular sector has always received adoring praise in the past – far from it, civil society has been the target of universal hate, and the only thing warring factions can agree on is that it should be stifled. But the waves of hatred since 2015 have been tinged with very credible threats of violence, with kidnappings, assassinations and even restrictive legislation, all which has led to the rapidly shrinking space of activism in Libya. This has caused many to disengage, leaving the room open for those using civil society as a means to make profit or leverage political favour.

I don’t like talking bad about civil society even when I do see negative attitudes and practices, mainly because this is one of the few spaces we have left for genuine empowerment, and it doesn’t need another cynical voice. But it pains me to see that civil society – the same one which contributed to my own growth and empowerment as a young woman – make the unfortunate transformation into a monopolizing money-making machine (transliteration not intentional). Back in my day (I know I know, I’m not 50, but bear with me) civil society was made up of – admittedly naive – people who genuinely wanted to make a change. Those people have either grown up and moved on, left the country, lost hope (raises hand), have been scared into being quiet, or instead transformed into one of the machinists. And maybe that’s just the natural progression of these types of spaces, especially in the Libyan context, make money to survive or die.

Libyan civil society today made up an interesting array of characters, each playing a role in the continuing evolution of our country’s particular form of civil society. To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these groups/individuals are “good” or “bad”, only that they are motivated by their own personal interests and contexts. To give you a rough idea, they consist of:

  1. The Not-An-Activist Activist: This type of person is normally a very active member of their community, someone who knows where everyone lives, the one who distributes fresh bread to the neighbours early in the morning,  who brings in the electricity company when there’s a fault wire, and the one who collects donations when a member of the community isn’t doing too well off. This person will be horrified if you call them an activist. “I don’t do that Facebook flashy stuff,” they will indignantly tell you, because in their mind (and the mind of many Libyans today), civil society is synonymous with meaningless shows of altruism. Taking care of your community, they will say, is a citizen’s obligation.
  2. The Scout Leader: The Scouts in Libya are by far the institutions that has produced the most active, conscientious citizen leaders in Libyan society. That’s the whole vision of the Scout movement in Libya, and many people who are members of the Scouts go on to become important community leaders. Also a group that shuns the ‘activist’ title, the Scouts are purely focused on awareness-raising and diligently avoid politics to preserve the integrity of their institution.
  3. The Charity Aunts: We all have that aunt who is part of a charity and who spends family gatherings reminding you to donate your second-hand clothing. They are often known as سيدات المجتمع “the ladies of society”, well respected and tirelessly working to help those less fortunate. So well respected, in fact, that many of these CSOs were able to get licenses to work independently under the Gadhafi regime. Each CSO focuses on a number of families who rely on them for assistance and – more recently – have received vocational training to help them support themselves.
  4. The Grassroots Group: Normally a group of young friends who wanted to do something more with their time, the grassroots activists are sometimes an evolution of the first category, people who are well connected and have an urge to mobilize those around them into action. Like the charity aunts, they also focus on mainly helping the poor, but over the years these groups have gotten into human development and advocacy.
  5. The Gucci Activist™: You know who I’m talking about. Perfect English-speaking, haute-couture brand wearing, jet-setting to importance conferences across the world, self-important expert on *all* things Libya, this is the activist that INGOs love. They look great in front of the camera and make the best success-story material. This person started working in civil society and by virtue of certain privileges (and great application-filling abilities) was able to catapult themselves to de facto representative of Libya’s civil society. Are they actually representative though? is a question they often find themselves faced with.

Now, this is obviously just a light-humoured list that can include other such characters as the Angry Academic, the Entitled Expat and other fun alliterations, but in seriousness, the fabric of Libyan civil society is as varied and diverse as the people themselves. I would (shamefully) categorize myself as the last group, because I have been that person that goes to every conference and finds myself speaking on behalf of people whose backgrounds and contexts I don’t know well enough about, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been reducing my involvement in civil society. In any case, I wrote this out to expand a bit on the last two groups, where the source of tension has always been.

Essentially, the Grassroots Group are Libyans who come from a much less privileged social class and whose activism and empathy comes from a place of understanding the value of community movements on a personal level. The Gucci Activists, on the other hand, are mainly very ambitious people who see their delegate status as an extension of their social standing (perhaps the legacy of the political bourgeoisie under the Kingdom). Of course these are generalizations and there are exceptions, but broadly speaking these two camps highlight what I believe is a strange and fascinating divide in our civil society. It seems to be a general trend across the MENA region but I’ve yet to see it elsewhere, and probably says more about how deeply rooted our social divisions and inequalities are than anything else. Gucci activists tend to mock the work of grassroots activists as being less sophisticated than what they can produce with their high-end graphics and INGO funds, while Gucci activists are vilified as being all show and no substance. This has created an environment of resentment and hostility.

Many people have said that we should see less of the Gucci activists who are seen at every event and more from those working on the grassroots level who are actually working on the ground. But others would argue that delegates are important to articulate the work happening in Libya in a way that the international community can understand and respond to, and to serve as a medium between the two. There are many ways to argue this, but I will quote one of my professors who said, “We have to work with what we have and start building bridges. We can’t reinvent our societies.”

It would be nice if we could eradicate class divide and live in a happy world with rainbows and cupcakes. But sadly that is not the case, and in Libya it’ll be a long time before we reach a level of stability in which we can meaningfully tackle social inequality. What I find myself frequently thinking about is the new generation of young people, and who will be there to pass on the torch of activism to them. Ultimately they will find their way to one of these groups, and to me that is still much better than to find no one at all, and join the apathetic masses who never became engaged.

