By Jed Meline
(This post was originally published on USAID’s Impact Blog)
For 40 years in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi pitted community against community and tribe against tribe to prevent any organized revolt.
Since the fall of Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime five years ago, a bruising battle over Libya’s national governance continues to test national leaders. The country has experienced ongoing damaging political divisions — even as national surveys continue to show the vast majority of Libyans seek a unified Libya with democratic governance.
Only five years ago, there were no municipal governments in Libya at all. Now, newly elected municipal officials are working to fill the governance vacuum that existed at the national level.
What’s unfolding now in the dry, southern desert city of Sabha highlights how Libyans are developing institutions at the local level and how the fate of the more than six million Libyans is evolving.
A Grassroots Libyan Democracy Emerges
In Sabha, the opening of a community center has enabled citizens to engage in the decision-making processes.
The city’s mayor, Hamed al-Khayalee, describes the center as a neutral and accessible space for honest conversations between residents and local government leaders, nurturing the legitimacy of the local institutions.
The community center has also been the site for training the municipal council on public relations to better enable councilors to inform the public, further increasing transparency and credibility.
This center is just one of the many ways that USAID is working to improve Libyan governance and build community cohesion.
USAID has been in Libya since 2011 training newly elected leaders, facilitating input of Libyans into the constitutional drafting process, and strengthening elections.
Woven through each of these activities is a concerted effort to bring Libyans from all walks of life together — often for the first time — over issues of mutual interest. In this way, stereotypes are broken down and Libyan cohesion can be forged.
In another example, late last year we brought together 12 women municipal councilors representing the districts of Tripoli, Zawiya, Jabal al Gharbi, Benghazi, and Wadi al Shati.
Our goals were to build the technical skills of these local government officials, get a sense of what needs exist for female councilors, and set a foundation for the establishment of a Women’s Municipal Councilor Association.
The women leaders discussed the principles of local governance, public service delivery, and the responsibilities of municipal councilors.
An End to Authoritarianism
Libyans want a legitimate and effective democracy in which individuals can live with freedom, dignity, and opportunity. This is easy to agree upon.
But real threats to unity exist from within Libya’s different factions, and especially in the form of extremist violence, foreign fighters and Da’esh.
After generations of central government authoritarianism, these municipal officials represent a bridge from the past to a unified future — even as they build bridges to the east, south and the west of Libya.
Jed Meline serves as the USAID Senior Development Advisor for Libya.