Over the past year, there has been a troubling increase in attacks by armed groups, security forces affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior, and internal security on civic organizations, activists, journalists, and citizens exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. This alarming trend indicates the growing power and influence of armed groups and their political allies, which today reflects the emergence of a well-established shadow of absolute authoritarianism. In the words of Jacques Mallet du Pan, “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children” and the Libyan uprising has done just that, consuming entire communities and fueling violence and chaos.
This paper is not a lamentation of the 2011 revolution; as a child of that revolution, I seek to tell the story of the powerful rebirth and struggle of civil society in Libya, and why it must be protected.
To understand the importance of protecting civil society, it is crucial to consider the circumstances in which it remerged and the environment in which it tried to operate after 2011, with the opening of a space for civic activism. It is also crucial to shed light on how civil society’s agenda was directly influenced by the inexperience of its actors and the international community’s interest in expediting elections to showcase a successful intervention. This became evident in the support given to civil society in the months leading up to the elections of the General National Congress, while transitional governments bolstered armed groups to support political positions.
In the years following the relapse in the civil war in 2014, Libyan civil society responded to various crises and a humanitarian agenda dominated by the “European” issue of migration from the south, counterproductive anti-terrorism policies, and hundreds of armed groups affiliated with different governments operating with complete impunity. Despite facing numerous competing interests and violently repressive circumstances, Libyan civil society continues to contribute in different ways to make the best of the resources at hand, by delivering much-needed services, documenting violations, or addressing the multitude of social issues such as reconciliation, economic development, and displacement.
For any potential political process or development aimed at stabilizing to succeed, it is key that civic spaces are restored and protected. Transitional governments must guarantee freedom of expression. In light of these considerations, this paper concludes with recommendations for the protection and inclusion of civil society actors.
Re-birth in War
In 2011, Libyan civil society re-emerged after decades of repression under the Gaddafi regime, during which no independent civic organizations existed. After the uprising, then-nascent civil society had to navigate the complex realities of directly working amid armed conflicts and humanitarian crises. In the early phase between March and October 2011, organizations mainly focused on providing much-needed relief and humanitarian assistance to the displaced and refugees affected by the war. They also coordinated medical and food assistance with the liberated areas. This work was instrumental in connecting the opposition with diverse communities across the country. It was a rocky beginning filled with tremendous challenges; however, civil society organizations were registered by hundreds and mobilized for the planned elections in 2012 for the General National Congress.
In 2012-2013, the priorities of civil society centered on post-war reconstruction efforts, with a focus on drafting the constitution, transitional justice, addressing social issues of the marginalization of indigenous groups, and advocating for women’s rights. In the years that followed, there was a resurgence of civic organizations. According to a report released by the United Nations Development Fund and the United Nations Children Fund, nearly 1,000 civil society organizations were active in the five cities of Libya: Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, Zuwara, and Zawia. This shows that Libya had an active, vibrant, and diverse civil society at the time and demonstrates a commitment to from Libyans to contribute to the development of the country.
Despite their limited experience, civil society organizations played a key role in the successful conduct of the first election in Libya. Individuals and groups participated in observing elections, training, and raising public engagement awareness. The political engagement of Libyan civil society in the 2012 elections demonstrated great potential and yielded results and was rooted in a sense of hope and ownership to build a country that respects its citizens’ rights, ensures freedom from oppression, and fosters economic prosperity.
During 2012-2013, civil society enjoyed access to public spaces and was experiencing increasing growth. Activities took many forms, including protests, capacity-building programs, advocacy work, and lobbying. Several organizations focused on political issues, particularly monitoring the decisions and discussions of the elected General National Congress. This highlights the important role that civil society plays in scrutinizing government performance and ensuring that the political process proceeds in line with democratic principles. However, this space was not uniform throughout Libya. It flourished mainly in Tripoli and Benghazi while conflicts persisted in other areas; people disappeared or were detained and violated for association with Gaddafi’s regime, and the wave of assassinations in Benghazi began in earnest. This campaign targeted a variety of actors, including military figures, activists, and civilians, with the highest number of deaths occurring in 2014, reaching a total of 1,471 deaths. This violent environment did not deter activists and journalists from speaking out, documenting the violations committed by various state-affiliated security forces, Libyan Arab Armed Forces, Islamist militias, and groups affiliated with the Islamic State. They continued to demand reforms in order to establish laws and orders.
The Return to War
Civil society’s situation shifted drastically during the 2014 Civil War. The escalating tensions between competing political camps in Tripoli eventually led to a resumption of armed conflict after the June 2014 election. Many accounts of the events of that summer paint a binary picture of factions aligning themselves in two opposing camps, Libya Dawn and Libya Dignity. However, alliances during this period were multilayered, temporary, and driven by common interests in specific local conflicts. On 16 May 2014 Khalifa Haftar, a former officer in Gaddafi’s military who had defected during the Libya-Chad War in the 1970s and returned in 2011, launched Operation Libya Dignity in Benghazi to end the prevalent violence in the city. As Haftar’s campaign progressed, it extended beyond Benghazi, targeting the capital, Tripoli, in a bid to consolidate his power. Haftar’s supporters stormed the parliament of Tripoli.
As a result, the space available for civil society organizations shrank considerably, and many activists were actively targeted and assassinated. This has driven civil society organizations to cease their operations or operate underground, which subsequently reduced the visibility of their work on political issues. The focus shifted back to humanitarian aid, relief work, and service delivery, which fostered a new perception of civil society’s role in the context of a failed central government.
