- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
On Sept. 19, Benghazi witnessed a string of assassinations that seemed to be coordinated. The assassins targeted military and security personnel as well as civilians. Among those killed were two teenage civil society activists, Sami al-Kawafi and Tawfik Bensaud. They were 17 and 18 years old respectively. Their murders have capped off more than two years of extremist attacks on peace activists and journalists, killings that are endangering any remaining freedoms Libyans still have.
Despite their young age, Tawfik and Sami were described as giants of Libya’s nascent civil society. They, like many other activists in Libya, believed in a civil state that guarantees basic human rights and justice for all — and for speaking their minds about such beliefs, they paid the ultimate price. Other activists of their ilk continue to be kidnapped and are now fleeing the country in search of a sense of safety that they could not find in Libya. Libya’s civil society is extremely disorganized and activists usually have nothing to fall back on when their lives and livelihoods are being threatened.
Leaders of the Islamist militias that have been wreaking havoc across Libya have unleashed an army of loyal, unemployed, and mostly uneducated followers to carry out a campaign of intimidation. They are threatening, kidnapping, and targeting the relatives of politicians and civil society activists. "Militia leaders are now using an army of young people who will carry out their orders without any questions," said prominent activist Ahmed Ghedan, who had to flee Libya to Tunisia after he spoke out against the militias.
These foot soldiers have been bribed into joining the militia-gang culture. For activists, dealing with this army of brainwashed criminals is much harder than dealing with the militia bosses, who are leading from behind. The new recruits are clueless about the intent and consequences of their actions, and their loyalty simply lies with those who pay their checks. Political groups with links to the militias are taking advantage of this chaos to take out their opponents one by one.
These same groups are also targeting journalists and activists, who have found their lives and livelihoods threatened in myriad ways. For example, their movement is being restricted, and they have been unable to travel around or out of the country, since airports are still under the control of the militias. Not only does this threaten their reporting ability — a blow to press freedom — but the detours require them to travel by land through areas in which they could be stopped, identified, and either prevented from traveling or kidnapped.
Even before being kidnapped or killed, activists live in fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. After they leave Libya, they still aren’t necessarily safe. Activists and journalists who flee usually struggle financially once they reach safety, and can focus only on survival. That’s precisely what these militias and their supporters want — to force dissenters into silence any way they can. Lately, the very same militias and their leaders have been tracking these activists once they leave the country; the message to the fleeing activists is clear: We know where you are, and we can still get you. And, so far, these tactics seem to be working, based on conversations and meetings that I had this month with activists who fled to Tunisia and Egypt.
This is the grim truth of what Libya has become. As the conflict in the country spirals out of control, the freedom of expression has come under serious attack. A few days before he was killed, Tawfik tweeted something disturbing on his Twitter page: "People are starting to whisper again when they talk about politics or discuss the situation in Libya." That was how it was under Qaddafi. But back then, an activist from Benghazi explained, "if you spoke your mind you could get jailed — but now, you get killed or have to flee the country. You just live in fear for your life and the lives of your family."
Meanwhile, the international media has utterly failed to take up the mantle and report sufficiently on this issue, while international leaders neglect to address the country’s downward spiral. The international community intervened in Libya in 2011 to safeguard civilians and protect human rights from being violated and abused; this is what the international community should be doing now as well. It should hold the perpetrators of these attacks responsible. The Western countries that helped overthrow the Qaddafi regime are now debating whether or not Libya is a failed state. But what better proof could there be of the Libyan state’s failure than the cold-blooded murder of these two teenage activists? Their killers walk free, and are unlikely to face justice any time soon. In all likelihood, they have gone right back to their campaign of terror. If this harsh reality is to be changed, the Libyan authorities and the international community that are trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the current crisis need to embrace the cause for which Tawfik, Sami, and countless others have died. (In the photo above, two men embrace during Tawfik’s funeral on Sept. 20.)
In some of his many social media conversations, Tawfik received suggestions that he should give up and keep silent or leave the country. His response was always something along those lines of "But to whom would we be leaving Libya?" This is the question that the silent majority of Libyans should be asking. It is also the question that the international community and especially Libya’s friends in the West should be asking. The answer is simple: We would be handing Libya over to those who violently oppose everything that Tawfik believed in. We would be leaving Libya to extremist groups that would not hesitate to brutally murder anyone for believing in a Libya that respects human life.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.