Libya’s Unarmed Revolutionaries
Civil society groups face an uphill battle in a society dominated by militias.
TRIPOLI — Earlier this month, as the walls of Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square echoed with calls to dawn prayer, signaling the start to another day of Ramadan fasting, hundreds of sleepless young men continued overnight demonstrations against Libya’s political parties. Others marched to various party headquarters, ransacking them. These men, like others in cities across Libya, took to the streets in the wake of the July 26, 2013 assassination of Abdelsalam al-Mismari in Benghazi.
Mismari, a human rights lawyer and activist, was an early organizer in Libya’s revolution against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime. He was also a vocal critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Libya’s new power brokers, the militias. As author Hisham Matar argues, whoever is behind the assassination, "their aim was not only to silence Mismari but also to frighten civil society."
During the more than four decades of his rule, Qaddafi succeeded in fusing his family with the state and the government. The basic building block of civil society — associative life — could not exist outside the regime’s control. The revolution ruptured this model. Citizens, long silent, collectively asserted their right to a share in Libya. In the fight against Qaddafi, armed groups secured victory with the help of peaceful citizens’ associations, a nascent civil society that provided medical assistance, food and water, and psychological treatment for those traumatized by war. Now in its second year, civil society groups are taking their first tentative steps toward an institutional role in the state. While government is at the mercy of warring militias and the private sector primarily revolves around natural resources, it is the third sector, civil society, that is laying the groundwork for an educated citizenry engaged in the rebuilding of Libya. A strong civil society is key to guaranteeing and protecting the gains of the revolution, and, in many ways, represents Libya’s best hope for a genuine democracy.
The term "civil society" covers a wide range of groups and associations. Libyan civil society, even at this early stage, is no less diverse, and out of over 3,000 groups registered since the revolution, hundreds remain active. Some give young adults something to do instead of joining a militia, like sports leagues, photography clubs, and performance art venues. Others fight for still elusory rights, like the rights of martyrs, property rights lost under Qaddafi, and the rights of women and minorities. There are even those who work to connect citizens to government institutions through media, education, and advocacy training.
This last group is at the forefront of civil society’s interaction with government. So far, they have not been able to channel public frustration at the government’s failings into a force capable of change. Rather, militias are calling the shots, with no room for the Libyan public. This is true even in the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s interim legislature that was established through free, popular elections in July of last year.
Monem Alyaser, a representative in the GNC, says that while he communicates with his constituents through various means, such as Facebook, people in return have limited capacity to influence the body.
"Unfortunately armed groups influence the GNC the most, and civil societies [sic] in Libya are very, very underdeveloped and don’t have an effective outreach," Alyaser says.
The imbalance in favor of small, vocal, armed groups has warped the GNC’s representation of Libya’s citizenry. Alyaser points to a recent study published by the University of Benghazi, which found that on major public issues, GNC decisions reflected the interests of a minority of Libyans rather than the majority. Alyaser calls these minorities influencing the political agenda "extremist" and "on the fringes."
In recent months, there have been numerous demonstrations across Libya against the dominance of the militias. Demonstrators instead call for a unified army and police force that operate under genuine civilian control. But these mostly peaceful gatherings have been ineffective.
"People feel disempowered, and they feel like if this is democracy, then it’s just another form of dictatorship," says Rihab Elhaj, a leading advocate for Libya’s emerging civil society groups.
Elhaj, the president and cofounder of The New Libya Foundation, is working on an initiative that gets to the heart of the problem. As the country prepares to write a new constitution, she says, the most important task is to make sure that civil society pushes for transparency, participation, and inclusiveness in the drafting process. Elhaj, along with several other dedicated members of society, has been working for nearly a year on a draft law that would guarantee an open and informed public debate on the upcoming revised constitution. The draft law began as a manifesto signed by over 400 citizens and almost as many organizations from around the country, calling on the GNC to codify its commitment to public participation.
Now, she and other representatives of the signatories are fighting to make sure that they get a critical stipulation of the law passed: the establishment of a National Civic Education Center. The center would have branch offices around the country offering a space for learning, debate, workshops, town hall meetings, and interaction between citizens and candidates for the constitutional commission.
"This is the litmus test for Libya," says Elhaj. "If the constitution will be written in a dictatorial way, then the foundations for dictatorship will have been laid. And the revolution will have failed me."
But getting the Education Center onto the GNC’s agenda is half the battle.
"It’s never been done before," says Elhaj. "There’s never been a law born from and drafted by citizens. As a matter of fact, citizens have yet to succeed in placing an item for discussion on Congress’s agenda."
So far, "the only ways citizens are able to influence decision-makers are through violence and through armed pressure," she says, noting that congressmen don’t have the tools, like local offices or staff members, that could link them to voters in a more peaceful way.
According to a recently published study by the Foundation for the Future, only 15 percent of interviewed civil society organizations reported having a relationship with the government. The same study found that "only a third of the interviewees believed that their institutions played an efficient role in development and achieving the goals of national citizenship, equality, and social justice."
