Five years on from the start of Arab revolutions and counterrevolutions, massacres and counter-massacres, we appear to be entering into a prolonged winter of war, political disarray and bewilderment.
Since about 2014, Libya seems to have fallen more into a state of chaos. I have followed the news intensely picking up as much I can about the social, economic and political situation of my country. But this year, summer events took an unexpected turn as I decided to go on a family visit to Tunis, Tunisia to see extended Libyan family members there. It gave me an opportunity to pose questions to my grandmother and aunties about the political situation in Libya, their thoughts over the civil unrest and their vision for the future.
While I sat with my family members to enjoy a lovely cup of tea in tranquil Tunis, I asked to hear about the impact of the 2011 political change on their lives as ordinary Libyan women. One of my aunties spoke passionately about how many Libyans took to the streets to protest against Gaddafi. But she argued that from the start, the ‘revolution’ was hijacked by foreign interference and Islamist fanatics. My other aunties and grandmother stayed rather silent during the conversation. I assumed that this was due to the fact that they have been structurally and actively excluded from political talk since their birth in 1940’s Libya.
As the days went on in beautiful Tunis which reminded me so much of our hometown of Tripoli, my aunties began to open up more about the Libyan crisis. But it was while watching television that we heard about the death of three French soldiers in Benghazi, Libya. The news confirmed that there are French troops actively fighting on Libyan soil providing military support to General Hafter in the fight against terrorism. Shortly, more news came of protests in Tripoli against foreign troops and French neo-colonial interests in Libya. A debate was triggered over French, British and American interests in Libya and their colonial objective to split the country into three separate provinces: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. My ordinary family understood foreign interests in Libya and argued against political calls for a return to Monarchy or military rule. While they dreamed of seeing a more inclusive meritocratic Libya, they looked upon the future of the country with pessimism and powerlessness. The confusion and angst over the future of Libya quickly ended the conversation.
Women in Politics
But during my time in Tunis, I wanted to understand why some of my aunties were apolitical? Why there is no rule of law in the country? Why events have taken a turn for the worst? When I posed these questions, my aunties responded that from a young age, they were forced to leave school and be more involved in domestic affairs. While the work of a mother is valuable, I understood from their comments that the structural exclusion of women from the public sphere did not just happen yesterday. This made me think about the possible correlation between street violence and women’s exclusion from political and decision-making roles.
My aunties narrated tales of massacres, kidnapping and burglary which sent shivers down my spine. The crimes committed left women with no husbands, a child with no father and a mother with no son or daughter. My aunty told me the tragic tale of her sister whose husband was killed in a hit and run attack as he walked out of his local masjid. The perpetrator continued to drive on leaving him dead on the ground. This hit and run attack left behind a wife, four children and a wounded family. My aunty shook as she remembered the tragedy, but she knew that the pain will endure as her family will never receive justice for his death. In fact, I am probably the only person on the planet who is narrating this tragic tale which is most likely the tale of many other ordinary Libyan women.
We then discussed why some Libyans are committing such atrocious crimes against other Libyans, but my aunties were distraught and perplexed by it all. One of my aunties was well aware that the militia groups in different areas of Libya only assisted western interference to further divide the country into separate provinces, using the argument that the populace cannot live together or that they are incapable of self-determination.
But when I began to reflect on some of the other stories my grandmother was telling me about domestic violence, female subjugation and exclusion from education, I realised that the violence in the country is not inexplicable. It is obvious that if there is no justice in the household, there will not be justice outside of the household. For many years, in many families across Libya, domestic violence was perpetrated with no repercussions. To me, it does not make sense to argue that the violence on the streets today has erupted out of nowhere. But of course, more sociological research ought to be conducted to further understand and substantiate this potential correlation.
As our visit to Tunis drew to a close, I further reflected on the need for greater work to be done on cultural anthropology in Libya, the escalations of violence, the structural exclusion of women [not from elite families] from the public sphere and the extent to which forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. I lamented on the desperate need for more filmmakers, artists, journalists, writers, activists and “ordinary” citizens to rise up to assert themselves as social and cultural ambassadors of their country.
A more pressing kind of dialogue
But when I talk of social and cultural ambassadors or peacebuilders, I do not mean for the purpose of engaging with a Western audience. As Libyans execute their fellow Libyans, as social discourse becomes increasingly tribal, as neo-colonial ambitions further seek to divide the country, as the fight against so-called Islamic state continues, and as the male-dominated political system displays its powerlessness in the face of western military prowess, it seems that what Libyans so desperately need is to better communicate with one another. There is a pressing need for mediums through which Libyans can come to better understand the history of their country, the roots of their differences, the socio-cultural diversity of their populace in order to progress.
Questions without answers
While many of my questions were answered, I left Tunis with many questions unanswered. The only comment that echoes in my mind is the pessimism of my uncle at the future of Libya and of the Arabs in general. The reality of this pessimism hit me hard and with such negativity, one can only ask: Where do you go?