“After 42 years of doing the wrong things, people are now doing the right things,” said Khaled Ben-Ali, head of the Libyan Committee for Humanitarian Aid & Relief (LibyanAid).
Speaking from Benghazi Ben-Ali said he had been overwhelmed by ordinary Libyans’ ability to mobilize and organize, starting new organizations from scratch.
International NGOs, too, speak with admiration of the “volunteering spirit” shown in Benghazi and other areas administered by the rebel Transitional Council. “I have seen this in other conflicts, but never with this kind of dimension,” a senior health official who preferred anonymity told IRIN.
“Even if we wanted to put on a children’s fair, we had to associate it with something political, related to one of Gaddafi’s claimed achievements,” said Amina Megheirbi, looking back at the attempts by fledgling Libyan civil society organizations to get their own activities off the ground prior to the events of 2011.
After an academic career in the USA and United Arab Emirates (UAE), Megheirbi now works as an English lecturer at Benghazi’s Garyounis University. But she has long combined academic duties with community work, trying to identify needs and provide assistance to the more vulnerable members of society.
Trying to operate independently under Gaddafi meant dealing with a heavily centralized system, in which Gaddafi’s own famous Green Book was meant to be a sacred text and principal point of reference.
Even the Scouts, active in Libya since the 1950s, had to tread carefully, said scouting veteran Tarek Alzletny, noting that it was Gaddafi’s own organizations that had the state’s support.
Megheirbi and others endured lengthy battles to get registered by the authorities, and a climate of suspicion where individuals were constantly being vetted and quizzed on their intentions. Why did they want to help impoverished communities in a society “where there were officially no poor people”? A low profile was often essential. There was constant pressure on new groups to work under the umbrella of organizations created by the state or members of the ruling family, notably the Waatasemu Charity Association established by Gaddafi’s daughter, Ayesha.
In a time of excitement people may over-extend themselves, they may overstretch. But what we want to do, and our Libyan counterparts want to do, is to channel that enthusiasm and use it in positive ways. It’s more of an asset than a hindranceFinding a voice
Megheirbi never had any doubt that Libyan civil society would find its voice if conditions changed. “It was a lack of freedom, not a lack of confidence,” she explained. “We always had this Libyan spirit of getting close to each other, helping each other. I thought we had lost this, but it is stronger than before. This is the time to do it.”
The stand-off in February between demonstrators marching against Gaddafi and security forces trying to keep the lid on protest in Benghazi ended with heavy human casualties, but a dramatic shift in the balance of power. “There was no chaos,” Megheirbi emphasized. “And it was civil society that helped maintain stability.”
In the months since the first mass protests, dozens of organizations and networks have sprung up, often operating in parallel with new, fiercely anti-Gaddafi media outlets, radio and TV stations, newspapers and simple newsletters.
The phenomenon has not been confined to Benghazi. Reports from Darnah to the east point to a strong mobilization of both secular and religious groups, all strongly committed to a post-Gaddafi Libya. Megheirbi says activists in Benghazi are linking up with colleagues in Misrata to the west, while there are reports of other groups emerging in the Nafusa mountains.
The Attawasul approach
Megheirbi now heads the Attawasul Association. Attawasul, loosely translated as “connect”, or “reach out”, operates as both a media house, putting out newspaper and radio programmes, and a training organization, working within targeted communities and giving young people technical guidance and leadership skills.
Megheirbi said Attawasul was originally conceived as a women’s organization, but the obvious enthusiasm of young male activists in the early stages of the revolution, and their keenness to make a contribution, forced a rethink.
Attawasul now has over 150 volunteers, but only a couple of salaried staff. On a Saturday afternoon, a small group of women are at their desktop computers, poring over data, swapping ideas, inputting new information. Their brief is to update records on thousands of families in Benghazi that need some kind assistance, passing on the details to partner organizations in the hope that they can get food to the most vulnerable.
While Benghazi has generally been free from fighting since March, Megheirbi says the needs of ordinary civilians still need to be highlighted, despite their own reluctance to call for assistance. Many foreign companies have suspended their activities, shedding a large workforce, now deprived of its regular income. Small businesses have been badly hit. The banking system is way below par. “In general, everyone in Benghazi is suffering,” Megheirbi told IRIN.
Women wait for Friday prayers to commence in Benghazi (file photo) Megheirbi accepts that many of the more than 200 new organizations started up since February may not outlive the revolutionary period in Benghazi. She sees Attawasul and others playing a critical long-term role, but only with stronger funding that can pay for offices, professional staff and ensure Attawasul’s ability to deliver on serious projects. At present, Attawasul depends on money generated within Libya, and would-be backers in the diaspora struggling to get cash transfers through.
As local NGO adviser for the international relief organization Mercy Corps, Stephen Allen has watched a wide range of civil society actors come to the fore. “I think there is a lot of excitement,” Allen told IRIN. “In a time of excitement people may over-extend themselves, they may overstretch. But what we want to do, and our Libyan counterparts want to do, is to channel that enthusiasm and use it in positive ways. It’s more of an asset than a hindrance.”
Allen notes the influence of Libyans returning from exile, particularly in areas like human rights and women’s issues and points to a growing professionalism among the newer organizations.
He concedes that the emergence of civil society in Benghazi and other areas outside Gaddafi’s control is inevitably tied up with the fortunes of the revolution.
“A lot of organizations see what they are doing as a service to the revolution. That doesn’t mean they’re behaving improperly or breaking international norms, but there is certainly a long way to go in terms of realizing real neutrality and real impartiality.”
Allen acknowledges that there is no fixed template for helping create civil society structures. “Each context is different. Libya is not south Sudan, but nor is it Egypt or Tunisia. It has its own unique political climate and cultural nuances.” But there are universal guidelines that can be transferred from one situation to another: civil society organizations need financial transparency, clear, well defined objectives and leaders who can account for themselves. “Above all, they need to be able to answer the question: why are we doing this?”