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Civil society struggles for greater role in Libya’s transition

As the conditions for Libyan activists are deteriorating, civil society fighters, refusing to be silenced, mobilise from abroad. One of them is Shahrazad Magrabi, whose initiative Libyan Women Forum is aiming to empower Libyan grassroots movements with a special focus on women. “The civil society in Libya is gaining momentum,” she argued.

Civil society culture is something new in Libya, prior to 2011, during the 42-year old rule of Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan civil society was close to non-existent. The country’s political and legal framework banned any form of civil society activity: no free press, no trade union, no political opposition were allowed. So when the clashes in February 2011 between demonstrators against Gaddafi security forces ended with the overthrowing of the country’s four-decade dictatorship, Libya was left with building its political institutions from the ground.

During a panel discussion, “The Role of Civil Society in Libya’s transition” in 2013, Charles Dunne, Director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House said; “The crisis of security… has also been accompanied by a crisis of governance,” but adding that “a bright spot in all of this has been the emergence of civil society in Libya.” At the same conference Aly Abuzaakouk, President of Citizenship Forum for Democracy and Human Development in Benghazi said, “civil society is the key to getting Libya’s momentum back… it is time to make it a priority again.”

And since the revolution a large number of organizations have popped up focusing on for example women rights, education, good governance and election monitoring. One of these organizations is Libyan Women Forum, which is advocating women empowerment. However, in today’s Libya it is not easy operating on the ground, “It’s too dangerous,” explained its founder Shahrazad Magrabi whilst on a visit to Tunisia. “Now we need to operate from underground.” Four months ago Magrabi was forced to seek refuge in Egyptian capital Cairo, but she has a bag packed ready to return to her hometown of Tripoli as soon she gets a chance.

Despite homesickness Magrabi admits that operating from abroad can be an advantage. Together with her team she is currently trying to build a large network of focal points all across Libya, which will through grassroots movements advocate for national dialogue and social cohesion. For real change needs to come from the people, she argued, bottom-up and not top-down. “I think empowering the grassroots movements is key,” she said.

But security continues to be the largest obstacle for civil society mobilisation. “Safety is without doubt the biggest challenge right now,” explained Magrabi. Kidnappings, assassinations and car bombs continue to torment the people more than three years after the revolution. The Libyan police force, which is weak, as is the country’s military, faces difficulty controlling the militia groups fighting for power in today’s fragmented post-revolutionary Libya. There are also currently two conflicting governments and some argue that the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state with the newly elected parliament forced to flee war-torn capital Tripoli to operate from the eastern coastal town of Tobruk.

“Many women who are working on these issues have been threatened,” explained Magrabi and she knows what she is talking about, she is herself one of 120 women on an assassination list. “For example all the women in Parliament, and their families, have been threatened,” she said. The pressure comes from extremists and fundamentalists who renounce Magrabi and her team’s view on gender issues.

Despite that the Libyan Women Forum’s offices in Benghazi and Tripoli were forced to close there are still people working under ground, explained Magrabi. “We were recently able to do a training workshop for activists,” she said. But during the last months the situation has deteriorated for political activists, who have become a target of militia violence. The news that two young activists, 18-year-old Tawfik Bensaud and 19-year-old Sami Elkawafi, were among 14 people killed between 18 and 20 September in Benghazi shocked the country.

“Militia leaders look at us as enemies because we lead the public against them, we are a target,” said Internet activist and former Libyan Youth Movement’s Younis Najem. “It is too dangerous to work on the ground because they attack activists,” he said and added, “Now we need to mobilise from abroad.” Najem is from Benghazi but was forced to flee, however, he continues his work from neighbouring countries, “We are creating a network of people both inside and outside of Libya,” he said whilst visiting Tunisia. Najem wants to believe in the Parliament but admits that he is more realistic than optimistic, “The militias have the weapons and consequently also the power,” he sighted.

But despite the current hostile Libyan environment Magrabi remains optimistic. “The masses have the key and people will gain momentum,” she said firmly, “many in the government are from the civil society and they work very hard.”

However, at the same time Magrabi is concerned that Libya will become more and more divided between east and west and that militant groups like IS will take advantage of the situation and gain ground in Libya. It is therefore now essential that the work continues, she argued, continuously emphasising that civil society is key to the future of Libya. “We work with both East and West as I have people all over the country and our movement is apolitical,” she said, “we invite everyone to dialogue.”

Magrabi would like to see more pressure on the militant groups, to her it is really quite simple, “We need to undermine the militants’ power by taking control over their arms and funding,” she concluded.

Article by Christine Petré, Middle East Monitor.

This article was originally published here.

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