And it was this odd grouping of people who, after much lobbying both on a grassroots and international level, helped in the release of jailed activist Jaber Zain, who was imprisoned for almost two years in a militia jail. If there’s one thing I can still put my faith in, it’s that civil society is still learning and growing, and that with time it will ultimately find its bearings. It is, after all, an inherently resilience sector, and successful projects do continue to thrive as activists use their ingenuity to find room for maneuver in what is an increasingly hostile and terrifying atmosphere.

The East Libya Dilemma

Why would a city that rose up against dictatorship and oppression suddenly embrace totalitarianism once more, less than five years later? This is the question that many are speculating on these days, following the almost near total control of Eastern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

There have been many analyses and attempts to answer this question, especially now that military rule has permeated almost all aspects of life in the region. With the replacement of elected municipalities by military mayors and the daunting return of the omnipresent intelligence services, many are drawing parallels between the Gadhafi regime and what Khalifa Heftar is currently trying to achieve. But the folly of most of these analyses (I’m looking at you, clueless foreign Libya experts) is that they do not take into account the full picture and the causes that led to the current situation.

Before going in-depth, I need to make a disclaimer here; I do not, in principle, support military rule. As a person who believes wholeheartedly in civil society, I know that military might alone cannot build a country. But civil society will not be able to fulfill its purpose without the safety and security established by the rule of law, which, expediently, is enforced by security forces. It is not a choice between one and the other, but rather a balance that Libya needs during this transitional period. However, it would be naïve to deny that the country is undergoing incredibly exceptional circumstances, one that requires exceptional action.

I will not go over the five or so years of history that led to the appearance of Khalifa Heftar, as it needs much longer than a single post and I’ve already documented what I’ve witnessed ad naseum on this blog. Suffice to say that this situation in Benghazi drastically deteriorated after 2011 until the all-out war on October 15, 2014. It was this point that Benghazi had reached its lowest point in recent history. The city was crippled, a ghost town with barely functioning services. Almost half the population of the city was displaced, evacuated from their areas by the intense fighting.

Fast-forward two years. It is the beginning of 2017, and Benghazi has become almost unrecognizable from the ruin of a city it was. Bustling with life and renewed hope, the war here has reached its last leg, and reconstruction has already begun. But more noticeable than the physical changes to the city are the security changes. Military cars patrol the streets at all hours, the police are working at full capacity, and, most notably, the intelligence services are back in full swing. The mayor has been installed by the military ruler, and all civic services now have a large degree of oversight by the intelligence.

It is, for all intents and purposes, military rule. But ask the people of Benghazi how they feel about this, and you will get very positive reactions. There are no more street wars, no more assassinations, the judiciary has begun to function again, things are actually getting done.  That’s not to say the situation is perfect. There are still a number of IDPs who have not returned, and the reconstruction process will take years to complete. But the fear and terror is gone, those elements that had paralyzed the city for years.

Many people (mainly those who have never visited Benghazi) are decrying these developments. “Benghazi wants to return to the Gadhafi era!” they screech. “You have sacrificed your freedom for return to oppression; you will be once again under a dictator’s boot!” The only problem with these accusations is that we have never really experienced “freedom”. We went from oppression under one man to oppression under chaos.

And yeah, it’s not an ideal trade-off to go back to what we had. But it’s also pure stupidity to assume that the current situation in Libya will somehow evolve into a stable democracy on its own. The unity government solution has collapsed on itself, and our politicians, regardless of ideology, are all unfit to run a country. And yes, Heftar has ulterior motives, East Libyans are not deluded enough to believe that he noble ideals. But he presented a solution that achieved results, something no one else has been able to do.

To answer the initial question, it first needs to be reexamined. The current situation in East Libya is not the same as under Gadhafi, nor can it be called despotism in the traditional sense. East Libyans are not embracing dictatorship; they are embracing stability and a chance to live in peace for the first time in six years. The alternative is not freedom. It only takes one look into the harrowed face of a Benghazi resident to realize that they will support and defend this current peace no matter what accusations are hurled against the city.

And so what remains are the real questions that should be asked; Will East Libyans ever have faith in democracy again? In what direction will this military rule evolve? And if it does evolve into a Gadhafi-esque system, are Eastern Libyans prepared to give up the basic freedoms they regained in 2011? This is the dilemma that we’ll have to confront sooner or later, and one that might determine the future of the country.

The Death of Democracy in Libya

Yesterday, Libya’s House of Representatives held an urgent session in their Tobruk headquarters to vote on an issue of the utmost importance. No, not the peace process. Or the war. Or the terrifying ISIS threat. Nope, the issue that brought an unprecedented number of representatives together (ever since their first session) was, of course, extending their mandate in Libya.

For those of you with hazy memories, the House of Representatives was set up to replace the expired General National Congress, which, to no one’s surprise, also extended their mandate. The idea was that new elections would instill a better legislative body that the Libyan people could put their faith in – faith that the GNC had ripped to shreds.

These elections happened in 2014, right after the launch of Operation Karama in Benghazi. By that point, many citizens were fed up with the process of voting in new officials, hence the low turnout for the HoR elections. Those who did vote were the more optimistic citizens, who held on to the hope that a new governing body might pull Libya back from the abyss.

