Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Civil Society Recreating National Identity

Libya civil society
Garbage collectors carry recycled materials from a dump site to earn their family’s keep in Tripoli, Libya on September 10, 2020. Garbages collected in Tripoli are transferred to a dump site 40 km outside of the capital due to security and technical infrastructure problems as people across the country have great difficulty in accessing even the most basic public services due to the civil war since 2011. Hazem Turkia / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Failed election plans

Libya civil society
Foreign Minister in Libya’s transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) Najla al-Mangoush poses for a picture in the capital Tripoli, on March 17, 2021. The activist and lawyer from the eastern city of Benghazi is Libya’s first female foreign minister, in a government which counts five women with two in key portfolios. Nevertheless this first for the country drew criticism from activists as too little and as not living up to a UN commitment. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

The ceasefire reached in 2020 was frequently flouted and the United Nations proposed to bring in monitors and speed up the election of a new prime minister. In March 2021, the House of Representatives (HoR) met in Sirte and did just that. It elected what it said was a unified government with a new interim prime minister, Abdelhamid Dbeibah, a businessman from Misrata who promptly appointed a lawyer and human rights activist, Najla al-Mangoush, as the first woman to be foreign minister.

On 24 June the interim government announced elections would take place on 24 December. A phased withdrawal of foreign forces would begin almost immediately. Najla al-Mangoush was optimistic that this would build trust and begin a momentum for more change.

But the prospects were not good. One of the first people to identify himself as a candidate for the presidency was Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister. He complained that the interim government wanted to delay elections to hold on to power for their financial advantage. He said he was closely aligned with Turkey, spoke warmly about some of the militias in Misrata and described the LNA as ‘mercenaries.’ Supporters of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi said he would run too.

The electoral machinery began to operate. In the last week of October 2021, the electoral roll opened along with formal nominations for the post of president. Reportedly, 2.5 million Libyans collected their voting cards.

Sixty-two candidates registered to stand for president, only one of them a woman. They included Abdelhamid Dbeibah, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, and Khalifa Haftar. None of the three had a clean image.

Dbeibah had pledged he would not stand when he became the interim prime minister. Haftar was facing investigations of alleged war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Qaddafi was deemed an invalid candidate by the military prosecutor in Tripoli due to his 2015 conviction in absentia of war crimes. On 24 November they were disqualified (along with twenty-one others) but they appealed to the courts. Their candidacies were reinstated.

On 23 December 2021 the elections were postponed for a month, but the HoR then said that the government’s term of office had expired and talked of installing a government of its own.

At the end of January 2022, the UN tried again. Stephanie Williams, the special adviser on Libya to the secretary general, called on the HoR to restart election preparations.

The HoR responded in early February by appointing Bashagha as prime minister. Dbeibah refused to resign, saying he would only hand power to an elected government and refused to let Bashagha enter Tripoli. The HoR transferred the seat of government to Sirte. When it met there in June it passed a budget of its own challenging the Central Bank to break its agreements to fund it.

Once again, in 2022 Libya had two governments and two separate financial systems.

Civil Society: the lessons of COVID

The events of 2018-2021 showed that the two separate governments could not do without each other. The oil could not be extracted without the ‘oil crescent’ in the east, and it could not be sold without the National Oil Company (NOC) and Central Bank in the west. When oil exports were halted, the country as a whole had virtually no revenue. The NOC estimated that the six-month shutdown in 2019-20 cost the country $6 billion.

Yet, some of the structures of the country showed remarkable resilience. At an administrative level, the National Bank in Tripoli continued to function and coordinated its activities with the rival National Bank in Bayda. In 2016, both banks issued a new series of banknotes to alleviate the cash shortage. They had similar designs but different security features, watermarks, and serial numbers. Even so, the two banks agreed to supervise the issue of new notes jointly so that they would circulate throughout Libya.

Two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a global COVID-19 pandemic, the Tripoli government declared a lock-down, closing borders, cancelling flights and shutting schools, workplaces and even mosques.

The health system had been neglected, underfunded and understaffed for decades, but the predicted breakdown did not happen. The lock-down was easier to enforce because Libya is a highly urbanised country. Although testing was very limited and the number of cases could not easily be counted, the expected strain on hospitals did not materialize. At the end of Ramadan (May 2020) the restrictions were lifted, followed by a spike in cases, partly because Libyans who were stuck abroad, returned.

It was not the government, but civil society organisations that organised much of the COVID response. This is part of a pattern in Libya, as elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, of ‘The Local Leading the National’, where localized responses of non-state actors and civil society organisations are more successful at dealing with problems than government bodies.

Even official organisations had to depend on the personal motivations of their staff. A celebrated example was the Tripoli fire brigade, subject of a vivid documentary by the British television station Channel 4 as far back as 2014. Officially part of the National Safety Corps, its fire crews worked with inadequate equipment, such as fire engines without sirens, helmets, oxygen. They were paid by the Central Bank, but subjected to the whims of the militias. Even at that early date in the disorder, one of the firemen summed it up while he repainted the fire station himself:

“This is the face of the first service. We’ve got to keep it looking good. This is our job. We all sleep and work here. If I don’t do it, who will?”

Libya civil society
Workers for the Benghazi Red Crescent (in eastern Libya) and the International Organisation for Migration organise assistance for families who were displaced by the conflict in western Libya. Photo Benghazi Red Crescent/Facebook

In Tobruk, local activists cooperated with the municipal guard and the chamber of commerce to regulate the prices of masks and sanitizers. In Souk al-Juma’a, an affluent and urbanised suburb of Tripoli close to the University of Tripoli, one of the mosques provided teachers in the public schools with training in health precautions when the schools reopened. Also in Tripoli, IT technicians developed an app (“Covidly”) to give reliable and up-to-date information about COVID infection rates. In Benghazi, a tech startup developed virus-safe tunnels that allowed infected patients to be moved around hospitals. It also set up training courses in programming, a National Robotics Championship and developed IT curricula for schools.

Longer-established voluntary organisations, such as the Red Crescent, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides helped in hospitals and public offices, delivering medical supplies for refugees from the fighting in western Libya. In the town of Beni Walid, local charity groups supported displaced families.

In this way, local voluntary organisations helped to strengthen a Libyan national identity, while competing governments were breaking it apart. The combination of effective informal responses and ineffective state structures undermined the legitimacy of governments inside Libya, whether they were internationally recognised or not.

The turmoil had now lasted for over a decade and during the heat of summer, fuel shortages and power cuts of up to 18 hours a day raised the political pressure.

On 1 July 2022, demonstrators stormed the House of Representatives building in Tobruk, and in Tripoli and Benghazi protesters gathered and chanted “We want the lights to work”. Some of them waved the green flag of the Jamahiriya, the political system of Muammar Qaddafi, whom Libyans had deposed back in 2011.