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Present at the birth of Libya's civil society

There is a lot unknown in Benghazi today. Nobody knows for sure how long Benghazi can function without paid salaries. Nobody knows how temporary the transitional national council will be. And nobody knows what a post-Qaddafi Libya will look like.

My first day in Benghazi it became clear that for activists here there were two solid knowns that trumped all the unknowns. First, Qaddafi's days were numbered. Graffiti on concrete walls sprayed in red paint read "game over." People repeatedly explained to me that there was no half revolution, and the only successful ending was one without Qaddafi or his loyalists. This was about life and death, they emphasized. If Qaddafi were to stay, then Benghazi would share the same fate as Al Zawiyah.

Second, the key for Libyan success was the development of a third sector - civil society. The one thing that everyone seems to know is for Libya to develop a sustainable model for democracy, civil society needs to be ready to step up. There was an unprecedented confidence in the transitional governance to develop a transparent and open process that would lead to a democratic government. There was no doubt that companies would be eager to invest in Libya and develop a strong private sector. It was the development of a civil society that made people anxious.

The anxiety did not come from absence of individuals ready to play the role. It is only a few months after the start of the revolution and a network of NGOs has already formed with over seventy active organizations. Although no formal registration process is required, the NGOs are coordinated through the Public Engagement Committee (PEC).

There is also no lack of political will. A three hour symposium organized by National Committee for Charity and Humanitarian Assistance focused on the role of civil society, and the challenges facing organizations in Benghazi. "Human capacity development" was the buzz word in my series of meetings. Beyond the formal organizations, Libyans boasted about the spirit of volunteerism that spread across the city. Almost everyone working is being paid a symbolic salary of an insignificant rate, in kind, or none at all.

One of the main speakers at the symposium outlined the important characteristics needed for a healthy civil society: social responsibility, independence from government institutions, clear vision, and spirit of providing services. There was also a call for civil society to be prepared to be part of the constitution process, and urged citizens to write articles and host town hall meetings. The main message repeated was to have a strong democracy, you would need to have a strong civil society.

This was a message everyone could agree on. Yet the main question on people's mind was what would that look like and how do you get started? The questions from the individuals that attended indicated a desire to go beyond general concepts, and to an understanding of how that translated into implementation. It was clear that the three hour workshop could not quench the thirst for information.

Dr. Adil Anayba, a Professor of Network Communication at Ger Younos University, explained to me, "For over forty years we have been taught that society is only one color. Now we are being told that there is the potential for a multicolor society. This is exciting, but we do not know where to start?" Dr. Anayba wants to learn more about the process: how do you build communities, institutions, agree on a code of conduct, and define the boundaries with government. For him and many others, these questions remain unanswered. The synergy is built around an agreement that there is a New Libya. The anxiety is from not knowing where to start.

Another participant pointed out that the removal of Qaddafi would not be the end of the road. He believed that Qaddafi not only erased institutions, but also psychologically damaged the Libyan community. This was a crucial element that Iraqi's learned later in the game. Whereas the international community rushed to build capacity of organizations, there was a failure to deconstruct the Baathist mentality that had been programmed into every Iraqi citizen's psyche. This manifested into a civil society that was initially built on a fragmented infrastructure. The response from Attia Awujale, director of the National Committee for Charity and Humanitarian Assistance, was that these issues could not be addressed by the new government put in place. This is the role for civil society.

Attia Awjale, head of the division at NTC, emphasized that the new Libya that was emerging would need to shift their image of government. Under the Qaddafi government, everything was under central control. The transition council is meant to shepherd a process that would foster a climate for mass participation. The new Libyan government needs to have a strong counterpart in civil society, one that would keep them honest.

So the yet to be born civil society has already been tasked with an enormous mission. It is daunting. Najla Mangoush, the director of the National Transitional Council's Public Engagement Committee admits she also does not know where to begin. A lawyer by training, her heart lies within civil society. "The concept of civil society is new for all of Libya. We are trying to respond one step at a time."

Khaled Zeyo, a Professor of Law at Ger Younos University and a recently appointed member of the NTC's Constitutional Committee, felt that incorporating civil society into the process would be a challenge.

"Civil society is still in a crawling stage," he explained. "It will take time, and the achievements will be incremental. In the meantime, we will create town hall meetings to ensure they have a platform to input into the process."

Najah, co-founder of Libya Outreach, explained the technical skill set needed to have an active civil society is missing.. While those skills and institutions are being developed, Najah explains, "The most important element now is to have Libyan communities - both formal and informal - feed into the process. We do not need to have advanced organizations, just a simple process where Libyan citizens can feel they are being heard, and they have an opportunity to input into the process"

Despite frustrations, Benghazi activists are doing well for themselves. For a community stating they have no concept of civil society, their progress is impressive. The very recognition of the gaps is an important starting point. A Libyan physicians documentation of victims of rape led to an international outcry against Qaddafi's use of rape as a tool of war. Libyan NGOs could argue their work on capturing the on going Qaddafi abuses was a crucial case of the International Criminal Court case against Qaddafi which recently led to ICC issuing an arrest warrant. The creation of the Public Engagement Committee was the result of pressure from within and among the diaspora to create a platform for interaction between the communities and the Council.

The symposium was another response from the council attended by over 300 people. The PEC already held its first national NGO fair on May 21st The primary objective was to link the newly formed organizations with one another, as well with the international community present in Benghazi.. This indicates a potential for a Libyan civil society to find a strong voice.

In response to a question about the citizen's role in government, Awujale responded, the transitional council welcomes your comments and recommendations, but even more, welcomes your criticism.

Such a statement coming from a government official emphasized the new chapter in Libyan history. The unspoken question was how the rhetoric would translate into reality. The meeting was cut short with the sound of a loud explosion, followed by several rebel forces rushing out of the conference room. Shortly after, it was announced that a series of car bombs had just exploded outside the hotel Tibetsi. A loud reminder that although people insisted Qaddafi's days were numbered, it remains unknown how high and for how long.

Bio: Manal Omar is Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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