Elections were held, votes counted, and the HoR – which was to be based in Benghazi – was formed. However, certain political groups did not win as many seats as they had intended, and plans were set in motion to handicap the HoR before it had even begun working. Airports were attacked, representatives threatened, suspicion cast on the relocation to Tobruk (due to the conflict in Benghazi), etc. Ultimately, the GNC refused to hand over power, citing incredibly vague reasons that were a cover for their actual excuse, “Nu uh, we don’t wanna.” In order to cement their position, they strong-armed the Supreme Court into passing an order to dissolve the HoR, under duress by their militias.

I was one of the people cheering on the HoR, because I was fed up with the malicious incompetence of the GNC and their childish attempts to derail what was becoming an increasingly off-balanced democratic transition. Anything would be better than them, and a government that was closer to my own city might actually focus on the multitude of problems we were facing for a change.

But over time, the HoR lost the desperate trust of the people. Their repeated promises to fight terrorism and fix the country never materialized into anything more than bold words spoken through a microphone. The usual divisions predictably appeared within the HoR itself, and they repeated the same unprofessional gaffs as their predecessors. It became harder to defend their actions to those on the other side of the conflict. During one session – at the height of the war in Benghazi – members voted on raising their own salaries, a move that sparked universal fury (the first time all sides in the conflict agreed on something) and marked a steep loss in the tenuous support they had already had. But, the one fact that could be reliably turned to was that the HoR, despite their incompetence, were voted in democratically and recognized by the international community.

In the backdrop of all this was the threat (or, to some, the promise) of a military council, to replace the fragmenting HoR. This threat/promise continues to grow as the HoR’s mandate comes to an end.

According to the amended constitutional declaration of 2011, the HoR’s term ends with the completion of the constitution, or within 18 months from the start of the CDA’s work. In exactly 14 days from now, that 18 month deadline will be reached. We have no constitution, a government in the West that refuses to hand over power, and now a government in the East that is doing exactly the same thing that caused us to demand a new government in the first place. Hope, Libya’s last remaining hope, is a Government of National Accord, that combines the GNC, HoR, and nearly all the political factions in Libya fighting for a piece of the pie.

The HoR, as part of their Roadmap Committee, proposed a backup plan in the event that the national dialogue fails and a unity government isn’t formed; extending their mandate. Yesterday’s vote was a step towards ensuring that this plan was implemented, much to the ire of Libya’s enraged population.

The deadline to accept the national dialogue proposal is supposed to be October 20th, as it coincides with the end of the HoR’s term. By extending their mandate another six months, the HoR is basically inviting UNSMIL to extend this confounding process of forming a new government, which in turn will prolong the war.

Except, Libyans can’t wait another six months. We can’t wait another day. This plan should have been signed months ago so that the process of ending the conflict can begin, a conflict that is now entering its second year. The latest report by the UN indicates that over 2 million Libyans are directly affected by the war and need assistance. This extension is a blatant act of despicable, self-important selfishness that clearly shows how ignorant and insensitive the HoR is to the suffering of the country. Their excuse, that they don’t want to leave the country in a political vacuum, is an exact repetition of what the GNC said, confirming in the minds of Libyans everywhere that these government are just two sides of the same coin.

This move signifies something more than just another shameless power grab by corrupt Libyan politicians; it’s another nail in the coffin of Libya’s democratic transition. Every succeeding election saw a smaller turnout than the one before it, as every governing body we elect fails us. It’s incredibly common to hear citizens say “I’d rather cut my finger off than dip it in ink again” (a reference to dipping your finger in ink after casting a ballot). It’s one thing for your fellow countrymen to screw the country over while you look on helplessly, but it’s an entirely different thing when you know that you were the one who voted them into office to begin with. There is a phobia now surrounding elections, since our governments seem unable to hand over power without pointless extensions and wars. Libyans who staunchly supported the revolution now lament the loss of Gadhafi, and seriously discuss the potential benefits of reinstating military rule under Khalifa Heftar. The unity government itself is an un-democratic concept, as it centers around the distribution of power to political entities that had refused to hand it over.

It’s been said often since the end of the revolution that Libyans aren’t ready for democracy. I think the problem is that Libyans aren’t ready for politics. Either way, democracy can’t save Libya now, and the term itself has become a hated word. All that is desired is some semblance of stability, regardless of the cost. Some say that you cannot have a stable country without freedom, but Libya has neither stability nor true freedom. We are caught between greedy politicians, a growing terrorist threat and an indifferent international community. If the unity government is not formed, Libyans will not rally around the HoR, and we can’t keep waiting for perpetually unending dialogue negotiations. There are any number of scenarios that could happen by Oct. 20, each one more ominous than the last.

Double Shafra Culture

Double Shafra (arabic: دبل شفرة, translation: two cards| (noun) 

1. A cell-phone that can hold two sim cards

2. A Libyan with a second passport

There is a large Libyan diaspora community, disproportionately sizable compared to our national population. Many people were forced to flee under the Gadhafi regime, many who left for a chance at a better life, many who went on a scholarship program and many who, recently, had to leave the country due to the latest circumstances of the war.

There’s never been a very amiable relationship between regular, or ‘single shafra’ Libyans and double shafras. Before the revolution, this was due to the inherent cultural differences between the two. Double shafras are third culture kids, who grew up between places and don’t really fit in anywhere. Some would vacation in Libya while others had never seen the country before, and Libyan culture and Libyan people can be very difficult for them to embrace or feel comfortable with. It’s equally perplexing for single shafras, who barely got to travel or see foreigners (again, speaking pre-revolution), meet a cousin or someone who acts and talks like an ajnabee (foreigner) but has a Libyan name.

