By Borzou Daragahi
Meet the group of activists risking their lives to provide a ‘third voice’ in the conflict.
A network of Libyan activists in the country’s east opposed to warlord Khalifa Haftar’s months-long offensive to seize the capital, Tripoli, has emerged; evidence that the civil society idealists who originally began the 2011 uprising against the dictatorship of Gaddafi persist, even if they are often cowering in fear.
Ahmed Sharksi, a 29-year-old activist and petroleum engineer now living in exile in Tunisia, is one of the coordinators of the Society for Civic Cooperation, a largely secret network of activists in eastern Libyan cities including Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Beida – the metropolises that make up the ancient Roman province of Cyrenaica.
They oppose both Haftar’s militaristic vision and the Islamist-leaning armed groups he is fighting.
“We reject the rule of militias in our capital, Tripoli,” Sharksi says. “And we are also opposing the attempt by Haftar to impose a military state. We are a third voice.”
They include lawyers, labourers, students, and engineers. They hold quiet meetings with each other and try to spread the word, occasionally appearing on one of Libya’s satellite television channels.
Anti-war movements are something of a rarity in an Arab world still enamoured with glorifications of armed forces and fighting men.
Organising protests in eastern Libya’s tightly controlled streets is considered too risky.
Much of the group’s work remains underground, organising discreet meetings and launching hashtag campaigns, including one called “War is not a solution”.
The group lacks even a Facebook page, worried that Haftar’s henchmen in the east would use it to track down and detain activists.
“There is without question some people who are not agreeing with this military intervention in Tripoli,” says Hassan Tatanaki, a Libyan businessman and philanthropist.
“In Cyrenaica, it’s not so easy for them to say what they believe. It’s a very controlled environment. There are some people who have been imprisoned.”
Dissent is easier in western Libya because of the competition between rival groups. “There are too many powers running it, so it feels looser,” he says.
Sharksi was forced to flee Tunisia after he posted a video criticising Haftar’s Tripoli offensive that went viral and struck a chord with Libyans.
“Why do you destroy our dreams and aspirations for a stable country?” he said in the five-minute clip, which he posted to Facebook on 19 April, 15 days after Haftar launched his battle to take Tripoli.
“Haven’t we had enough bloodshed, enough killing? We don’t want another war.”
He chastised eastern Libyans for supporting Haftar’s grab for the capital, now nearing four months with over 1,100 dead and tens of thousands displaced. He also criticised western Libyans for believing the worst about their eastern compatriots.
We can’t tell the fighters to put down their weapons unless we have a logical solution. We are trying to assemble an alternative
“Everyone in the western region heard that there were calls for massive demonstrations [in Benghazi] to support the war in Tripoli,” he said. “In these demonstrations, not even five or 10 people turned up. The silent majority did not participate and rejects this war.”
The threats came quickly and became increasingly violent. He was blasted as a liar and a traitor.
“I swear that you are a liar,” said one commentator. “May god damn you!”
“We will kill you,” another warned.
Some were from random trolls. But others came from Facebook accounts with postings and religious sentiments suggesting they were tied to the Saudi-influenced armed extremist militias partnered with Haftar.
Less than a week after he made the video, he wound up in neighbouring Tunisia, where many Libyans have fled to escape their country’s continuous armed conflicts.
He was right to be intimidated.
On 17 July, Haftar’s henchmen allegedly abducted Libyan activist and former lawmaker Seham Sergiwa, shooting her husband and 14-year-old son during an attack on her home a day after she criticised the war in a television appearance.
Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia and France, launched his operation to seize control of the capital from the United Nations-brokered government on 4 April, promising his benefactors a quick victory.
But militias in the west united against him, garnering the support of Turkey. The conflict has now become bogged down in a stalemate on the capital’s outskirts.
Ordinary Libyans are increasingly uneasy about the situation of their country, but unable to speak out, with both camps tightly controlling media.
In recent days came allegations that Haftar’s forces bombed a clinic facility, killing five medical personnel, although the claim has been disputed by his side.
Like many Libyans, Sharksi said he supported Haftar when he first launched his 2014 effort to rid the country of the militias that had sprung following the collapse of Gaddafi’s rule. Some, such as Ansar al-Sharia, had ties to al-Qaeda.
But Sharksi and others turned against Haftar as it became apparent he sought to usher in a new dynasty.
Haven’t we had enough bloodshed, enough killing? We don’t want another war
“Haftar tried to push his family as ruler of Libya,” he says. “We are against that. We won’t allow it. We won’t support any new dictatorship in Libya.”
In his video, Sharski sought to appeal to Libyans’ better instincts. “We must try our best to reject hateful speech, and reject violence,” he said. “Frankly, war has never been a solution. We are honestly scared that this country will be divided, and we don’t want that.”
Other than rhetoric, there is not a lot that ordinary Libyans can do to change the course of their country. UN-backed plans for elections to install a new government overseeing all of Libya have been repeatedly delayed, and it remains unclear whether any of the country’s well-armed factions would respect any results that diminished their power.
Armed men rule Libya’s streets in both the country’s east, west and south. Haftar appears to answer to no one, surprising not only the UN but even his own benefactors with his assault on the capital.
Armed groups in the west, though reined in somewhat in the last year or so, have re-emerged vigorously on the streets of the capital, their tan Toyota pick-up trucks spray-painted and plastered with the names of their brigades and cities.
Activists like Sharksi try to build networks online, reaching out to like-minded Libyans in the rest of the country as well as in the diaspora.
In Tunis, he seeks audiences with diplomats and the UN, demanding a halt to the blatant interference in Libya’s affairs by countries such as France and Turkey. But ultimately he acknowledges that it is Libyans themselves that must work out a solution.
“Today we are just organising ourselves,” he says. “We can’t tell the fighters to put down their weapons unless we have a logical solution. We are trying to assemble an alternative.”
Protests in neighbouring Algeria and Sudan brought down governments this year. But Tatanaki says Libyans might be too exhausted and hopeless to make such a move. “I don’t think there’s enough courage or organisation or will,” he says.
Sharksi says it is still way too dangerous to try to take on the country’s armed factions in the streets with flowers and peaceful slogans.
“We’re trying to decrease the risks for activists,” he says. “We’re trying to limit information about our group so the names don’t get public.
“We move slowly,” he says.
Borzou Daragahi – International Correspondent for Independent covering Middle East, Europe, & North Africa. Senior Fellow at ACScowcroft.