The 2014 war further exacerbated the division between the Eastern and Western regions of Libya, adding to geographical distance and poor infrastructure. Security concerns have prevented Libyans from traveling between regions, further deepening the divide. This pushed civil society to conduct projects in neighboring Tunisia, where they would meet to discuss their work and gain skills that would aid their projects inside their home country. Civil society organizations in the diaspora either operated partially abroad or were members of networks that maintained a presence on the ground while overseeing or assisting in project implementation. This allowed actors from across the country to convene on neutral grounds and collaborate on various issues. However, the relocation of civil society’s projects away from the rest of society may have partly contributed to the spread of misinformation about Libyan civil society within the wider public opinion.
Nonetheless, the presence of civil society in Tunisia provided it with an opportunity to contribute to peace talks in 2016, a process led by the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The lobbying and advocacy of civil society organizations and groups were vital for the apolitical agreement that sought to address the root causes of the conflict. The recommendations put forth by civil society had a significant impact on the final agreement. For instance, as a result, a women empowerment unit was included in an article of the agreement, as well as a series of articles introduced to address youth grievances, including provisions related to economic opportunities and the need for disarmament.
Formal Restrictions and the Migration to Online Space
The actions and impacts of Libyan civil society throughout a decade of conflict warrants further research and analysis. However, it is evident that civil society actors played vital roles in filling the gaps created by warring governments. This raised concerns within government authorities and led to the adoption of a regulation list in 2016 aimed at restricting and monitoring civic organizations. These measures, along with the forced disappearances, harassment of civic engagements, and a tendency within society to blame issues of national security on the wrong party, further contributed to the erosion of civic space. The service delivery functions of civil society were exploited by international aid organizations, which led to the dominance of the development agenda of external actors. This fostered a competitive environment that partly hindered solidarity among civic organizations and led to competition over funding, and favoritism towards established organizations, which caused a big part of civil society to be just implementers rather than active agents of change.
The inability of civil society organizations to access public spaces or work on issues considered “sensitive” by the various political factions and armed groups, including issues such as gender-based violence, sexual violence, liberal political ideologies, and individual freedoms. This censorship has led many youth initiatives to move their activities to the online space between 2016 and 2019. Civic engagement and the use of social media have sparked controversy regarding the effectiveness of online activism in driving meaningful change. In Libya, social media provided a much-needed platform for many youth projects to discuss and raise awareness of various social and political issues related to rights and identities. However, during Haftar’s War on Tripoli in 2019, which polarized civil society, the online space quickly became riddled with misinformation. This context of conflict was also exploited by the Government of the National Accord to issue counterterrorism decree No. 578 of 2020. The decree granted a notorious armed group, the Special Deterrence Force, also known as Radaa, the authority to determine what constitutes a security risk online and to make arrests accordingly.
In September 2022, the House of Representatives doubled down on the online space by issuing the “Anti-Cybercrime”. This legislation grants the Libyan authorities the power to conceal and block all digital content deemed to be causing “strife” or to promote “ideas that undermine society's security, stability and social peace.” The wording of this provision of the law is vague and open to interpretation, leaving significant discretion of the security forces in its enforcement. The timing of the issuance of the law culminated in the arrests and online harassment of activists and journalists.
The Government of National Unity in Libya took further steps to restrict civil society by proposing a new freedom of association regulation in July 2021. Under the new proposal, existing NGOs were required to register with the government instead of the Commission of Civil Society which was the authority responsible for officially registering civil society organizations under the previous law 19/2001. The new regulation includes provisions that would give the government the authority to reject NGO registrations and prevent them from opening bank accounts. NGOs are also required to obtain permission before accepting donations and communicating with international NGOs, including the UN. As a result, only civil society organizations implementing projects for international organizations complied with these regulations. Due to the weak enforcement of the central government, many organizations chose not to comply with these regulations, despite the risk of harassment and arrest.
On 8 March 2023, a legal opinion held by the Law Department of the High Judicial Council considered all civic institutions registered after 2011 (except those registered under Gaddafi’s Law No. 19 of 2001), to be invalid, therefore, effectively ending independent civic organizations and individual freedoms. The government quickly followed suit on 13 March when the Director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation at the Office of the Prime Minister for the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Libya issued Circular No. 5803, instructing Libya’s Civil Society Commission to revoke the licenses given to all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) established in 2011.
Surviving to exist
The environment in which civil society in Libya tries to survive is increasingly hostile and challenging. It is marked by a deliberate political campaign to end freedoms, the presence of hundreds of armed groups operating with complete impunity, and an international development support that does not always align with the needs and priorities of local civil society. Added to this is the significant challenge of the negative attitude of Libyan communities towards civic organizations, a result of years of smearing campaigns and a lingering legacy of mistrust that stems from Gaddafi’s era that was suspicious of anyone collaborating with foreign actors.
Twelve years after the civil war, various governments continued to be the primary perpetrators of violations against civilians. Civil society has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in ensuring that such crimes are not forgotten, and that justice is eventually served for victims, even in a lawless environment like Libya.
To achieve this, it is imperative to provide urgent support and protection for Libyan civil society by establishing structures and mechanisms that hold political and military leaders accountable for their treatment of civil society organizations and their activities. The international community must condition any work conducted for current or future political processes on the protection and support of civic organizations. International organizations and the donor community should prioritize the safety and protection of activists in their programming initiative and use their influence on the government to advocate for the release of those in detention and an end to the arrest campaigns. Libyan civil society should be treated as an equal stakeholder in political dialogues, ensuring their adequate inclusion and participation.
It is also essential for Libyan civil society in the diaspora to unite its efforts and collaborate to protect and advocate for organizations and activists operating in Libya. Solidarity among various civic actors is crucial, and a national strategy must be adopted to combat this authoritarian challenge faced by civil society. While very few would dispute that change must be driven by Libyans themselves, actors who engage in efforts to promote stability in the country must re-evaluate their approach and reconsider the factors that would yield lasting stability and who should be on the table to discuss it.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.