Libyan men sit in front of a wall in the eastern city of Ajdabiya
© Saeed Khan
Libyan men sit in front of a wall in the eastern city of Ajdabiya
Last updated: May 26, 2013
Khadija Ali: A close look at civil society in Libya

“Civil society has empowered a nation; it has led them to see that it's not up to the government to do everything”

Banner Icon Supporting the development and work of civil society is a win-win situation for everyone wanting to contribute to building Libya. It is time to make it a priority again and to take it more seriously so that their work can move to the next level, argues Khadija Ali.

It's a term that is beginning to bring distaste into the mouths of Libyans. Even those who are part of the pivot of Libya speak of it in third person as if it’s some alien force they haven't been able to understand.

"Civil Society" is a battered concept that seems to have lost more meaning than it has gained over the past two years. It's about time to pull civil society in Libya apart and analyze it for what it really is.

It is important we understand what this very vague term, civil society, encompasses. In Libya it's composed of various bodies (organizations, charities, networks etc.) that overlap more than they complete or fit-in to each other. The themes along which these organizations form are charity/aid, raising awareness, youth, women, media and politics.

Obviously, funding is one of the key requirements for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). In an ideal situation it would be Libyan companies who stepped-up to the plate and offered their support, and many Libyans had figured as much would happen. However, after the revolution organizations weren't sure how to approach the private sector. Neither did companies know how to approach civil society (or didn't see why they should). Until recently, in the last 10 months, companies didn't play the role expected of them during the emergence of civil society.

Before the Libyan revolution broke out as part of the Arab Awakening in 2011 civil society was almost entirely non-existent in the country. Had you tried to use terms like "activists", "civil society" or "organization" you would have gotten confused stares.

The revolution created a desperate need for humanitarian aid and media coverage. That brought life to civil society with citizens coming together to provide aid and food to refugees and fighters on the frontlines. Many young people organized themselves and began covering events as citizen journalists using their mobile phones, cameras and social media to tell their side of the story.

This was a huge leap forward for Libyans as they quickly realized what needed to be done and started doing it without really thinking in the framework of ‘this is what we as civil society should do’. It was more of ‘this is what needs to be done and this is the best way to do it’. As the revolution went through different stages and achieved more and more up until the liberation of Libya, civil society continued to evolve to meet the needs of the people.

What we can all agree upon is that at such challenging times civil society is the key to getting Libya's momentum back

What started off as groups of people working together began to develop structure and soon you had organizations being formed and even registered with the Ministry of Culture and Civil Society. Think tanks, youth organizations, media groups, religious societies and movements are just a few of the non-governmental organizations that came to life. They had different objectives varying from raising awareness, supporting the government, ensuring human rights, empowering women, countering unemployment, taking care of the environment – the list is endless.

It was impressive to the international community, and to Libyans, as the hard work continued and they did everything in their capacity to help bring their nation to its feet. Many members of these organizations were spending money out of their own pockets to get the work done and were giving it their full and undivided attention.

Around the time when Libya was liberated and Gaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011 things began to change once again. Much of the country was returning to normality as schools re-opened and people began returning to their daytime jobs and education. This meant that most people weren't able to give their undivided time to their organizations or causes anymore. The name of the game changed to a cross between a balancing act and survival of the fittest.

It became more challenging for organizations to operate under these new circumstances, add to that their greater aspirations required funding and many were struggling to find it. What was even more frustrating was the neglect and irresponsiveness the government practiced towards civil society.

Civil society has faced an overwhelming number of problems when operating in Libya. One such challenge is security; with armed groups around the country and the absence of the rule of law, activists who want to touch on sensitive subjects often find it challenging. You may think that it’s easy to get a large group of them together so they can stand-up against arms and protect one another. That's not exactly the case, only in very few cases has civil society been able to gather large numbers to stand up with no fear. To do that it takes much effort and it’s only successful when certain elements are in play.

Libya has come a long way, longer than people think, over the past two years however there are remnants of the former Gaddafi regime that remain today. One of them is the schooling system which is designed to keep students in exam season all year around so that young people struggle to balance between school and extra-curricular work; which worked very well for an oppressive regime trying to keep ahold of people. There are morning students and afternoon students which makes it a challenge for a mom with young kids to be out during the day as she constantly has kids going to or coming home from school. The fact that there aren't any libraries, any transport and no community centers poses a challenge to the work that needs to take place.

