Alaa Murabit is a pioneer for women’s rights in Libya and the founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, a women’s empowerment and development NGO in Libya. In this interview, she discusses what she sees as the evolution of the role of women in Libya. “I think that obviously women’s rights is going to be–I don’t want to say ‘rights’ but I want to say women’s development–is going to be very different in Libya,” she said. “Our progress is going to be very different in Libya, our end goal is probably extremely different, and the way our end goal looks is probably going to be more different. But those are things that are indigenous to us. That’s what we expect.”
She also discusses the tragic death of US envoy Christopher Stevens.“Immediately, within hours of people finding out it was Ambassador Chris Stevens… there was an outrage,” she says. “You had Facebook pages going up of ‘I’m Libyan and I’m against this.’ You had the ‘I’m Sorry’ project. You had Libyans going out by the hundreds protesting against this, and vigils. And following that, you had a march of 30,000-40,000 people in Benghazi, called the ‘Save Benghazi’ protest.
She went on to discuss the security situation in Libya, which she says is grave. “For the first time in months, I felt like Libyans woke up, I felt like they realized the gravity of the situation, which is I think something nobody wanted to talk about.“
“The biggest challenge for Libya is corruption on all levels. But the most important one right now for this transition phase is media, is accountability, is transparency, is the government, our Parliament having a spokesperson who comes out daily and says this is what the Parliament did today. Even if it’s Friday, and all they did was sleep, say, this is what we did. Because that empty space is where the rumors start, it’s where the confusion starts, it’s where people start getting confused and making up stories.”
The interview was conducted by José Vericat, Adviser, International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
José Vericat: Ms. Murabit, thank you so much for coming to IPI. We’re really pleased to have you here. I want to start the interview by focusing on the most recent events that have taken place in Libya in these past few weeks. What do you think led up to the death of the United States Envoy, Christopher Stevens? What’s the background to that?
Alaa Murabit: First I’d like to say thank you for having me. It’s been an honor and pleasure to be here and to meet so many other amazing people at the panel this morning.
In regards to your first question, it’s a very loaded question, of course. Ambassador Stevens was actually quite a close friend to our organization and somebody who I had the privilege of knowing, and who only a week before we had ran into him actually at the airport, and he had one body guard. He was not somebody who took people en masse with him. He was not somebody with crazy security protocol. He was somebody who very much believed in Libya and believed in the democracy and in the transition, and so his death comes very much as a shock to anybody who knew him. He was somebody who at times actually told us that we needed to stay and fight harder. And I truly don’t think that there was a logical lead-up to his death. I don’t think it was an occurrence that anybody expected. And I don’t think it’s something that I can even actually wrap my head around now, weeks later. It’s not something I ever would have anticipated, and I honestly cannot give you a point blank reason for his passing.
I do think that the excuses used, one of them being the anti-Islamic film, are just that. And that’s a very personal opinion of course. But I don’t think that it was based on a film per se.
JV: What do those events reflect about the current situation in Libya and the challenges in the country?
AM: I think that if we are going to look at those events, we have to look at events following. It’s very difficult for us to say, okay well this one occasion happened, a very tragic occasion, and that’s the only thing we’re going to look at. I think we instead need to look at what happened after. What was the response from the Libyan people?
Immediately, within hours of people finding out it was Ambassador Chris Stevens, and even before when they found out there was an attack, there was an outrage. But upon finding out it was him, immediately, you had Facebook pages going up of “I’m Libyan and I’m against this.” You had the “I’m Sorry” project. You had Libyans going out by the hundreds protesting against this, and vigils. And following that, you had a march of 30,000-40,000 people in Benghazi, called the “Save Benghazi” protest.
I think that if we look at what’s happened after, it’s more important even than what’s happened prior to in this revolution, and it shows the true response from the Libyan people that, no, we don’t stand for extremism, we don’t stand for actions taken against certain individuals or certain entities, be it embassies or organizations, etc.
Instead, we stand for a society in which the people are in control, the government has mechanisms and apparatus to insure the security of all, regardless of whether they’re Libyan or not, or whether they’re a minority or a majority, and that needs to be handled immediately by the government, because up until now, it was not something that they had shown they were making a priority. And you can see now following that march, following this occurrence, the government taking a very concrete step in disbanding militias, in insuring security for all. And I think the steps after are much more important than anything that has happened prior to.
