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Starting from scratch: Libyans struggle to build a civil society

Libyans believe that civil society organizations are vital to their fledgling democracy, but civic groups are having a hard time getting funding and developing know-how.

By Correspondent / July 17, 2012

A Libyan woman walks through the ruins in Sirte, Libya, Monday, July 16. Sirte, the hometown of the country's late dictator Muammar Qaddafi and the last regime stronghold to fall during the revolution last year still suffers from the effects of the Libyan civil war.

Manu Brabo/AP

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Tripoli, Libya

It was a hot, still afternoon last week in Tripoli when three young men entered a four-star hotel on the waterfront armed with a letter. It began with a Quranic verse about God’s favor toward the righteous: "Whatever good you prepare for yourselves, you will find it with God, better and greater in reward."

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The men belonged to the Child and Promise Association, a new child welfare group that is part of post-Qaddafi Libya’s fledgling civil society. They hoped to use the hotel garden for a fundraising dinner. 

Interim leaders say civil society is vital to repairing a country ravaged by dictatorship. But while civic groups are at last able to operate freely, they now face a struggle for know-how and cash. 

“They are needed almost everywhere,” says Atia Lawgali, deputy minister of culture and civil society. “In rebuilding our institutions, to encourage people’s participation, to fight corruption, to name only a few areas.” 

Libya inherited those challenges and others from Muammar Qaddafi, who dismantled state institutions after seizing power in 1969 and crushed civic ones. Political parties and trade unions were banned, while civil society groups needed 50 members and a thorough vetting by security services for permission to operate. In recent years Qaddafi’s family members created pro-regime NGOs that swallowed up public funds while public services sank into ruin, says Mr. Lawgali.

When war began peeling back Qaddafi’s regime, new charities – often groups of friends and neighbors – arose to help organize, feed, and educate Libyans. Interim authorities want those groups to keep working, says Lamia Abusedra, a board member of a state support center for NGOs that will open soon in Benghazi, with branches around Libya. 

But many groups who registered with authorities have shut down for lack of direction or means, she says. The new center will offer services, including training in management, project planning, and fundraising.

“They played a great role in the revolution, but it’s difficult to say now who is still up and running,” she says. “We’re very worried that the energy we’ve seen in civil society could fade out.” A "delay" in public funding – because “some groups don’t want public funding without a transparent mechanism that is fair for all” – also poses an obstacle, Abusedra says. 

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