Libya Threatened By an Unknown Future

Cowritten by Lara Chaaban

Darnah is known to be one of the most religiously conservative cities in Libya; a place from which "eighty percent of the Libyans who were sent to Iraq to fight against the American invasion, since 2003, were freedom fighters from Darnah," as we were told by one of the local "thuwar" (the revolutionaries who fought against Gaddafi's forces). During the 42 years of Gaddafi's regime, Darnah was one of the most deprived cities in Libya, its citizens never showed loyalty to their leader and never "celebrated Gaddafi visits, so he penalized them by its destitution," a 40-year old female activist told us.

The moment we entered the city, its people, streets and buildings told the story of long years of neglect and poverty, belying the fact that Darnah had been the "cultural capital" of Libya following the country's independence in 1951. People we met expressed the belief that Darnah was the city that fueled the 17th of February revolution with men, the Thuwar, and correspondingly, the city has one of the highest ratios of lost souls from its youth population.

We were in Darnah conducting workshops on active citizenship and democratic participation with the Forum of Democratic Libya, a civil society organization that was founded during the revolution and works to promote democracy and citizenship culture throughout the country. We met more than 150 local citizens from members of political parties, to intellectuals, to media representatives and civil society activists who showed an astonishing desire to join the program. One participant said when asked about why he left his work to come and participate: "Some people say democracy is good and some others say it is bad, I want to make up my mind."

Libya entered a new phase after the death of Gaddafi and the challenge changed from liberating the country from an autocratic regime to building a new democratic system. During the visit, Seif Al Islam was kidnapped and one of the activists reacted by saying "we do not have a common enemy anymore, we will have to face our internal challenges from now on." Libya's transition to democracy will be paved by many threats: violence might erupt any time between revolutionaries, tribes or ethnic groups, putting the country's security at stake, political freedoms and private liberties might not be respected due to conservative emerging movements and minority rights might not be protected leading to an increase in social disparities.

Though the revolution united most Libyans, the inspiration driving revolutionary groups to fight against the Gaddafi regime was not the same. Some groups were mobilized to liberate Libya from oppression, others were fighting for Islamic values while others wanted to reassert themselves within the political system after losing their prerogatives under Gaddafi. As a result of all this, Libya is facing a potentially serious security issue, and indeed groups of armed revolutionaries have been involved in several violent incidents recently.

We saw many armed youth on the streets of Darnah and we were told that most of them were living in poverty and in generally underprivileged economic conditions. "We need to re-integrate the Thuwar in their society, educate them on citizenship and democratic principles and build their capacities to become economically productive," one mother suggested.

Every time we asked Darnah citizens what they aspire for the most after the revolution, it was freedom. At the same time, the concept of freedom was a source of tension between the different groups we met with. For example, when touching upon the issue of women's freedom to run for elections, access to public positions or to remove the veil, there was no agreement; as if the people of Derna are still testing their freedom against existing local norms.

Another major debate was stimulated by a middle-aged journalist when he asked about access to alcohol, it sparked off a heated discussion, where the argument revolved around whether or not "the limit of freedoms should be the Sharia law" as claimed by a female religious preacher.

Freedom is a double-edged sword, as it rapidly becomes a source of tension. Islamic conservative groups consider that the institution of Sharia law is the perfect vehicle for the freedom of belief that Gaddafi oppressed and that "the majority of Libyans want." While other, more liberal, activists are afraid that their freedoms will be threatened by another ideological form of oppression that the coming political leadership might employ in the name of Islam.

"We need to create a Libyan democratic system that can manage diversity and ensure inclusion within which no group can oppress other citizens' freedoms," a civil society activist suggested.

When discussing the issue of freedoms, there are recurrent issues that Libyans raise and reflect upon as a threat to the social inclusion minorities; "How do you say that all Libyans are Muslims when there are Jews who flew out of the country and they are equal citizens and they have the right to come back...?", replied a female journalist to one of the statements. Beyond the Jews there are other groups to consider, such as ethnic minorities who were oppressed during the Gaddafi regime: the Amazigh (a Berber minority estimated around 10 percent of the population), and Twareg tribes, have their own languages and the debate around allowing them to use them as second languages is fervent, "We need to ensure our constitutional right to use our languages and to be acknowledged as a non-Arab minority," said one representative of the groups.

The minority versus majority discussion is not limited to religious, ethnic or racial issues but also to Liberal and Islamist political ideologies. "If the elections will bring a majority of conservative groups such as the Muslim Brothers or Salafists, how will we ensure that the Liberal voice is represented?" said a young activist from Darnah. Many Libyans are afraid of losing the "Muslim culture" if they adopt "Western values" such as democracy, freedom and equality. "We need to reform our educational system to make it more tolerant and inclusive to minorities; we have been raised for 42 years to consider differences in our communities as anomalies," said the journalist quoted above.

The end of the revolution brings up the myriad schisms that exist in Libya: Geographic, tribal, ethnic, religious and racial. Many agendas are emerging as people strive to find the best political system and a heated debate exists, driven by tribal and other motives, started even before the end of the revolution, in which the goal of proponents is to divide Libya into a federal system.

The political discourse is being aggravated by the rush to draft a constitution within eight months, a process that stared after the appointment of the cabinet in early December. These efforts, however, should be paralleled by a grassroots dialogue about the new social contract that will be vital in overcoming the different threats Libya will face and that will define its political destiny. A young activist summarized it by saying that, "The national unity is still at risk as Libyan citizens are still not prepared to participate and make the right choices for their country. Public dialogues should be the first step towards educating Libyans to assume the responsibility of leading their country to stability and prosperity."