Those are the polite versions. Then you have the double shafras who waltz into the country all high and mighty and wrinkle their nose at everything, in the process patronizing the Libyans who never had a choice to live anywhere else. It’s very trying to listen to someone repeatedly tell you “God, how do you live here? It’s so dirty, there’s no Starbucks, the people are so backwards, urgh take me homeee.” And of course the single shafras, who, whether out of jealousy or annoyance or a combination of the two, declare that double shafras aren’t real Libyans or, even worse, not even proper Muslims, accusing them of debauchery and loose morals because, hey, they live in those kaffir countries right? This is also tough to handle, considering that many of these same single shafras are trying their best to leave the country and get a second shafra themselves, a particularly grating hypocrisy.

As you can see, both sides are guilty of over-generalization and intolerance. I’ve been both types, the confused & arrogant double shafra, and the sympathetic & annoyed Libyan. I wish I could say that the solution to single vs. double is just better communication and understanding, but the issue is more complex than that. Each side is not a homogeneous group but contain a myriad of different identities. There is the unwaveringly patriotic double shafra who has dedicated their life to Libya, the apathetic single shafra who doesn’t care about the country, the double who can fit in anywhere with anyone, the single who fits in better with doubles than other singles, etc. etc.

Like everything else in Libya, this issue took on another layer of complexity after the revolution. The dissident double shafras outside Libya played a crucial role during the revolution, from protesting to petitioning to bringing in aid. They helped carry the voice of the Libyans inside the country despite Gadhafi’s attempts to silence them. And many of them came back when the country was free, determined to continue the work they began in pursuit of a better Libya.

Here is where we reach a crux, and I have to preface this second part with a disclaimer. I’m not trying to offend or insult anyone specifically, or make any particular accusations.

Even before the imminent fall of Gadhafi, many Libyans (inside and out) were squabbling for government positions and places of power and influence. The country was about to get a total system renovation, and they wanted to make sure they rented their spot as soon as possible. So, when the National Transitional Council was dissolved and elections held for the General National Congress, many double shafras won seats or got a place in the temporary administrative government.

This is a point that needs to be highlighted; many of them were voted in. As in, by the single shafra populace. Of course there was a lot of debate over whether a government member should have a second citizenship, or if a person who lived outside the country for 30 years even knew what the country needed. But many of the dissidents-turned-politicians had spent a large part of the revolution talking on news channels in tones dripping with patriotism and promises for the future; disguised campaigns that we were too impressed with to question.

We didn’t really question much during the revolution. Anyone who was against Gadhafi and spoke for us was an automatic hero. We didn’t want to hear criticism, it was a blessed time that made us blind to any wrong-doing. And so we trusted these people with our future, and the future of our country.

And, sadly, they failed us. The GNC is probably one of the biggest government disasters in modern history, so rife with corruption, nepotism and malice that by the time their term was supposed to be over, there were protests across the nation demanding they go. Among the GNC’s most notable blunders was enabling militia groups and plying them with untold amounts of money, and voting for certain legislation under the threat of guns. The headquarters was stormed several times, one of the many Prime Ministers was kidnapped from his own home, accusations were made on the unethical behaviour of many high-level government workers, a female GNC member was found with a grenade in her bag during a meeting, and so on. It was, as we say on the internet, an epic fail.

And naturally, much of the blame landed on the double shafras. Many of them stuffed their pockets with as much money as they could get their hands on before fleeing to their second country, only to continue giving their unwanted and useless advice on Libyan affairs. Others went into hiding due to threats on their life from the more powerful parties (cough cough, They-Who-Must-Not-“MB”e-Named).

I wish I could say that Libyans realized that the problems of the GNC and temporary government were caused by a lack of transparency and accountability, that we gave them too much trust and power, that certain politicians took advantage of the unstable situation. But, if we thought like this, we wouldn’t have had a GNC to begin with.

Libyans today do not trust their counterparts abroad. They are wary of double shafras, in some cases enraged. I think it mainly stems from that feeling of utter betrayal you get when the person you trusted let you down hard. And now that more Libyans are leaving the country, this feeling of betrayal and abandonment feels more pronounced.

A friend of mine on Facebook wrote at the beginning of the war, “Your country is not a hotel that you can check out from when the service goes bad.” That person eventually checked out too, though. This kind of “I’m more patriotic than you” brag, played for decades by Libyans, has a kind of laughable irony to it now, considering that almost everyone I know has a personal benefit in whatever stance they take, wherever they are and however many shafras they own. Even the people in Benghazi now claiming ultimate patriotism status for lasting this long in the war don’t really have anywhere else to go anyways, or have the means to. Some of them, yes, are double shafras.

The tragedy of double shafras is that they will always feel, to some degree, displaced. It doesn’t make it any easier when your desire to help is treated with suspicion and your motives placed under scrutiny. The tragedy of single shafras is that their future looks more uncertain by the day, that they live under the shadow of the threat of the ambiguous term ‘failed state’. And the tragedy of both is that they are Libyans, forever bound to a country that seems placed under an eternal curse.

Okay, that’s an incredibly depressing way to end a blog post, and I didn’t intend to tie in all that political stuff. It’s been a while since I just ranted away. I’m sort of in-between a single and double shafra, and I wanted to explain how it’s about mentality and culture and the particulars about the two. But I’m kind of drained by the war and worried about my house (which we had to finally evacuate) and what will happen to me and my family and my city. I keep hearing the terms ‘economic collapse’ and ‘next failed state’ and ‘running out of time’ and it’s harrowing. I was also supposed to have graduated sometime this month, and instead my university is now a smoldering pile of ash.