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These are just a few examples but there are many more problems linked to lifestyle in Libya that limits people’s ability to spend their time on other things than survival – a classic Gaddafi regime tactic. A challenge like this can only be countered by recognizing the problem and having changes made by the government in our systems as well as make citizens aware of the need for these changes.

They say where there is a will there's a way. So it's just a matter of knowing what the "way" is, which is exactly what so many activists need to know! How do they achieve their goals? What's the best way to do it? It’s about having the knowledge, learning different methods and sharing these experiences. It may sound very cliché and like something that's obviously being done but no, it's not. What's being delivered by different international organizations is theoretical, most of the time it doesn't work in Libya; it's useful information but it's not Libya-oriented.

Assuming that you do figure out what you want to do and develop a vision on how to do it, part of your vision will involve resources you need in order to achieve your goals. Many times civil society in Libya has an idea, or recognizes a problem and so they get up and run to the door... then they realize they have nowhere to go. There are not many organizations that want to be government funded but they do need help from the government. Government resources such as access to school, places to meet etc. should be readily available to civil society so that they can operate. Also it is critical the government does not use resources as bait to re-direct efforts and work as it sees fit.

Finally when you do have the know-how and tools it's a matter of sustaining whatever it is that you are doing. To ensure sustainability you would need funding, co-operation and responsiveness.

Civil society needs to approach companies and business people and vice versa to get Libya back to full health. Civil society needs to reach out and to inter-connect so that there is greater cooperation and efforts can be strengthened. The government, armed militias or whichever entity is being approached needs to be responsive so that civil society feels its impact.

The government is caught up in work, lost in the detail and often loses sight of the bigger picture and needs to be guided and kept real by civil society. At the end of the day civil society is the people and if you aren't paying attention to the people you aren't doing anything really.

If we look into the civil society community there is an incompetence that cannot be managed by activists themselves. We have to remember that whilst it's an organization, it's composed of people who work to make it happen. That means you need a balance between dedication to the cause and investment in CSOs. It can't be an off-on thing; activism demands time. Investments in the organization are made but investments in people running organizations are needed as well.

Civil society in Libya, despite all the challenges it has faced, has been able to achieve amazing things. On several occasions, as in the aftermath of US Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death, civil society got together like never before and showed armed groups that it wasn't going to allow them to ruin Libya. They have put efforts in raising awareness about the constitution and have done simple things like empowering communities through neighborhood cleanups. They have showed the international community that they are a source of power within their societies, so even if the Libyan government isn't fully aware, the rest of the world is taking notice.

Civil society is no doubt the first form of institution building that took place in post-revolution Libya. This gives it the opportunity to set an example for government institutions that are still in the process of being established. It also gives it the lead over the government so it can better observe and act.

The absence of civil society in pre-revolution Libya is actually an opportunity to create organizations from scratch. Civil society has succeeded in recognizing its downfalls and continues to look for opportunities to better understand what it can do better and to work in that direction.

Civil society has empowered a nation; it has led them to see that it's not up to the government to do everything but that citizens can take matters into their own hands (and I am NOT suggesting occupying ministries here!). It has showed people they do not need to agree with everything the government does and that they can re-direct the government to what they aspire to see. In a nation where such ideas didn’t even cross one’s mind, these are great achievements.

In light of all this the question is what does civil society in Libya require to move forward? First and foremost resources must be made available to civil society and there are clear steps to move forward with them, it just needs the government to be on board. In this respect communication is key; as much as CSOs need communication amongst each other it is equally important the government communicates with civil society. That allows the government to be aware of the needs of civil society and allows them to listen and impact change.

Civil society must ensure it keeps its distance from politics and maintains political impartiality to an extent that it can play its role in an appropriate manner and more importantly so that it is not politically manipulated. Finally civil society must feel safe working; they should not be under pressure by armed groups or political factions.

What we can all agree upon is that at such challenging times civil society is the key to getting Libya's momentum back. Supporting the development and work of civil society is a win-win situation for everyone wanting to contribute to building Libya. It is time to make it a priority again and to take it more seriously so that their work can move to the next level.

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