[Marxism] Ordinary Libyans mobilize and organize
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 15 07:13:14 MDT 2011
LIBYA: Civil society breaks through
BENGHAZI, 16 August 2011 (IRIN) - Sidelined under Muammar Gaddafi,
Libyan civil society organizations are beginning to assume an
important role in helping the most vulnerable in “liberated” areas.
"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 hindrance''
Finding 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
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
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?”
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