An even more basic issue of transparency exists, as independent media and civil society organizations are often prevented from entering GNC sessions. An NGO called H2O regularly publishes reports on the agenda and decisions of the assembly. Yet they compile their "Eye on the GNC" reports without the luxury of on-the-ground reporting. Instead, H2O has had to rely on contacts within the assembly, social media postings, and other politically connected figures to gather information. Suhib Mabruk, who works on the project, says that while there was an initial plan to reserve 15 observer seats in the assembly for civil society organizations, this was scrapped.
Lawmaker Alyaser contends that these seats remain available and are always empty. He suggests that H20’s claim might constitute a misunderstanding between the NGO and those in charge of the assembly’s security. He says that if the NGO spoke with the right people, they could sort things out. But a tendency amongst authority figures to exclude non-officials by default doesn’t bode well.
Operating in the uncomfortable space between government and civil society are local councils. Sadat el-Badri, chairman of the Tripoli Local Council, says that while the central government has not yet organized local elections, he classifies his organization as "government" more than "civil society."
"Local government is the solution to many of our problems," argues Alyaser. Though he qualifies, "true local government, not the many who think they are the local government."
How Libya’s central government deals with the local councils will be a crucial test for the future of the state and its contract with citizens. Recently, the government appointed a minister of local affairs to oversee all local councils. Badri, however, still sees the government’s relationship with local councils as mismanaged.
Limited funding from the central government and legal restrictions preventing the council from collecting revenue have impeded the local council’s ability to accomplish much. Badri concedes that the funding issue might be due to the fact that the central government doesn’t trust local councils, thinking they might pocket the money. But he believes that the main cause of this mistrust is that ministers aren’t aware of the local councils’ functions. As a result, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have begun playing an active role in the council.
"You could say 70 to 80 percent of our activities here are done by the NGOs," Badri says. "They’re very active."
It may be from the local level that civil society has the greatest potential for influence. Isam Saidi, director of the recently opened Civil Society Incubator Center, says that local groups have been instrumental in keeping local government officials honest in his hometown of Zuwara. He cites one example where demonstrating citizens successfully pressured the town’s council to fire a corrupt health official.
"Generally speaking, successful initiatives take place in communities," says Elhaj. "The trust is greater in a community where you know your neighbors."
In addition to the big picture challenges to civil society like influential armed groups, an institutional desert and a weak state, the sector faces more basic challenges. Turf wars and infighting between groups is one of those challenges. Saidi says that internal divisions, sometimes resulting from personal grievances, plague NGOs in Zuwara.
"In some cities there was sort of a battle between NGOs for dominance of the scene," Saidi says, noting that this lack of cooperation has "rendered them really helpless and ineffective."
Then there are the problems of finding work space, inadequate leadership, and inexperience in management. These issues, along with unsustainable funding models, have led to the disappearance of many groups. The arrival of international NGOs, as well as the reemergence of private sector industry, has also sapped potential talent from local groups.
"Surviving on volunteerism, putting in your own money, that’s a formula that’s gonna crash at some point," says Hussam Zagaar, head of Free Media Center. His staff went from a size of 15 to three after oil companies resumed operations in Libya and offered his employees triple the salary Zagaar was paying. The center, which trains journalists to work in a previously nonexistent sector, now has limited capacity on which to continue its projects.
"To find qualified people who have the skill set that you’re looking for … and the professionalism — the pool is small," says Hiba Khalil, program manager of 1Libya, which develops capacity in media and education. She adds that international NGOs have gotten first picks from this talent pool, "and if you’re a small, local Libyan NGO that has limited resources and capacity, then you’re not able to compete with these larger organizations that are here."
Another challenge civil society organizations face is finding their place among the competing visions of civil society. Given the weakness of Libya’s central government, powerful local players act as municipal governments, policy think tanks, and regional governments. Complicating the scene further, some political groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are registered as civil society organizations.
Even Islamists of the extremist variety run associations that play a powerful role in some communities, running charities, educational foundations, and extra-judicial justice systems. According to a recent study published by George Washington University, "prominent jihadist militias in eastern Libya have developed influential charities and relationships with mosques, and actively target youth for recruitment."
These organizations may represent what some call "uncivil society." One scholar, who ultimately rejects the term, notes that the concept arises "if associations reinforce rather than cut across [racial, ethnic, and class] divides." He adds that if this phenomenon occurs, "the results may be opposite to those expected by civil society enthusiasts."
In the Libyan context, the term may cover groups that not only operate outside the bounds of the state, but that actively work to keep the state weak. It may also cover associational groups that turn to arms if they cannot achieve their aims peacefully. When people took to the streets of Benghazi in June to protest a local militia, the militia fired on protesters. Some protesters got their own guns, though, and fired back.
But if civil society can succeed in establishing a vibrant and influential public space, then words may still triumph over bullets. This is an outcome that the majority of Libyans would like to see, but it may take some time.
"I’m not that worried about civil society organizations or civil society in general," says Zagaar. "Not now, but in 5 years, we won’t have a problem, because Libyans, by nature, we like to work with people, we like to help people."
Whether Libya can achieve stability, genuinely representative government, and real participation hinges on this spirit of peaceful association and an influential civil society based on the principles of consensus, dialogue and inclusiveness.