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.

Manu Brabo/AP
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.

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."

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. 

Authorities are currently ironing out policy on giving state support to civil society groups without threatening their independence or allowing abuse of funds, says Lawgali. For now, many are seeking private donors.

For the Child and Promise Association, founded in March, that quest led to the swanky Tripoli hotel. 

Association founders Talal Giuma, and Mohamed Benazzouz volunteered for years at Tripoli's main hospital, where Mr. Benazzouz is a part-time general surgeon. 

“Every day we saw children suffering,” says Mr. Giuma, a social worker. “We want to do something to help end it.”

The two men have big dreams – from a cultural center to a children’s cancer treatment facility – but little experience and no money. They hope to raise support with a dinner for Libyan and United Nations officials, diplomats, and businessmen, but first they need a venue.

Mr. Giuma and Mr. Benazzouz took seats in the hotel lobby while member Abubaker Bhih was dispatched to see the manager. The minutes ticked by. Outside, waves were rolling gently over a line of rocks offshore where some children were swimming. 

Finally Mr. Bhih returned. They could have the garden for free, he said, but the manager wanted 3,000 dinars for the catering. 

 “3,000 dinars…” Giuma said, trailing off.

It was the third hotel they had tried. The scene of quiet frustration was captured, as if in still-life, by a large wall mirror.

How the Libyan Women's Forum found funds

Shahrazad Magrabi, a former state-owned oil company employee, has taken a different route. Her group, the Libyan Woman’s Forum, found support abroad for training female candidates to run in congressional elections held earlier this month.

“In Libya, the culture of giving to civil society is absent,” she says, explaining why she looked elsewhere. “Qaddafi ruined it. If I ask for money, people assume I will misuse it."

The group, which meets in cafes because it lacks an office, has been shortlisted for a United Nations grant for a women’s education center. In the meantime, Mrs. Magrabi emailed the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR), a Tunis-based women’s group. An invitation to Tunis followed.

Mrs. Magrabi made the day-long trip in March with a fellow Libyan Woman’s Forum member and the latter’s husband in his taxi.

“For two days they tested us,” she says. “They asked about the forum, had us meet all their people. Finally they asked about project proposals.”

CAWTAR ultimately paid for and helped run an ice-breaker meeting and two of three workshops where women candidates got crash courses in electoral politics and public speaking. Magrabi says she learned two major lessons: one, to divide her group into teams based on their tasks and second, that you don't need many people to accomplish something.

"One person can work as hard as 100 if he or she is focused," she says. 

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