JV: Do you think that this is a turning point in the transition?
AM: Yes, I do. I was somebody who if you spoke to me three weeks ago, I was, I’d like to call it realistic but I was extremely pessimistic, very worried, particularly about the influence of the militias, the growing influence at that time, and particularly about the… not only inconsistency, but the lack of reaction from the government, from our elected individuals, all decision-making bodies, whether they be political in terms of our government, but also economic, like the businessmen’s council, which acted like nothing was happening.
I was shocked, and very disappointed, and telling my dad, I think I’m done, I’m taking a break. I felt like a very exhausted citizen. No responses, nothing happening. And then, this was very much a turning point. This was, for the first time in months, I felt like Libyans woke up, I felt like they realized the gravity of the situation, which is I think something nobody wanted to talk about. And by realizing the gravity of the situation, they took action. They sent a message to the government that no we’re not all asleep – some of us, yes, still are, but we’re not all asleep–and we demand action, and we demand it now.
I think the government then realized that, okay, we’re in serious hot water. The same way they rose up previously, they will do it again. I think that was the message that was sent very loud and clear. I do think it was a much needed wake-up call to the Libyan people and more importantly to our government, to our elected individuals.
JV: I think that probably it’s frustrating also for Libyans for there to be such a focus on one person, and through the death of one individual, or four, or however many actually died in that event, considering the amount of people that die probably on a daily basis in Libya as a result of the chaos in the country; I can imagine there’s frustration because of that, and all the other problems that are there. What are the major problems that you identify other than the issues surrounding those events we just spoke about, and also what are the challenges that you personally are trying to address?
AM: I have to strongly agree with you on that. I think the first thing I said following the passing of Ambassador Stevens was – and he was a close friend, and a lot of people saw it as being insincere but I said – listen, we have been for months talking to our government and telling the international community that we have a problem on our hands, and nobody has reacted. And a lot of people told me you shouldn’t say that, that’s not fair, and I said but it’s true. Until we had somebody internationally, an international figure pass away, that’s kind of when I think our government really realized they had a problem. And that to me is disappointing, because as a government, as a Parliament, your number one priority should be your citizens, and it was very disappointing that at that point we’re not.
In that event, though, there were also ten Libyans who I have to mention passed away, trying to save the ambassador. So I do think that they don’t get enough print space or air time, and they definitely should, because they’re heroic actions have gone very much unnoticed.
In terms of general challenges–aside from security, which I think is the biggest challenge right now–we have to understand that with democracy comes a need for transparency and accountability. And that is I think in many countries based by basic things like this, free media. We do not have monitored, or free, or even educated media in Libya. It’s basically anybody who can buy a television station can own one and can say whatever they want. Because Libya has such a low penetration of Internet —only 5.5 percent—our reliance is on television and radio and word of mouth.
Now, when you rely on things which do not have to be in any way accountable, it can create a lot of problems very quickly. You suddenly have rumors spreading like wildfire. These rumors then can cause violence, this violence then can cause instability, etc.
So I would have to say the biggest challenge for Libya is corruption on all levels. But the most important one right now for this transition phase is media, is accountability, is transparency, is the government, our Parliament having a spokesperson who comes out daily and says this is what the Parliament did today. Even if it’s Friday, and all they did was sleep, say, this is what we did. Because that empty space is where the rumors start, it’s where the confusion starts, it’s where people start getting confused and making up stories. So we need to definitely close that space, and we need to create an environment in which things must be true, in order for you to say something, in order for you to feel like you have to fight for an idea, ensure that that idea is actually sound, there’s actually reason behind it.
Me individually… our organization obviously focuses on the political, economic, and social empowerment of women, which is a very nice sentence, but very difficult to actually put into action. Our biggest challenges honestly is the general society supporting I would say that transition, because that’s what is. A strong transition for a country like Libya is to have women in leadership positions. So for us, media is obviously influential in our work, as is training workshops, etc., which can then support women to first take the initiative.