I don’t hate any one person or group for bringing us to this point. I think we’re all somehow responsible, though some people more than others. If there’s one thing I wish every would realize, it’s that the average citizen is truly suffering right now, more than you can imagine.

Conspiracies and Karama

“But it is horrible… …to fear the place you once loved.”

 Erica Bain

The revolution has really taken its toll on Benghazi. We go from one problem to another, all the while trying to keep a positive outlook and pray that, insha’Allah, things will eventually get better.

After more than two years and 150 assassinations of the police and army, the Islamists* have finally been hit back, and by no one other than Khalifa Hiftar.

Remember that guy I told you about a few months ago, with the half-hearted coup? Well, it seems he had bigger plans than anyone had anticipated. He has declared a war against terrorism, under the name of Operation Karama. What makes this proclamation more powerful than his previous one is that he now has the might of the Libyan National Army behind him.

What army, you ask? Well, the Special Forces, the Navy, the Air Force and pretty much every military unit in East Libya. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of the attacks, so it makes sense that they will join an operation that seeks to protect them.

Many have asked why the army didn’t act before Hiftar appeared on the scene. The truth is, they have tried numerous times to secure Benghazi, each time ending badly for them. No matter how bad it got, they refused to use force against other Libyans.

Another important question that’s being asked; who are the terrorists?

This is where things get murkier.  Ansar Shariah are known for their anti-democracy sentiment, and have been oddly silent on the issue of the assassinations in Benghazi. There has also been increasing rumors of Al-Qaeda affiliates controlling the city of Derna. These are the people considered the number one target for Operation Karama.

But what about the “thuwar” (revolutionaries/rebels, depending on what you think of them)? They’ve declared Hiftar’s operation to be a coup and an attack on Libya itself. They staunchly defend their militias and claim that they are not involved in the violence in Benghazi.

The current situation has divided Libya deftly in two. The pro-Heftar camp (mostly in the East, those who are directly affected by the violence) say that he is the last hope for a dying city that has been ignored by government and international community alike. The anti-Heftar side claims that Hiftar has skeletons in his closet where the Chad war is concerned, and that his public renouncement of the GNC is a blatant grasp for power and will destabilize Libya.

The government itself has also been divided in two. The provisional government has made statements that clearly indicate a schism between them and the General National Congress, currently headed by Ahmed Maetig, who is holding the position illegally.

The GNC, meanwhile, is pretending like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. They’re pretty consistent in their behaviour.

Many parties, both in and out of Libya, have said that the parliamentary elections, due to be held this June, is crucial to restoring order to Libya. Until then, Heftar has continued to carry out his attacks against the armed groups in Benghazi, in what can be described as a rather precarious and clumsy manner.

The most ubiquitous question being asked now between Libyans is, “Who’s side are you on?

The extreme polarization that we’re facing as a nation has broken apart families and friends as everyone clings to their own ideology, being sustained by the social media group of their choice. What’s sad about it is that, as we bicker, the country is crumbling around us.

It’s also irritating because, ultimately, we all want the same thing; security, stability, prosperity, a country we can be proud of and yes, dignity. It’s almost baffling how a country that agrees on these basic points can be so torn apart.

But it’s because we feed on conspiracy theories and jump to slander the other side that we’ve lost sight of the ultimate goal, which is a better Libya. We’re still in the infancy of our democracy, and frankly, we need to grow the hell up.


* I hate using the word “Islamists”, even though that’s the term used to identify them in the media. There is nothing Islamic about their behaviour by any stretch of the imagination, and associating that term with them is insulting to actual Muslims.

Does Libya Need a Youth Parliament?

It’s a bit of a coincidence that I’m writing this today. For those of you who don’t remember (or those that are forcefully blocking out the memory), today (February 15th) marks the spark that set off the Libyan revolution, when protesters marched in front of the security base in Benghazi.

While many Libyans today would say that it was a mistake to have a revolution, or that life was somehow better under Gadhafi (a major delusion), I still stand by my belief that three years is an incredibly limited time to start judging whether it was successful or not. Life has become difficult in some aspects, but it’s been better in others. Everyone kept reiterating the point that it was not going to be easy to rebuild a broken country after 42 years of destruction, but it seems that many people chose not to prepare themselves for the challenge we were facing. And of course, a negative attitude makes a situation appear ten times worse than it is.

One of the better aspects to emerge from the Libyan revolution was the growth of our civil society. In Benghazi this growth was followed by a lull after most organizations moved to Tripoli. But it didn’t die. There is still a small group of social activists that continue to persevere despite the complications and marginalization.

Recently Libya’s activists got together in Tripoli for a two-day workshop on Youth Initiatives. The initiative in particular was the creation of a Libyan Youth Parliament (or Congress or Council, whatever worked). Everything about this project was up to debate and discussion. What would be its priorities? Who would it comprise of and who would it represent?

The fact that we have an inefficient and idiotic government does not bode well for any sort of political group, particularly one started by and for the youth. The older politicians deter youth participation (unless they can manipulate them for their own gains), and the lack of opportunities coupled by the lure of militias make for a dangerous environment.

But all these reasons only serve to highlight just how important it is for Libya’s youth to have someone guarding their interests. The revolution began primarily because people had nothing left to lose. An organization that solely represents the demands of the youth would go a long way in fulfilling one of the goals of the revolution.

