Formal Restrictions and the Migration to Online Space
The actions and impacts of Libyan civil society throughout a decade of conflict warrants further research and analysis. However, it is evident that civil society actors played vital roles in filling the gaps created by warring governments.
This raised concerns within government authorities and led to the adoption of a regulation list in 2016 aimed at restricting and monitoring civic organizations. These measures, along with the forced disappearances, harassment of civic engagements, and a tendency within society to blame issues of national security on the wrong party, further contributed to the erosion of civic space.
The service delivery functions of civil society were exploited by international aid organizations, which led to the dominance of the development agenda of external actors.
This fostered a competitive environment that partly hindered solidarity among civic organizations and led to competition over funding, and favoritism towards established organizations, which caused a big part of civil society to be just implementers rather than active agents of change.
The inability of civil society organizations to access public spaces or work on issues considered “sensitive” by the various political factions and armed groups, including issues such as gender-based violence, sexual violence, liberal political ideologies, and individual freedoms.
This censorship has led many youth initiatives to move their activities to the online space between 2016 and 2019. Civic engagement and the use of social media have sparked controversy regarding the effectiveness of online activism in driving meaningful change.
In Libya, social media provided a much-needed platform for many youth projects to discuss and raise awareness of various social and political issues related to rights and identities. However, during Haftar’s War on Tripoli in 2019, which polarized civil society, the online space quickly became riddled with misinformation.
This context of conflict was also exploited by the Government of the National Accord to issue counterterrorism decree No. 578 of 2020.
The decree granted a notorious armed group, the Special Deterrence Force, also known as Radaa, the authority to determine what constitutes a security risk online and to make arrests accordingly.
In September 2022, the House of Representatives doubled down on the online space by issuing the “Anti-Cybercrime”. This legislation grants the Libyan authorities the power to conceal and block all digital content deemed to be causing “strife” or to promote “ideas that undermine society’s security, stability and social peace.”
The wording of this provision of the law is vague and open to interpretation, leaving significant discretion of the security forces in its enforcement. The timing of the issuance of the law culminated in the arrests and online harassment of activists and journalists.
The Government of National Unity in Libya took further steps to restrict civil society by proposing a new freedom of association regulation in July 2021. Under the new proposal, existing NGOs were required to register with the government instead of the Commission of Civil Society which was the authority responsible for officially registering civil society organizations under the previous law 19/2001.
The new regulation includes provisions that would give the government the authority to reject NGO registrations and prevent them from opening bank accounts. NGOs are also required to obtain permission before accepting donations and communicating with international NGOs, including the UN.
As a result, only civil society organizations implementing projects for international organizations complied with these regulations. Due to the weak enforcement of the central government, many organizations chose not to comply with these regulations, despite the risk of harassment and arrest.
On 8 March 2023, a legal opinion held by the Law Department of the High Judicial Council considered all civic institutions registered after 2011 (except those registered under Gaddafi’s Law No. 19 of 2001), to be invalid, therefore, effectively ending independent civic organizations and individual freedoms.
The government quickly followed suit on 13 March when the Director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation at the Office of the Prime Minister for the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Libya issued Circular No. 5803, instructing Libya’s Civil Society Commission to revoke the licenses given to all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) established in 2011.
Surviving to exist
The environment in which civil society in Libya tries to survive is increasingly hostile and challenging. It is marked by a deliberate political campaign to end freedoms, the presence of hundreds of armed groups operating with complete impunity, and an international development support that does not always align with the needs and priorities of local civil society.
Added to this is the significant challenge of the negative attitude of Libyan communities towards civic organizations, a result of years of smearing campaigns and a lingering legacy of mistrust that stems from Gaddafi’s era that was suspicious of anyone collaborating with foreign actors.
Twelve years after the civil war, various governments continued to be the primary perpetrators of violations against civilians. Civil society has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in ensuring that such crimes are not forgotten, and that justice is eventually served for victims, even in a lawless environment like Libya.
To achieve this, it is imperative to provide urgent support and protection for Libyan civil society by establishing structures and mechanisms that hold political and military leaders accountable for their treatment of civil society organizations and their activities.
The international community must condition any work conducted for current or future political processes on the protection and support of civic organizations.
International organizations and the donor community should prioritize the safety and protection of activists in their programming initiative and use their influence on the government to advocate for the release of those in detention and an end to the arrest campaigns.
Libyan civil society should be treated as an equal stakeholder in political dialogues, ensuring their adequate inclusion and participation.
It is also essential for Libyan civil society in the diaspora to unite its efforts and collaborate to protect and advocate for organizations and activists operating in Libya.
Solidarity among various civic actors is crucial, and a national strategy must be adopted to combat this authoritarian challenge faced by civil society.
While very few would dispute that change must be driven by Libyans themselves, actors who engage in efforts to promote stability in the country must re-evaluate their approach and reconsider the factors that would yield lasting stability and who should be on the table to discuss it.
Asma Khalifa is a Libyan activist and researcher who has worked on human rights, women’s rights and youth empowerment since 2011.