One of the great things about my job is that I get to meet people who contribute to social change from a million different angles. But of all the people I’ve met through my work at Mercy Corps, few have been as inspiring as a group of activists I met in Benghazi during a trip to Libya last week.
Benghazi, you will recall, was the birthplace of a revolution that ended the 42-year rule of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi last October, and when you look at what these people accomplished it is stunning.
I am ashamed to admit that until my trip last week I tended to lump Libya’s transition in with the transitions of its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia: After a decades-long dictatorship, people finally got fed up, took to the streets in huge numbers and brought down the regime — and are now struggling to figure out what comes next.
But this trip reminded me that Libya was different. Libyans fought an eight-month war that involved heavy NATO bombing, caused thousands of deaths, and temporarily displaced hundreds of thousands of people. So, for all the jubilation over Qaddafi’s demise, it’s also clear this is a place and a population in the early stages of a long recovery after a traumatic conflict.
That’s why I found these Benghazi activists so humbling. They took huge risks to overthrow Qaddafi, and they all endured hardship of varying degrees. But especially in Benghazi, there was an energy and optimism that made a stable, thriving democracy seem within reach.
In discussing the bumpy road down which the interim government — known as the National Transitional Council — is going toward an election and constitution, a human rights advocate told me, “The costs of the war were so high. We must push for [a government system] that honors the price we paid.”
One activist asked what advice we had for social-change advocates in Libya. I answered that I thought one of the foundations of activism is a belief that you can do the impossible, and that in overthrowing Gaddafi they’d actually demonstrated for activists all over the world how it’s done.
Still, there is hard work ahead to make big cultural shifts.
A fiercely bearded but friendly ex-rebel fighter named Ramadan started an organization to help engage women in post-Qaddafi public life. “There’s nothing in Islam that says women shouldn’t go out and seek opportunities,” he said, noting that it was broader Libyan society, not Gaddafi, who had limited the role of women in the past and would still need to open up. His friend, a student who started a youth organization, deadpanned that the revolution had been terrible for women: “All my girlfriend talks about now is politics, politics, politics!” He was clearly proud.
I am pleased to say Mercy Corps has played a role in supporting this stage of the Libyan political transition. We run a resource center in Benghazi that brings advocates ("civil society actors," in development-speak) together, gives them a place to meet and helps train them how to organize in a peaceful way, in a more open society.
Gaddafi allowed no public discourse, and the country has no recent history of participatory decision-making, so these next stages will be critical to a establishing a stable, democratic Libya.