So, where to begin? Let’s start with the facts:

  • In 2010, 19.3% of the population was between the age of 15-24, and 30% are under the age of 15
  • The median age in Libya in 2010 was 26
  • Unofficial estimates put unemployment rate at 30%, with 45% being university graduates
  • 40% of Libya’s population live below the poverty line
  • 68% of the youth voted in the elections, but 62% feel that the National Assembly does not represent them

Trust in the democratic process in waning as the government fails to achieve any real, tangible change. There is no real communication between politicians and the youth. A youth parliament would not only stand up for the basic right and needs of it’s constituents, it would also provide a connection and a platform of dialogue between the disenfranchised youth and their elected officials. It would give them a sense of power and inclusion.

I could write about the importance of a youth parliament for dozens of paragraphs, but one thing that’s more difficult to come to terms with are the challenges. A youth parliament would be the first entity of its kind in Libya, and reaching out to the government for support wouldn’t be easy (real support, of course, not just lip service). Trying to unify and represent the Libyan youth would also be challenging, as many live in remote areas or have limited access to telecommunications. Reaching compromise or finding common ground would also be tough for a nation of people who are not used to discussing and debating personal opinions and beliefs. Sustainability is another issue. Many youth-led initiatives in Libya were unable to continue because of lack of support.

The problems faced by a youth parliament are almost the same problems faced by the actual government. Lawlessness, extremism and corruption are just a few of them.

The idea of a youth parliament is still in it’s infancy in Libya. But it exists, and there is a real possibility that it will develop. What’s important is to ensure that it starts off on solid foundations, and perhaps even becomes a model for future systems to come.

What are your thoughts on a Libyan Youth Parliament?

(The statistics I used were from the United Nations World Population Prospects and an AlJazeera Study)

And Now, The News

If your driving skills have yet to scare the general public, then at least once in your life you’ve had to a write a ‘bio’ somewhere on the internet. An easy enough task, but also a daunting one. You want people similar to yourself to discover you, but you don’t want to distill the very essence of your being and splash it across the internet.

So you probably do what many others have done, type out a few of your interests and the labels you identify with, and let them speak for themselves. (I actually forgot what I wrote in my bio on this blog, and I’m too afraid to check for fear that I’m just another sheep)

The phrases that people use to describe themselves reveal much more about the person than I think they intended. If you’re a “freelance blogger and self-published author on (insert political stance here)” I’m going to assume you sit at home most of the time with your laptop perched atop your slowly expanding gut, probably eating Cheetos. (No disrespect to Cheetos). If you mention the name of the sports team that you love in your bio, you’re basically telling the world that you have no redeemable interests and are a major bore. And I don’t think I need to describe the type of people who’s existence is defined by what fandom they belong to.

But there is one phrase that I find confusing. “News and Media Junkie”. What does that mean?

The use of a rather questionable noun like “junkie” to denote what is supposedly a high-brow activity is itself not new on the internet. It’s the 21st century, and “taking back” those oppressive terms that intend to shame those who revolt against society’s definition of morality is all the rage. (Okay, I’ll stop now)

So before the internet, did news junkies exist? Were they the people who watched a lot of evening news channels and discussed current events? No, I’m pretty sure we called those people ‘adults’. (hahaha, okay, now I’ll stop)

Okay, how about media junkie? Were they the people who read those trashy celebrity magazines? Come to think of it, what’s the difference between news and media?

In a nutshell, news is the thing. Media is the way to spread the thing. Fun fact: Media is the plural of medium. Which makes the term media-junkie even more perplexing.

Unless of course, and here we reach the crux of my rambling, they refer to social media, and the consumption of whatever their media feed regurgitates. A news/media junkie is someone who reads the news that appears in social media. A person who uses the term “news/media junkie” to describe themselves is that guy/gal that’s always starting flame wars in the comment section of articles, providing hours of entertainment for people like me.

(And who am I? I am the invisible fly on the wall, the spectator that does not bring attention to my presence. I am the comments junkie)

The intended aim of this post was to question the quality of news we’re exposed to online. Okay, so not everyone’s interested in the complex and confusing political issues that plague the Middle East (pfft, losers). Some people enjoy heart-warming stories of cats being rescued from trees and the success of the local charity drive, hurray for humanity and the good of man-kind!

But of course, cats don’t always get stuck in trees, and the charity drive doesn’t always succeed. So in the absence of feel-good stories, we search for the least mind-straining entertainment to while away our empty hours. Back before the internet, different media was targeted for different segments. If you liked celebrity gossip, you’d head for the magazine rack near the cashier. If you liked depressing news headlines, you’d pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

But the internet has more or less killed the press. Why would I pay for a magazine when I can get my news for free online? (ignoring the fact that I’m technically paying for my internet connection) And so news outlets have become jack-of-all-trades, providing serious news stories next to an article about 6 Things You Didn’t Know About Dunkin’ Donuts (they offer flavour swirls for their coffee!), to reel in as many viewers as possible.

The problem as I see it is that the line between news and social media is beginning to blur. The other day I read about a mother who’s fitness program outraged people. It turned out that the whole story was that she got some negative comments and feedback on FACEBOOK.

