Last week in Libya ended with the news that the Tanweer Movement, a Tripoli-based civil society group, decided to stop their work and dissolve the organization. This decision was made after an affiliate of the movement was arrested by the Interior Security Forces and forced to “confess” in a video that was widely shared online before being removed.
The young man spoke about his work with a number of organizations, including Tanweer, working on issues related to free speech and civil liberties. Security forces claimed that these groups are threatening the national security of the country by encouraging people to question religion and promoting “immoral liberation” of various groups.
Tanweer was no stranger to controversy, working on culturally and socially-sensitive issues that pushed the envelope and forced several of its members to leave the country. The movement did not propagate any specific ideology but rather advocated for free speech and open debate in a society that is used to speaking their opinions in whispers and living double lives to avoid social scrutiny.
The aim of the final statement from the organization was clear; we’ll stop our work if you free those who have been detained. It’s a sacrificial move, one influenced by the fear and horrors that many civil society activists have witnessed in the past eleven years at the hands of militias and security forces. The movement’s social media pages have now been deleted, wiping all traces of its digital presence.
This is not the first time that an organization has had to end its activities for the safety of its members. Tanarout, a popular cultural hub in Benghazi, closed its doors last year after an increase in threats from religious groups who cited ‘mixing of the genders’, ‘shady activities’ and ‘anti-religious sentiment’ as the reason for their opposition. While none of these things are technically illegal in Libya, the law can seldom be used to defend oneself in a country where the strongest voices are those with the weapons.
Since the new wave of activism in 2011, Libya’s civil society has faced an uphill battle. Civil society activities were initially seen as a form of fighting back against the Gadhafi regime and reclaiming public life, and most organizations were loosely based collectives of young women and men working on media, culture and humanitarian aid. But as the country fell further into fragility and instability, CSOs and activists became a prime target for public scrutiny.
The common conspiracy theory is that civil society is a vehicle for international groups to manipulate and destabilize Libya, and activists are spies who are selling out their country. While some people genuinely believe this, others are motivated by a dislike for the causes that activists work on or suspicions at the exposure and financing that some of them receive. Frustrations around representation also makes up a substantial level of the grievances that people felt.
However, while public anger has been a difficult obstacle to overcome, it is the credible threats of violence that has really set back the growth of Libya’s civil society.
The rise of religious extremists and terrorists in East Libya brought forth a campaign of assassinations against prominent voices who spoke out against armed militias and in favour of a police and army force and, more importantly, a civic state governed by the rule of law. Activists and journalists like Muftah Buzaid, Abdulsalam Almismary, Salwa Bughaigis and 18 year-old Tawfik Ben Saud and Sami Elkwafi are just some of the most prominent names of over 1,000 people who were murdered in Benghazi over their political views.
Tripoli witnessed similar suppression with activists who were kidnapped or killed, and a number of high profile attacks such as the closure of the Comic Con Libya event in 2017.
The era of a new phase of control didn’t change much for civil society. Instead of terrorist groups and militias it’s now “security forces” who are engaging in the arrest and suppression of activists, across the country.
Granted, suppression is far and away an improvement to open murder in the streets, but it has put civil society back to square one in terms of safety. The most recent transgression was the forced disappearance of Mansour Atte, a civic activist from Ajdabiya. Mansour did not work on ‘controversial issues’ but rather advocated for youth’s political empowerment. Regardless of the topic, the perceived crime is the same; using your voice to challenge the status quo.
I have written and talked about the struggles and successes of Libya’s civil society for a long time, because I also lived through a lot of these events. It’s the space where I – a young woman with little political leverage or social influence – felt like I could be visible and, more importantly, try to change the reality of where I lived.
It’s given me the opportunity to see how civil society is pushing back against all these threats to its existence and persevering. I don’t want to romanticize the struggle (and I’ve ranted extensively before on the use of terms like resilient) but it is a fact that Libyan civil society has transformed for the better in the past 11 years.
Yes, some activists have used it as a vehicle to further their own political or financial interests, and yes, there are those who have appointed themselves as spokespeople without any real work on the ground. But unlike 2011, there are better mechanisms and networks of support and self-regulation by CSOs, and more voices in a space that was once sparsely occupied.
Many CSOs have passed the 3-year test by becoming respected institutions in their own cities, and activists have learned new methods of dissent and self-censorship in order to continue the work that needs to be done to support some of Libya’s most vulnerable groups. Beyond this, organizations are now working beyond the borders of their own towns and connecting together nationwide.
Remote locations that have been cut off from large urban centers for years are now seeing the rise of their own civil societies, tackling a range of issues both popular and a little controversial. We’re also beginning to accept the plurality and diversity of civil society, not as a homogenous monolith but as a with sector with its own opinions and disagreements
Not a lot has been achieved in Libya in the past 11 years, and indeed a lot has been undone and set the country back decades in its development. But if there’s one redeeming feature of this decade (for me at least), it has been watching a new generation of young activists, leaders and passionate citizens pick up the banner and continue working, refusing the status quo and building places, people and themselves.
What the people in power need to understand is that fighting civil society won’t work – as a decade of trying has proved. Tanweer is gone but another organization will take its place eventually, as they’ve taken the places of other people and groups who were also silenced. The next decade will be just as hard, if not harder, than the previous one, but it will further establish civil society as a key player in the fight for Libya.