x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Out of Qaddafi's shadow, Benghazi's civil society blooms

In the eastern-Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a blossoming civil society suggests that wholesale change is not only possible, but inevitable.

My previous visit to Benghazi was nearly a year ago. I tried to go in January, but my request had been turned down by the Libyan foreign ministry. One of the frustrations of working as a diplomat in Tripoli was that the Libyan government always insisted that diplomats apply for permission to travel outside the capital.

On arrival in Benghazi this time, I was met by an official who welcomed me to "Free Libya". He pulled a rubber stamp and notebook from a bag slung over his shoulder and informed me apologetically that he was having to make do with stamps issued by the old regime. He expected new ones to be issued by the National Transitional Council in the next couple of days. Paperwork taken care of, I headed into town.

The outward normality of it all left me feeling perplexed. Of course, all the old propaganda posters have disappeared. Visitors to Benghazi are no longer looked down upon by heroic images of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, quotations from his Green Book or posters marking the 41st anniversary of his revolution. These have been replaced by the green, red and black flag of pre-Qaddafi Libya, new posters celebrating February's popular uprising and pictures of Umar al Mukhtar, the hero of Libya's anti-colonial struggle.

But beyond this there's been little physical change. The February uprising has not changed the face of Benghazi. Burnt-out or bullet-marked buildings are very rare, the shops are open and the streets are full of cars. The driving is as chaotic as ever.

But after spending one week here, I am better able to see the changes and they are profound. One event - an NGO fair at the University of Garyounis organised by the National Transitional Council's office to consult with the public - was a stunning example of what has happened here. The young women who were helping to set up the event told me that they had registered around 200 new NGOs since the uprising. The fair was intended to be a showcase for these new organisations. I admit that I was sceptical about this figure, but looking around the fair, it suddenly appeared very plausible.

There were young volunteers caring for internally displaced people from Ajdabiya and Misurata or looking after the families of those on the front line. Forums for dialogue, newly established weekly magazines and environmental organisations competed with each other for the attention of the many passers-by who stopped to chat.

Under Col Qaddafi, some civil society organisations did exist but they were carefully monitored or controlled by the regime. The two most prominent and well funded organisations were run by members of the Qaddafi family. Many talented and well-intentioned Libyans worked for these bodies, promoting change within the boundaries of the system and doing what they could. The British Embassy in Tripoli cooperated with them.

But the enthusiasm and optimism of the students and young people at the university event was fundamentally different. There was a feeling among the volunteers that I met that wholesale change was now possible and in their hands. They acknowledged that they lacked experience, but were confident that they could learn, and make a real difference to their communities.

They asked for help to make real successes of their organisations through training and meeting more experienced civil society activists. In time, when the violence is over, when Col Qaddafi is gone and ordinary Libyans all over the country can put themselves to the task of shaping a new Libya, I think these kinds of activists will find helping hands reaching out from all over the world. The UK will be among them.


David Clay is the British envoy to Benghazi