Facebook drama is not newsworthy. Neither is a Twitter fire-storm. I don’t want to have to churn through article after list-based article to find genuinely interesting news. What’s more worrisome is that I find myself absent-mindedly clicking on these links, because they are worded in a moderately intriguing way. And there’s so many of them. Articles that explain why the internet is making us dumber. Articles detailing why the internet is making us smarter. I feel like my brain is beginning to melt under all the yellow journalism and opinions-disguised-as-facts-disguised-as-articles, all emanating from my laptop screen in that blue-tinged glow. Close the multiple tabs you have open right now and save yourself!

But of course you didn’t. You’re probably browsing Buzzfeed after clicking on the hyperlink in the last paragraph. Which means it’s too late. Just relax, and settle into that information-high. It’s not like there’s anything else you could be doing.

Post-Ramadan Life

The 30 days many were dreading have once again ended. Ramadan is done and Eid has rushed past (due to some poorly timed decisions and books, I managed to sleep through most of the festivities).

For the first time in a while, I woke up at 9 am. Voluntarily. It’s not like I haven’t seen the sun or anything lately. But with exams and projects at the beginning of Ramadan, and utter boredom by the end, my sleep cycle has taken a severe beating.

But post-Ramadan life doesn’t just smoothly transition back to pre-Ramadan life. There’s the confusion of timing, when things no longer take place at night. The momentary shock of accidentally eating something during the day, until you realize you aren’t actually fasting. And, somehow, an empty feeling.

If you’re like my family, you’ll probably be fasting the ‘six white days’ (ستة ايام البيض). They’re not mandatory, but you get some extra good points on your record with God. It also helps the transition, if you’re the kind of person who pines for Ramadan when it’s over.

I’m not sure if this happens to many people, but during the transition, I’m hungry all the time. It’s not a rumbling-stomach kind of hungry, but this unconscious need to put food in my mouth. It’s irritating because if I’m not constantly vigilant, I’ll just blissfully gain weight as I eat everything in sight.

It’s been a depressing Ramadan in Benghazi, and an even more depressing Eid. A young journalist was assassinated on the second day of Eid. His assassination is similar to that of political activist Abdulsalam Al-Mismari, being shot after Friday prayers.

I flew off the handle yesterday on Twitter, so I’m all ranted out. There’s nothing really left to say. There’s this all-consuming veil of sadness and misery cast over the country, and even the few optimists left admit that there’s not much left to do.

But there’s still the chance of a revival of spirit. The school year will start in September and there’s a few social activities being planned. For me, it means going back to the social vacuum that is architecture school.

Three semesters left! And I got an A+ on my airport design last semester. They usually say the pain of all the work is gone when you see the fruit of your labour, but no. I still remember the sleepless nights staring at my laptop for hours on end, the stress of trying to make the design work and the sheer size of the project itself. If I could go back, I’d definitely try managing my time better (but I say this every semester).

I think, for the first time ever, I’m sick of politics. Just fed up. I can’t even approach an issue now without being overwhelmed with the apprehension of how many ignorant comments there will be, how many baseless claims will be made, the pointless arguing and pseudo-debates where you call a person an asshole in a more eloquent manner.

There was a time when I truly enjoyed it. But lately it just seems like all the mainstream news is contrived and dumbed down, looking to stir emotions and create schisms rather than any real objective reporting. And people, like the lemmings they are, take the bait and jump into arguments they’ll never win. The topics have become too insignificant, bland, boring. Does it mean anything if Richard Dawkins likes mocking Muslims on Twitter? Is it imperative that they boycott the Sochi Olympics? Does the plight of women who want to breastfeed in public without a blanket, the resignation of an Australian politician who believes Islam is a country, or the views of Tawakul Karman on Egypt, merit conversation?

Maybe it’s just me, and I’ve found the tedious repetition of what is essentially the same argument pointless. Isn’t there a quote about how arguing with a fool makes you also a fool, or something of that nature? Either I’m wising up or going senile at the ripe old age of 22.


The Case for a Federal Libya

Today is the 64th anniversary of Cyrenaica’s Independence! For those of you unfamiliar with Libyan history, Cyrenaica (known as Barqa to Libyans) is the name of the Eastern part of Libya, and was a division under the British administration of Italian Libya, and a province under the Kingdom. If you’re interested in a more in depth history of the region, the Wikipedia page has some excellent facts.

Basically, Barqa refers to everything from Sirte eastward and southward. Along with Tripolitania and Fezzan, they formed the three federal provinces of the Kingdom of Libya. However, 6 years before the reign of Gadhafi, the King removed the three-state system in favour of a single entity.

After the revolution, several organizations and blocks formed which lobbied for a return to the federal system. The backlash was shocking.

There was a strong outcry, especially from the Western regions, against the idea. Local media dedicated hours of air time to people who verbally bashed the system as ineffective and pointless. Conspiracy theories regarding separatist elements were put forth by individuals who barely had an inkling of what federalism was. Arguments broke out, both on the streets and online. The other regions of Libya considered the call for federalism an insult to the unity of the country.

At the height of the controversy, the ‘Grand Mufti” Sheikh Gheryani issued a fatwa declaring federalism to be ‘haraam’ (forbidden, or a sin). Yeah, go figure.

I believe the call for federalism was poorly timed, and did not have necessary preparation. In a country where political experience is still rare, suggesting a new government system will cause confusion and, if manipulated properly, fear.

To properly understand, you need to know that much of the country’s oil is located in the East. The call for federalism was wrongly interpreted as an attempt by eastern fronts to monopolize on the oil gains. The rest of the country became frightened by a threat that was never made. This is because the issue was twisted by the media and government into something it wasn’t.

