The conflict is a complex one since it is drawn along ideological, religious, regional and ethnic lines, with shifting alliances and an uncertain stance by the international community—all of which has made peace deals almost impossible to implement. Warfare has destroyed an already fragile urban infrastructure while the health sector has been neglected and underfunded for decades. Added to this, research has shown that COVID-19 outbreaks largely start in urban centers: Libya is one of the most urbanized countries on the continent. Needless to say, there was a palpable sense of trepidation among Libyan citizens at the havoc that COVID-19 could wreak on their healthcare system.
Despite these odds, four months after the pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March, the rate of infection in Libya has been kept at low levels. Although it is difficult to determine the exact number of people who have contracted the virus due to limited testing, the anticipated additional strain on hospitals did not materialize. Lockdown was eased during Ramadan as private business owners scrambled to reopen before the Eid holiday (at the end of May), convinced that the curve was flattened. Since the end of June, however, Libya has witnessed a spike in cases, attributed to the repatriation of Libyans who were stuck abroad. As in many countries that are reopening, it is difficult to enforce another lockdown even while cases soar. The initial fears of the virus have been superseded by myriad other concerns of Libyan citizens, including the tenuous security situation and financial anxieties.
And yet, Libya managed to mitigate the spread of the virus for four months within these impossible conditions. Like many countries on the African continent, such as Tunisia and Ghana, this initial success can be attributed to the localized responses of non-state actors. Because transmission follows social patterns, understanding and acting on these patterns through contextual solutions has proven to be one of the most effective strategies for tackling COVID-19. In Libya, the absence of the state means that these solutions are largely led by civil society. Understanding and supporting this sector is imperative in the face of a new wave of infections.
The Local Leading the National
Within two weeks of the WHO’s announcement, Libya went into lockdown. Borders were closed, flights were cancelled and schools and workplaces temporarily suspended activity. Key places of congregation, such as mosques and wedding halls, were also closed in line with global recommendations on social distancing. Unlike other countries, where this type of response was led by the government, in Libya it was grassroots organizations and activists who lobbied the relevant local and national authorities to take quick measures. This lobbying was done primarily through social media platforms, which has proven to be a useful tool in Libya for gaining the attention of decision-makers, but also through different channels of cooperation that have emerged since 2011, such as crisis committees and neighborhood associations.
The grassroots response covers three main axes—bridging local level politics with national leadership and transnational partnerships, raising awareness on public health issues and leading humanitarian response efforts.
One of the core approaches in Libya’s coronavirus response is collaboration between formal institutions and informal groups. Civil society organizations act as an important link due to their ability to foster partnerships at different scales of governance. In the city of Tobruk, for example, activists worked with the Tobruk municipal guard and local branch of the chamber of commerce to combat the price fixing of essential goods such as masks and sanitizer, which led the city to adopt a policy on market regulation of these commodities. Local associations partnered with the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) to support their work, often with funding from international donors like UNICEF and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). A recent example is a series of trainings for public school teachers on re-opening schools with the necessary precautions held by the Sidi Abdelghani Mosque Charity in Souk Eljumaa. Tripoli-based youth association H2O is monitoring the COVID-19 response by authorities and publishing periodic updates in an effort to hold officials accountable.
Awareness campaigns are also crucial actions, since lockdowns can only succeed through the cooperation and willingness of the people. Networks of local organizations, activists and even concerned citizens have launched campaigns in most of Libya’s main cities and towns to alert people to the symptoms of the virus and crucial steps needed to mitigate its impact. These campaigns take the form of billboards, posters, radio programs, social media videos and even stickers in public places to encourage physical distancing—all of which are made possible by the ability of organizations to mobilize volunteers to carry the message to even the most difficult-to-reach groups. Young tech developers engaged in Libya’s civic spaces have launched the covid.ly app, which provides live updates of the country’s COVID-19 status and general information on the virus. After a spike in cases in southern Libya in June, the NCDC partnered with local organizations to launch a media campaign urging people to act with caution.
In addition to these efforts, civil society organizations are doing much of the heavy lifting in response to growing humanitarian needs—most notably the Red Crescent and the Libyan Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, which were founded in the 1950s and are the oldest formal civil society institutions in the country. These organizations have thousands of members spread across most towns and cities in Libya. Their recent efforts include disinfecting hospitals and public offices, distributing medical supplies to health centers and even providing home deliveries of essential items such as medicine to those in quarantine. Other organizations are using their technical skills to find new solutions. The FabLab hub in Benghazi developed and built a so-called disinfection tunnel for moving infected patients, which it donated to the Hawari General Hospital. Local charity groups, such as the Alsalam Charity Association in Ben Walid, have also doubled down on their support of displaced families and refugees, whose vulnerability was deepened by the lockdowns. Organizations in southern Libya, which have considerably fewer resources due to the region’s isolation, are also contributing to the response. In Sebha, the Um Almomenin Women’s Organization, which has been training women in sewing skills, shifted its programming to sew face masks for medical staff in local health centers.
The support from international organizations has been instrumental in facilitating a focused response. Through the mobilization of funding earmarked for “recovery” and “stabilization” on the international level, local civil society organizations received grants to support their work. These transnational connections are also helping local groups to access knowledge about best practices and new information on how to combat COVID-19. Peaceful Change Initiative, a Britain-based international non-governmental organization, which is working with partnerships of activists and local authorities to promote social peace, capitalizes on these networks to support local pandemic responses. Activists in more remote towns such as Al-Kufra and Al-Ghurayfah especially find these connections useful as this wider national network allows them to respond more quickly. United Nations agencies such as UN Development Programme (UNDP) recently launched a small grant scheme to enable groups to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) and also to support an e-learning platform by a local start-up called Panda for children whose schools are unable to offer online classes.
