In Libya, They Come After You on Facebook

How the yearning for security is trumping the dream of democracy.

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On December 10, a group of Libyan activists, journalists, lawyers, and judges gathered at the Canadian Embassy in Tunis to mark International Human Rights Day. (They chose the location because many of the western diplomatic missions to Libya have now relocated to Tunis due to the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli.) They joined together to protest the catastrophic situation in their home country, where a deepening civil war is fueling myriad abuses.

Most of those who attended the event in Tunis now live in Tunisia or Egypt, having been driven out of Libya by the increasingly hostile environment there. One of the speakers was Ahmed Abu-Guba, the head of Libya’s National Council for Civil Liberties and Human Rights (NCCLHR), originally envisioned as a national forum for the protection of basic rights. In an emotional address to the audience, Abu-Guba warned that “atrocities and human rights violations in Libya are happening on a daily basis and reaching an alarming level.” Abu-Guba listed a range of abuses occurring in the country today, including kidnappings, beheadings, torture, and intimidation.

On November 16, the BBC explored how militants are using online death threats to intimidate activists and journalists as the country continues its downward spiral into chaos and lawlessness. The BBC report tells the story of Tawfik Bensaud, a brave 18-year-old activist who was killed two months ago. He and his 17-year-old friend Sami al-Kawafi, who was targeted in the same attack, were widely regarded as giants of Libya’s nascent civil society. Their deaths provoked anguish on social media. Thousands showed their support by using the hashtag #IamTawfik.

Yet the horrific killings of Tawfik and Sami have also prompted many activists to lower their profiles, since so many of them have also received threats through Facebook, just as Tawfik did before his death. Meanwhile, militants have continued to kidnap, shoot, or behead activists around the country. The bodies of three young activists were recently found in Derna, where they were abducted and beheaded by members of the extremist groups that currently control the city. The victims had continued to expose the activities of groups linked to Islamic State (IS) despite the real danger of operating in such hostile and lawless environment.

Derna has been cut off from the democratic process in Libya since July 2012. A 27- year-old activist from the city told me: “We will never be able to establish democracy in Derna while extremist groups are in control. The extremists who control Derna, many of whom have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, see democracy as conflicting with their interpretation of Islam. In Derna, you’ll never have democracy or the protection of human rights without providing security first.”

Activists and journalists are crucial sources of information and debate. Each time one of them is forced to leave the country, kidnapped, or killed, the effect is to cast doubt on the country’s future, since these are the people who represent the soul of democracy and the rule of law. As a result, Libya’s supporters in the international community are now talking less about democracy or the rule of law or and focusing instead on those with the guns, in the assumption that this is the only way that solutions can be found. Yet those who hold the guns are taking advantage of a growing culture of impunity, fueling a vicious circle of violence. Those Libyans who believe in democratic values and the rule of law are on their own.

The failure of Libyans and the international community to establish robust security after the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime has undermined democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law — the very principles that the majority of Libyans aspired to when they went out on the streets in 2011 to demand a change of regime.

On November 16, Lawyers for Justice in Libya organized two parallel events in Istanbul for activists, journalists, and professionals. The aim was to give support to those who now find themselves operating in a hostile environment. The participants included many who have endured kidnapping or torture, who have seen their homes set on fire, who have watched their families being threatened. Some had no choice but to flee the country. Yet it was inspiring to see so many who refuse to give up on their country and who continue to work for a civil and democratic Libya. Some of the participants made long and arduous trips to attend the event, where they related experiences that highlight the gravity of the situation at home. Extremists continue to act with impunity and grow stronger by the day. The impact on human rights has been disastrous. Especially hard-hit has been the freedom of expression.

Malik el-Sharda, a journalist, was one of the people I met in Istanbul. He had to flee his home in Benghazi after receiving numerous threats by phone and social media. “My flat in Benghazi was attacked, ransacked, and a handprint in red left on my living room wall,” he told me. “This was the last warning for me to leave.” His crime: revealing the truth about the activities of militant groups in Benghazi and Derna. Even activists who have left Libya and their families behind continue to receive threats directed at themselves or their relatives. “The threats against my family and relatives are continuing because I’ve continued to expose extremist groups and militias,” El-Sharda said.

The struggle of activists and journalists mirrors the wider struggle facing Libya today. The euphoria after the overthrow of the Qaddafi has now given way to despair. The general disillusionment with elections and the democratic process is leading many to believe that achieving security now overrides all else.

(The photo above shows Omar al-Hassi, the head of Libya’s self-declared Islamist-backed government, visiting troops loyal to his administration on Dec. 11.)

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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Mohamed 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.