Another mistake was the formation of the ‘Cyrene Council”, a group of tribal and military leaders who announced the region to be semi-autonomous from the capital Tripoli. This move came after the federalist movement was discredited and rejected by the government as a legitimate system, and so federalism was seen not just as a damaging political idea, but a disguise for rogue anti-government forces.

Demands are now being made for a referendum on the issue, and the implementation of at least a more decentralized government. Under Gadhafi, the “government” was heavily centralized, with all major institutes and organisations being located in Tripoli. This system is still in place, and things as simple as documents and paperwork must be completed in Tripoli.

I strongly believe that a federal system will work for Libya. It has proved successful in the past with other countries. Implementation of federalism has even minimized the influence of separatist elements in Germany, for example. Having a regional government creates a more personal bond with the citizens, it organizes and makes lighter work of redeveloping the country, essentially dividing the work load. Federalism will also give residents of Barqa a chance to feel like they can determine their own futures, after decades of disenfranchisement by Gadhafi’s government.

But obstacles still pose a threat to the country’s stability. Misinformation, the lack of knowledge on the subject, and the animosity Gadhafi tried to sow between the regions are still a problem.

It’s also a very personal issue for many Libyans. There are people in the Western and Southern part of the country with family in the East, and vice verse. When you have some pseudo-analyst spouting nonsense about having to apply for a visa to visit family members in other parts of the country if federalism is instated, of course people will reject it. Brain washing and fear mongering are easiest after a complete political upheaval.

From what I know, there is no hope for federalism for the time being. The constitution hasn’t been drafted yet, and we’re still hitting speed bumps on our road to rebuilding. The political isolation law was passed under duress, the president of the GNC resigned, and Benghazi is still trying to establish security. What we can do now is spread awareness on these issues and let the people voice their opinions.

(If you’re interested in the topic, you can find an old article I wrote here back when the federalist rallies in Benghazi were still going strong).

“What Makes an Arab, Arab?” or, Arabs in America

Elections in the United States are just around the corner, and the event is on everyone’s lips, or Twitter feeds, for that matter.

There are these series of promos on Al-Jazeera Arabic, with young Arab-Americans speaking about the elections, the outcome, the future of the United States, etc. They wear professional business suits, with the United States Capitol in the background, and speak in accented Arabic.

One of the men in these recurring promos is a corpulent Lebanese-American by the name of Abed Ayoub. Abed looked very familiar to me, and I realized that he was one of the speakers on a panel that we attended at Georgetown University, during the early days of the MEPI program.

The reaction I had when I attended this panel is the same as when I watch these promos; why should Arabs care about what  ‘Arab-Americans’ think about America?

I remember the other speaker at the panel, a woman named Maya Berry. Ms. Berry spoke about her role in the Arab-American Institute, and about the challenges Arab-Americans faced. I remember her saying, “My mother is of Lebanese origin, so I can talk about this,” and then gave a nervous chuckle. Because, if you have some sort of Arab link, you have a licence to involve yourself in their affairs when you want, right? I’m being sincere here.

But I look at these people, and they make me wonder. When I hear them talk, it’s clear that they love the United States. So why do they work so hard to retain an ‘Arab’ identity? Is it pressure from a family that doesn’t want to forget their roots? Or a personal conflict within themselves?

Now, you’d probably say,(if you had lasted this long in my rambling)  Nada, why can’t a person be both Arab and American? It’s their identity, their right to define who they are.

I’ve struggled for years with this identity thing, denying I was an Arab because I was so ashamed, and then trying to throw away the Western behaviour because I wanted to fit in. I always hated when people labeled me. So I shouldn’t be doing it to these people, right?

But the honest truth is, I just don’t see them as Arabs. Everything about them screams ‘American’, and I don’t feel any particular connection or link with them. I may be going beyond my jurisdiction here, but I think other Arabs feel the same. I don’t believe you can juggle two differing personas, the ‘Arab’ and the ‘American’. One of them will dominate, and that’s the one people will identify you with.

Knowing Arabic does not make you an Arab. Being able to dance the dabkeh, or being able to pronounce it, for that matter, does not make you an Arab. So what does?

If I knew the answer to that, life would be much easier for me. The best answer I can give you is my friend Mary, (check her out on the A7kili (talk to me) blog.).

Mary is an Arab. Strongly Arab. You just get this vibe emanating from her. She sings Faryuz songs at the top of her lungs. She speaks Arabic at 50 words a minute. She is uncomfortable around American food. When she talks about the Middle East, her eyes are fire. She doesn’t apologize about it. She doesn’t make excuses, or try to put the blame on someone else. She doesn’t pretend to act like a Westerner.

I think this is what an Arab is.

I don’t resent Arab-Americans. I admire that they love the United States. I think it’s nice that they are so patriotic. But I cannot see why they identify as Arab.

Part of me has this dreadful idea that they have been bought, by a government that wants to give off the impression that they are multi-cultural and tolerant no matter how many wars abroad they are involved in.

I recall reading a short story by Stephen King called “Everything’s Eventual”, about people who have supernatural abilities, and have been hired by a company to assassinate people with these powers. What do they get? A house, a car, a weekly allowance. In short, a life of comfort and security. At some point in the story the main character reflects on how he killed over 200 people, and it only cost the company a small house, a Honda and 70 bucks a week.

It that it, then? Can you hire a person and nail them to the facade you wish to show the world, and it’ll only cost you a business suit and a couple of interviews on T.V.?