SWM 2015: Libya - Hopes and fears in cities after the fall of Gaddafi

Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)

Case study by Sarah El-Ashmawy

Of all the North African countries undergoing political change in the wake of the Arab spring, Libya has perhaps experienced the most uncertain and difficult transition. Since the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from power after decades of authoritarian rule, Libya’s cities have been characterized by rising political discord and armed opposition. Despite a government decision in September 2012 to outlaw armed militias, security has collapsed across the country. At present, the country is divided between the elected Council of Deputies, the rival Islamist General National Congress (GNC) established in Tripoli in August 2014 and a number of armed militant groups, including the Libyan wing of ISIS. Cities have been at the heart of the fight for power, and continue to be seen by all sides as crucial to their legitimacy.

In July 2014, the situation had deteriorated to the extent that the GNC had lost the capital Benghazi to the armed Islamist group Ansar Al Shari’a, which by October had also extended its territorial control all the way to the port of Derna in eastern Libya. The seizure of Tripoli by another armed Islamist group, Dawn of Libya, the closure of Tripoli’s international airport and the departure of UN staff from their local offices in the following months seemed to mark the highest point of the Libyan government crisis. At the end of 2014, the Libyan army’s offensive allowed it to regain control over Benghazi and Derna, and reinstalled the appearance of stability as a ceasefire was declared between the Libyan government and the Tripoli-based armed alliance.

When considering Libya’s minorities and its urban centres, the plight of the displaced Tawerghans must be remembered. In a form of collective punishment, 40,000 people were forced to flee Tawergha by Misrata-based militias during the 2011 revolution, after forces loyal to Gaddafi used the town as a base to shell Misrata. The Tawerghans, who constitute a visible ethnic minority, continue to live a precarious existence in makeshift shelters without access to essential services, and remain exposed to attacks and harassment. And Tawergha itself remains a ghost town.

Considering Libya’s geography, resources and model of economic development, it is not surprising that Libyan cities are at the heart of the civil conflict. With 90 per cent of its territory categorized as desert or semi-desert, Libya’s largely urbanized population – more than three-quarters are based in towns and cities – are concentrated in Tripoli, Benghazi and other settlements close to its coastline. The rise of Islamist militancy, increasingly violent, has transformed urban public spaces into battlegrounds for the country’s identity. Tripoli, for instance, once considered the most liberal city of Libya, has transformed dramatically since August 2014 and is increasing inhospitable for much of the population. Women, for instance, are increasingly unable to go out in public without a chaperone, while the city’s Sufi population has been subjected to a number of attacks, including the April 2015 bombing of the Al-Quds mosque. Against a backdrop of intensifying urban violence, ethnic and religious minorities are more vulnerable than ever, particularly in the wake of the February 2015 beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts by ISIS militants.

What makes this especially painful is the fact that, in the first months following Gaddafi’s ouster, Tripoli and other Libyan cities were hubs of freedom and optimism for previously silenced minorities. One Amazigh activist interviewed by MRG describes how Tripoli in the wake of the revolution offered extraordinary space for diversity and expression. ‘For the Amazigh’, she says, ‘this revolution brought hope that we would be able to exercise our social and cultural rights, teach our language in schools and practice our art.’ Among other achievements, this period saw the launch of Libya’s first television show in the Tamazight language from Tripoli. The early promise of equality, however, never materialized. ‘Nothing has changed – we are still discriminated against.’

Amid ongoing violence, however, there have been some small signs of progress, at least symbolically. In 2014, for instance, the adopted Libyan Constitution officially recognized the Tebu, Touareg and Amazigh communities as ethnic minorities. Though important progress, authorities must now prioritize security in Libya’s cities to ensure the country’s development and long-term stability. With the rise of extremist groups, the importance of social cohesion and shared values is more important than ever. ‘Libyans have to all stand together in unity, including the common man who is not politicized,’ the Amazigh activist says. ‘The question is what is going to happen in Libya now that ISIS has reached us.’

Photo: Amazigh girl

Credit: Essa Elhamise

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Date: 17/06/2015




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015

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Name: Sarah El Ashmawy

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