Outside of formal organizations, there are many grassroots responses. Facebook groups were set up as early as February in order to share information and updates on the virus both in Libya and globally. One group, entitled “Prevention is Better than Cure” has over 500,000 members. Doctors from outside of Libya are also holding Zoom calls with those in the country to share advice and best practices. Even those abroad who were unable to fly back into Libya and had to take ground transport to return home found that people in small towns opened their doors and provided them with assistance.
Crisis Response as a Nine-Year Work in Progress
The significance and effectiveness of Libya’s civil society response can be better understood by looking at its history in Libya. The meaning of the term “civil society” in a country and context like Libya is difficult to pin down due to the various movements, responses and institutions that operate both formally and informally. Organizations that have official registration with a government body can be considered civil society, but so too can a neighborhood watch group or a tribal alliance, which have no formal recognition. Even Libya’s nascent start-up scene lies in a space between civil society networks and the private sector. This flexibility of status can be attributed to the repression of civic movements under Qaddafi, but also to the nature of Libyan society, where community members have often relied on one another rather than on the state to meet their needs. Activities such as women’s savings groups, collective land trusts and tribal funds are examples of this flexible and informal civil society which have a long history in the country.
While many of these civic movements initially focused on the democratic transition after 2011, they quickly had to adapt to a growing humanitarian crisis due to the outbreak of violence in 2014 after the failure of a power handover by elected government bodies. Many of these groups evolved in the past nine years from active citizens to well-organized operations. They gained skills in institution building, narrowed the focus of their mission and learned the language and landscape of international development.
The persistent humanitarian crisis and breakdown in national political legitimacy over the past six years also obligated these organizations to work with local authorities—the same authorities whose relationship with civil society has been fraught with tension and mistrust: Civil society organizations are often seen as doing the job of inefficient local governments, and the foreign funding that some receive have led to accusations of covert “spying.” But as the crisis deepened in 2015, authorities and civil society found themselves working together through informal channels in order to address the growing needs in urban areas. This forced cooperation led to the creation of crisis committees in many cities and towns in order to coordinate the efforts of the municipality with sector ministries and both local and international non-governmental organizations. The key focus was on providing aid and shelter to displaced people and ensuring hospitals were equipped with the necessary resources. When the pandemic was declared, the committees were already in place, which led to a much faster response than anticipated. The experience that activists gained from the past few years in crisis management, as well as networks of solidarity that they formed, have proved invaluable.
The crisis committee in Benghazi actually already had experience with combating the outbreak of a contagious disease. In 2018, as a result of the civil war and war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a tuberculosis epidemic spread through the city, particularly among soldiers who were stationed in conflict zones that were likely the breeding grounds of the disease. The Public Health Office and NCDC partnered with local organizations to raise the alarm and mobilize resources to tackle the epidemic by following the three-step process of building partnerships, raising awareness and coordinating a humanitarian response to mitigate the spread. Two years later, this same process was adopted once more, this time to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Difficult Road to Recovery
While civil society achieved moderate success over the past few months in putting in place a response to COVID-19, it was not an easy process. In Tripoli, organizations are grappling with the dual threat of conflict and the coronavirus. It is difficult to establish a unified strategy to respond to local patterns when these patterns are disturbed by urban warfare. While people were asked to stay home and stop the spread, many people living in neighborhoods that were shelled had to flee for their own safety. Advice to “wash your hands” was difficult to follow at times as the water supply was cut in many neighborhoods in the capital due to military groups holding the water system hostage. Here, civil society’s approach is to maintain a constant and unified message of combating COVID-19 while still addressing the other effects of the conflict by assisting displaced families and supporting health centers.
In addition, Libyan civil society does not have the capacity to address the secondary impacts of the virus in a meaningful way. A 2016 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that almost half of Libya’s labor force and most small and mid-size enterprises operate in the informal sector. Everyone from private school teachers to roadside vegetable sellers are impacted by the lockdown and the necessary pause of daily life. Unlike other countries that developed strategies to support daily income workers, no steps were taken by any Libyan governing body to supplement halted livelihoods. Charity groups have been working to address the gaps by relying on their connections with private businessmen and donations from residents.
Despite these obstacles, civil society in Libya is proving its resilience in the face of continuous crises plaguing the country. The pandemic created an opportunity for this sector to catalyze new forms of cooperation, knowledge-sharing and mobilization and it empowered local groups. These groups, through their resourcefulness and expanded networks, are slowly gaining legitimacy and the trust of local communities. While civil society can never be a replacement for unified national government and empowered local authorities, its growth is an important step toward Libya’s ultimate recovery. The next challenge, particularly in the face of the new wave of infections, is to adapt with the shifts in public attitudes toward the virus. Similar cases in other African countries have shown that full lockdowns are not sustainable. It will be up to Libya’s civil society—including its formal organizations, informal community groups and grassroots activities—to promote new ways of reducing the spread of infection and ensuring that those early predictions of devastation will not come to pass.
[Nada Elfeituri is an architect and writer from Benghazi, Libya who works on urban development and community engagement.]
Jacob Mundy, “The Globalized Unmaking of the Libyan State,” Middle East Report 290 (Spring 2019).
Nicolas Pelham, “Libya’s Restive Revolutionaries,” Middle East Report Online, June 1, 2012.