If our civil society ever hopes to change the country, it first needs to start by changing itself.
Who will save Libya? As the country continues its painful decent into failure, it’s a question that is being asked with increasing urgency, from the highest-level diplomat to the most downtrodden citizen. It implies that there is someone, a person or an entity, waiting in the wings for an opportune moment to jump in and make a miracle happen. But as the crisis continues, it’s becoming apparent that no such hero exists. Instead, we should be asking, who, if anyone, can save Libya?
Of all the institutions in Libya, it is civil society that appears to have the largest potential to step up and take on the role of savior. After all, it was Benghazi’s civil society that filled the gaping absence of any governing body to relieve the humanitarian crisis in the city during 2015. Similarly, in Derna, it was the local organizations that led the way towards recovery after the city’s battle with ISIS. Among such initiatives taken was providing aid to displaced families, volunteering to clean the streets, providing psychosocial support to traumatized children, assisting the hospitals in covering shortages and raising awareness on the dangers of mines and other remnants of war.
All of these are brave and commendable actions, particularly in the face of strenuous logistic difficulties on the ground. But if you ask the average citizen on the ground what they think of civil society, the answer you’ll probably get will be filled with criticism more than praise.
A few months back, I was asked to sit on a panel discussing civil society in light of youth activism. The event was part of a dialogue initiative by Benghazi youth organization Yes We Can. I had prepared several notes, hoping to touch upon several key issues that I felt had become pressing; radicalization, the balance between civil liberties and national security, and a unified voice that represented all factions of civil society.
Instead, the panel descended into a heated debate on the ineffectual role of the Civil Society Commission. Activists had felt abandoned by the CSC, wanting more support and protection. There was also concern and fear surrounding the looming shadow of the security apparatus and the tightening regulations around civil society.
While these concerns are all valid, they ignore a key point; civil society isn’t doing much to help itself. While quick to point the blame elsewhere, organizations tend to avoid shouldering the responsibility to improve their own work. While the circumstances in the country make civic work incredibly difficult, certain practices from within the CSO community have been impeding any potential progress.
One of these practices is the heightened sense of competition between organizations, which are all vying for public recognition and support from INGOs. This often leads to a certain level of hostility between activists and organizations, creating an unproductive environment.
This kind of behavior weakens civil society and makes the external problems being faced that much more difficult to tackle. The CSC does definitely need to strengthen its role, but it can’t force every
organization to cooperate with one another in a spirit of teamwork.
Civil Society and February 17
Before the revolution, the concept of civil society was largely unfamiliar in Libya. There were a few organizations that operated under the strict oversight regime, focused primarily on charity work, but they were few and far in between. This is why the burst of civic activity after the revolution was so admirable; despite the lack of experience in this field, the number of organizations and institutes soared. It became an empowering place for disenfranchised demographic groups such as youth and women.
But, as more and more citizens became disillusioned with the revolution, and as the country continues to deteriorate, this has reflected on the trust that citizens have towards civil society. Seeing it as a product of February 17, most people want nothing to do with it, and don’t even want it present anymore. Thinking that if everything that came after 2011 is undone, the country might go back to the way it was.
This mindset, along with internal problems that society has witnessing in the work of CSOs, has had a very negative impact on civil society. It is incredibly difficult to help a society that rejects you, that has not fully grasped the concept of civic work, even if that same society recognizes the necessity of the work being done. “You’re just doing it for fame, for a photo opportunity,” is the accusation most often hurled at activists, unaware that visibility is a necessary component to CSO work to ensure transparency.
In a poll on Twitter of over 100 people, the overwhelming majority felt that the performance of civil society was bad, a harsh but inescapable truth.
As ISIS is being defeated militarily in Libya, more and more people are asking about what will happen next. Post-revolution experience has taught us that defeating the enemy does not necessarily constitute victory. It is the actions taken during the aftermath that are crucial, because they define whether or not the peace obtained after liberation will be sustainable.
Civil society is well placed to take the necessary steps towards recovery and rehabilitation. It has already been proven in Libya that a local, bottom-up approach is the best way to create sustainable change. But without addressing the weaknesses of civil society, and without the trust of the people and state institutes, activists will be as helpless to act as they were in 2011, when inexperience and fragmentation hindered their work.
In that same Twitter poll, Libyans have shown a favourable attitude towards the Red Crescent and Boy Scouts; Girl Guides of Libya. Despite being CSOs, these organizations have had a long-standing presence in Libyan society and, more importantly, their consistent dedication to professional work has earned them the trust of the people. I believe that if CSOs want to better themselves in order to help better their communities, they need to emulate the example of these two organizations.
The war in Libya will not go on forever. It will end, and we need to be prepared when it does. Civil society in Libya needs to start taking itself and its work more seriously, if it hopes to regain the trust of the people and the respect of state institutes. As the country is being forced to choose between a lawless and insufferable freedom or a safe but restrictive dictatorship, civil society is one of the few institutes left that can ensure that Libya takes a third path, one towards a free, stable and secure civic country.