Comment & analysis

Civil society under threat in Libya

2 December 2014 Léonie Northedge, Kate Nevens

In November 2014, three young social media activists were beheaded by a militant group in Derna, a port city in eastern Libya. This brutal act marks the latest in a bout of targeted killings of human rights and youth activists, say Leonie Northedge and Kate Nevens, and threatens to extinguish the country’s nascent civil society movement, and with it, Libya’s hopes for an inclusive political process.

Siraj Ghatish, Mohamed Battu and Mohamed al-Mesmari kept their online profiles low while trying to spread news of what was happening in their city of Derna, which had come under the control of the extremist Islamic Youth Shoura Council. The activists’ bodies were found in the outskirts of the city, three months after being abducted. To date no groups have claimed responsibility for the deaths.

While beheadings remain unusual in Libya, these deaths represent a wider trend of targeted killings of civil society activists in Libya, including members of the judiciary and the media. In September, two young activists were among 14 victims killed in Benghazi: a day now known to local activists as ‘Black Friday’. As in Derna, no groups have claimed responsibility for these acts, and Libyan authorities have done little to investigate let alone prosecute, creating what Human Rights Watch describes as a ‘culture of impunity’. It is estimated that in July and August 2014, at least one activist, journalist or lawyer was killed every day in Libya, including the prominent human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, who was assassinated in June 2014 shortly after she voted in Libya’s parliamentary elections.

Assassinations are one symptom of the unravelling of Libya’s post-revolutionary transition process into a violent power struggle. The country is now controlled by a patchwork of militias, with rival groups erupting increasingly frequently into violent clashes and intensive bouts of fighting. Groups which acquired weapons, wealth and power after the revolution are not willing to lose what they have gained, and while the dynamics of the violence differs across the country, there is a common thread of impunity and lack of accountability. In Tripoli, following intensive rounds of fighting, the ‘Libya Dawn’ militia, opposed to the new parliament eventually prevailed and has set up a rival government. Meanwhile, the country’s second city of Benghazi is being torn apart by fighting between Islamist militias and forces led by Gaddafi-era general Khalifa Heftar.

Despite the ever-heightening conflict, the targeting of civil society activists among all the violence still comes as a shock. Understandably, Libyans are increasingly nervous of speaking out in public, in fear of recriminations by the militias. ‘Any criticism of the status quo is implied criticism of the militias’, Elham Saudi, director of Libyan Lawyers for Justice, told an audience at Chatham House recently, ‘If you criticise a militia, you won’t wake up the next day’.

This has a particular impact on the most marginalised groups, including youth and women. Even before the recent violence, insecurity was a major obstacle to broad participation in the political process. In research undertaken by Saferworld in 2013, Libyan women across the country reported that the prevalence of small arms, tribal and ethnic conflicts, and the threat of kidnapping limited their ability to participate fully in public life, making them afraid to travel outside of their local area. The current trend of targeting women for their activism, such as Salwa Bugaighis, only pushes women further from the public sphere. Similarly, Libya’s fledgling youth movements feel particularly under threat. “We fear the proliferation of arms among militias, which may result in our youth being killed” Malek al-Sharif, the founder of Libya’s Rejection Movement told Al Monitor, though he notes this has only increased their determination to achieve change.

Libya’s civil society, which grew rapidly into the political space opened by the end of the Gaddafi regime, is now fighting to survive. Libyans interviewed by Saferworld in 2013 estimated that half of those active in civil society were women, and many youth groups flourished in the wake of the revolution. In providing youth, women and other marginalised groups with a voice at the community and national level, civil society has played an important role in Libya, and continues to represent an important resource for the country’s future. If this resource is silenced, Libya will face a longer road to peace.

Leonie Northedge is Saferworld’s Egypt and Libya programme manager. Kate Nevens is Head of Saferworld’s Middle East and North Africa programme.


“Libya’s civil society, which grew rapidly into the political space opened by the end of the Gaddafi regime, is now fighting to survive.”

Kate Nevens and Leonie Northedge, Saferworld