Over the past year, there has been a troubling increase in attacks by armed groups, security forces affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior, and internal security on civic organizations, activists, journalists, and citizens exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
This alarming trend indicates the growing power and influence of armed groups and their political allies, which today reflects the emergence of a well-established shadow of absolute authoritarianism.
In the words of Jacques Mallet du Pan, “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children” and the Libyan uprising has done just that, consuming entire communities and fueling violence and chaos.
This paper is not a lamentation of the 2011 revolution; as a child of that revolution, I seek to tell the story of the powerful rebirth and struggle of civil society in Libya, and why it must be protected.
To understand the importance of protecting civil society, it is crucial to consider the circumstances in which it remerged and the environment in which it tried to operate after 2011, with the opening of a space for civic activism.
It is also crucial to shed light on how civil society’s agenda was directly influenced by the inexperience of its actors and the international community’s interest in expediting elections to showcase a successful intervention.
This became evident in the support given to civil society in the months leading up to the elections of the General National Congress, while transitional governments bolstered armed groups to support political positions.
In the years following the relapse in the civil war in 2014, Libyan civil society responded to various crises and a humanitarian agenda dominated by the “European” issue of migration from the south, counterproductive anti-terrorism policies, and hundreds of armed groups affiliated with different governments operating with complete impunity.
Despite facing numerous competing interests and violently repressive circumstances, Libyan civil society continues to contribute in different ways to make the best of the resources at hand, by delivering much-needed services, documenting violations, or addressing the multitude of social issues such as reconciliation, economic development, and displacement.
For any potential political process or development aimed at stabilizing to succeed, it is key that civic spaces are restored and protected. Transitional governments must guarantee freedom of expression. In light of these considerations, this paper concludes with recommendations for the protection and inclusion of civil society actors.
Re-birth in War
In 2011, Libyan civil society re-emerged after decades of repression under the Gaddafi regime, during which no independent civic organizations existed. After the uprising, then-nascent civil society had to navigate the complex realities of directly working amid armed conflicts and humanitarian crises.
In the early phase between March and October 2011, organizations mainly focused on providing much-needed relief and humanitarian assistance to the displaced and refugees affected by the war. They also coordinated medical and food assistance with the liberated areas.
This work was instrumental in connecting the opposition with diverse communities across the country. It was a rocky beginning filled with tremendous challenges; however, civil society organizations were registered by hundreds and mobilized for the planned elections in 2012 for the General National Congress.
In 2012-2013, the priorities of civil society centered on post-war reconstruction efforts, with a focus on drafting the constitution, transitional justice, addressing social issues of the marginalization of indigenous groups, and advocating for women’s rights. In the years that followed, there was a resurgence of civic organizations.
According to a report released by the United Nations Development Fund and the United Nations Children Fund, nearly 1,000 civil society organizations were active in the five cities of Libya: Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, Zuwara, and Zawia.
This shows that Libya had an active, vibrant, and diverse civil society at the time and demonstrates a commitment to from Libyans to contribute to the development of the country.
Despite their limited experience, civil society organizations played a key role in the successful conduct of the first election in Libya. Individuals and groups participated in observing elections, training, and raising public engagement awareness.
The political engagement of Libyan civil society in the 2012 elections demonstrated great potential and yielded results and was rooted in a sense of hope and ownership to build a country that respects its citizens’ rights, ensures freedom from oppression, and fosters economic prosperity.
During 2012-2013, civil society enjoyed access to public spaces and was experiencing increasing growth. Activities took many forms, including protests, capacity-building programs, advocacy work, and lobbying.
Several organizations focused on political issues, particularly monitoring the decisions and discussions of the elected General National Congress. This highlights the important role that civil society plays in scrutinizing government performance and ensuring that the political process proceeds in line with democratic principles. However, this space was not uniform throughout Libya.
It flourished mainly in Tripoli and Benghazi while conflicts persisted in other areas; people disappeared or were detained and violated for association with Gaddafi’s regime, and the wave of assassinations in Benghazi began in earnest.
This campaign targeted a variety of actors, including military figures, activists, and civilians, with the highest number of deaths occurring in 2014, reaching a total of 1,471 deaths.
This violent environment did not deter activists and journalists from speaking out, documenting the violations committed by various state-affiliated security forces, Libyan Arab Armed Forces, Islamist militias, and groups affiliated with the Islamic State. They continued to demand reforms in order to establish laws and orders.
The Return to War
Civil society’s situation shifted drastically during the 2014 Civil War. The escalating tensions between competing political camps in Tripoli eventually led to a resumption of armed conflict after the June 2014 election.
Many accounts of the events of that summer paint a binary picture of factions aligning themselves in two opposing camps, Libya Dawn and Libya Dignity. However, alliances during this period were multilayered, temporary, and driven by common interests in specific local conflicts.
On 16 May 2014 Khalifa Haftar, a former officer in Gaddafi’s military who had defected during the Libya-Chad War in the 1970s and returned in 2011, launched Operation Libya Dignity in Benghazi to end the prevalent violence in the city.
As Haftar’s campaign progressed, it extended beyond Benghazi, targeting the capital, Tripoli, in a bid to consolidate his power. Haftar’s supporters stormed the parliament of Tripoli.
As a result, the space available for civil society organizations shrank considerably, and many activists were actively targeted and assassinated. This has driven civil society organizations to cease their operations or operate underground, which subsequently reduced the visibility of their work on political issues.
The focus shifted back to humanitarian aid, relief work, and service delivery, which fostered a new perception of civil society’s role in the context of a failed central government.
The 2014 war further exacerbated the division between the Eastern and Western regions of Libya, adding to geographical distance and poor infrastructure. Security concerns have prevented Libyans from traveling between regions, further deepening the divide.
This pushed civil society to conduct projects in neighboring Tunisia, where they would meet to discuss their work and gain skills that would aid their projects inside their home country.
Civil society organizations in the diaspora either operated partially abroad or were members of networks that maintained a presence on the ground while overseeing or assisting in project implementation.
This allowed actors from across the country to convene on neutral grounds and collaborate on various issues. However, the relocation of civil society’s projects away from the rest of society may have partly contributed to the spread of misinformation about Libyan civil society within the wider public opinion.
Nonetheless, the presence of civil society in Tunisia provided it with an opportunity to contribute to peace talks in 2016, a process led by the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
The lobbying and advocacy of civil society organizations and groups were vital for the apolitical agreement that sought to address the root causes of the conflict. The recommendations put forth by civil society had a significant impact on the final agreement.
For instance, as a result, a women empowerment unit was included in an article of the agreement, as well as a series of articles introduced to address youth grievances, including provisions related to economic opportunities and the need for disarmament.
Asma Khalifa is a Libyan activist and researcher who has worked on human rights, women’s rights and youth empowerment since 2011.