x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Libyans debate future, but after being stifled so long, words don't come easily

A group of Tripoli suburbanites begins to build a civil society after four decades of Qaddafi rule when political parties were banned.

TRIPOLI // The regime of Muammar Qaddafi was three weeks gone, and Salah Ingab, wearing a crisp striped shirt and rebel-flag pin, was readying a suburban conference room for another revolution of sorts.

"A first step toward civil society," said Mr Ingab, 29, a medical student who helped organise a public meeting to discuss Libya's future this month in his Tripoli neighbourhood, Sihiya.

In Tunisia and Egypt, whose revolutions inspired Libya's revolt, civic groups existed to help rebuild society. But in Libya, the near-absolute rule of Colonel Qaddafi has left a barren civic landscape.

His overthrow last month has freed Libyans to debate their country's direction, with the stakes already high: Libya remains plagued by instability.

Mr Ingab and his six fellow members of the February 17 Forum, an informal discussion group, hope that civic activism can help make a difference.

"We don't have ways to express our opinions, since the regime controlled media and the education system," Mr Ingab said. "We want people who don't have access to media to be able to discuss their problems."

On September 18, three dozen Libyans who met in a former government administration building in Sihiya traded views on issues from security and health care to the relationship between citizens and the state.

One question above all preoccupied them: Libyans' ability to decide their future after four decades of brutal top-down rule by Colonel Qaddafi.

"We need to go forward with civility. We knew hardship for four centuries," one woman said to laughter as she also laughed and corrected herself. "I mean four decades, but it feels like four centuries," she said.

Participants - young and old, and nearly half women - were seated at tables that circled the room. Organisers invited them to name issues that they considered priorities.

"Weapons," said schoolteacher Sabra Abeti, 30. "There are too many people with weapons."

Tripoli has been inundated with small arms since National Transitional Council (NTC) militias took over last month. While checkpoints and celebratory gunfire have diminished, NTC leaders are still keen to round up guns.

"I have a small proposition," Ms Abeti said. "Cash in return for handing in weapons, with the amount going down the longer people delay."

"We need to start thinking strategically," said Hala El Misrati, a business consultant. "Dialogue is crucial, but we don't know the language of dialogue. There are places in Tripoli where people don't know how to debate."

Sihiya, an upscale district of villas and shade trees, does not appear to be such a place. As the meeting continued, debate turned increasingly from social problems to society itself.

"As John Kennedy said: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country'," said Abdulrazzag Turki, an engineering adviser . "Qaddafi colonised our thoughts, but the world has seen that we have minds of our own."

The room stilled as the floor passed to Issa Abudaia, a veteran activist from Libya's Amazigh, or Berber, minority.

"You talk of dialogue, but we don't have such a thing as a political back-and-forth," he said.

Under Colonel Qaddafi, political parties were banned along with trade unions and any other civic group deemed a potential threat to his regime. Today the closest thing Libya has to a government is the NTC, a sometimes fractious coalition of pro-western liberals, Islamists and regime defectors.

"The question remains what tasks should be left to the transitional council," said the human-rights consultant Bassam Aissah. "But I believe the first question is our own role in this transitional period. And our role is to make civil society work."

For now, charities are working to help those injured and displaced by war. Vans from Libya's blood bank are parked in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square; another group is compiling data on missing persons.

"We need to think of the revolutionary fighters," said Fouad Abu Doya, an agriculturalist and fighter from the western city of Nalut. "For six months they've seen rockets, blood and death. Their psychological state has been affected."

Mr Abu Doya handed off to Hannane Slimane, a young secretary in a chartreuse headscarf.

"I need to mention a certain issue, and that is rape," she said. "This issue is important and I hope ..." - she searched for words - "I just hope that something will be done about it."

Human Rights Watch said this week that it had documented nine alleged rapes apparently by pro-Qaddafi forces and one by unidentified perpetrators between February and May.

There were several more comments and the meeting drew to a close. The participants filed out into the balmy night.

Mr Ingab and the other members of the February 17 Forum lingered in the conference room, reflecting. They were four young men and three young women embarking on something new.

Should they engage with NTC officials? How could they contact Libyan media? And where was it all going?

For Mr Ingab, they had already begun to achieve what was once a dream. "To let people talk," he said. "Just talk."