Tonight, if you’re going to our GNC president’s speech, you’ll note that he’ll say people need to take the initiative, and I completely agree with him on that. We need people to be educated enough, though, to want to take that initiative. So we have basic things: education, media, and transparency. These things all need to be identified not only for Libya as a whole but more specifically even for women’s rights.
JV: On the issue for women’s rights, and more generally in terms of going back to this idea of what’s important to the western world or the global north, however you want to call it, and what’s important to the actual Libyans, I want to ask you whether this is an agenda of the western world to push for this issue.
My question is twofold. On the one hand, how much do you think that those concerns are justified? Are concerns in this part of the world about women’s rights and women’s issues, and how much of that reflects reality and real concerns by people there? I also want to ask you more generally about western or external intervention in Libya. I know that in the whole of the Arab world, in particularly in Libya, there’s a lot of tension as to Libyans being told what to do from the outside. How are those relations being managed?
AM: I think the reason there is such a mistrust in the international community in countries which have recently undergone transition is because–as a gentleman said during the symposium–these countries are the same that openly and very graciously welcomed dictators only a few years ago. So that shift for Libyans is difficult to understand. I think it’s expected that there is mistrust there in that relationship, and I think the international community definitely has to prove itself to these governments, has to prove itself to these people. I think that’s extremely important because it’s difficult for somebody to argue for democracy one year, when only a few years ago they were openly supporting a dictator. That, even me, I just don’t understand. I understand politics goes to a level, but, you know…
When it comes to women’s rights being a foreign idea, I dislike that idea. I don’t think so, because I don’t think westerners have women’s rights down either. When I go to certain countries, I would not be allowed to wear my head-cover. In my opinion, that’s not women’s rights, it should be my right to choose, right? So, it’s very interesting the way we kind of try to say, well, obviously the western world has women’s rights figured out. I strongly disagree with that.
I think that obviously women’s rights is going to be–I don’t want to say ‘rights’ but I want to say women’s development– is going to be very different in Libya. Our progress is going to be very different in Libya, our end goal is probably extremely different, and the way our end goal looks is probably going to be more different. But those are things that are indigenous to us. That’s what we expect.
Obviously, we are going to take, and our organization takes a lot of things which have worked in other countries, be it the United States, be it South Africa, be it Rwanda, Kosovo, Egypt, etc. and other things that haven’t worked in these countries, and utilize that to our advantage, to see what we can and cannot do, what’s realistic for us, what’s not. But by the same token we also have to understand that it will take a very, very different road, I think, and our progress may be slower, may be quicker. But it will be our progress, and it has to be locally owned.
JV: Finally, you talk about the work that the international community has to do in order to regain the trust of Libyans. What sort of things do you think would help in that respect?
AM: I think the foundation of trust would have to be unbiased support and unbiased encouragement, and that’s going to be a test, I think for the international community in the upcoming years, particularly with the international media playing such an important role. But the painting of the picture of extremism, terrorism, oppression, etc., that definitely needs to go away. We cannot keep looking at these countries, particularly Libya and saying, well there’s extremism there, so, maybe we should take a step back. It’s going to be difficult for that to be a winning argument in Libya. There needs to be unbiased support, unbiased encouragement, it cannot be one day we agree with what you’re doing and the next we don’t.
Also, I think there needs to be international coherence in the way that these transitions are being looked at by international governments and the community. What I mean by that is, for example, you currently have a transition going on in Syria, which is not supported by a large group of the international community, and a lot of them are using the same excuses that were used in Libya, and to a higher degree obviously in Syria. To me it doesn’t make sense. If the international community is so quick to push for democracy in one country, that should be something that they want to support in every country, and that should be an ideal that needs to be supported in their own country.
There are banners in subways here that say in a war against the savage and the human, you always choose the side of the human. I mean, really? And when people wanted to white-out that word ‘savage,’ because it was clearly anti-Islamic–it was a pro-Israeli, anti-Islamic word–they were arrested. And this is the United States of America that was preaching to the world that we have freedom of speech. So there has to be some harmony in the message that’s being sent across to these countries; there has to be some harmony in the message that’s being given to people who are undergoing transition, because if the person giving the message has no credibility, it is very difficult for us to say yes, we trust this country.
JV: Thank you so much for being here, and we’re really honored to host you today.
AM: Thank you.