[Marxism] Ordinary Libyans mobilize and organize

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 15 07:13:14 MDT 2011


http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=93513

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 
told IRIN.

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.

“Excitement”

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?”




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