Libya’s Civil Society Crackdown Exacerbates Its Climate Woes
The Ministry of Interior in eastern Libya recently published a video of heavily armed security officials raiding a compound in Benghazi in response to “reports of suspicious activity.” Having scaled the walls, they successfully apprehended their targets—two sisters running a shelter for stray dogs. Despite a local outcry, the animal rights activists were accused of carrying out acts against the teachings of Islam, detained, and denied access to lawyers. After being held for six days, they were freed on bail until their trial in October.
This incident is part of a multipronged campaign by Libyan authorities to silence independent voices in the run-up to planned elections. Though the crackdown aims primarily to restrict groups working in politics, it undermines the work of civil society more broadly. Civil society organizations are a vital part of Libyan life, not least to help respond to the country’s growing environmental crises.
Civil society flourished after Libya’s 2011 revolution. Although some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operated during the Gaddafi era, the government closely monitored and restricted their activities. Regulations on the organizations were repressive, prohibiting all political activity and advocacy. Libya’s 2011 constitution enshrined the right to freedom of association, and it stipulated that the state ensure civil society organizations’ freedom to operate. In the years since Gaddafi’s ouster, Libyans have founded as many as 6,000 groups, tackling everything from humanitarian assistance and constitution building to women’s political participation and climate change.
Civil society has played an especially critical role in raising public awareness about Libya’s growing environmental woes, some of which contribute to ongoing internal displacement and conflict. For example, NGOs and activists have highlighted the government’s poor water management and drawn attention to Libya’s dwindling water resources. Groundwater currently provides 80 percent of Libya’s water needs, but unsustainable consumption is creating water insecurity. Farmers in particular are suffering, as the combination of dry seasons and oil field pollution is compromising agricultural soil. Civil society groups have pursued accountability for those responsible for environmental degradation. Climate activists linked an ammonia leak caused by the major fertilizer company LIFECO with an uptick in marine life washing up on the shoreline. Additionally, civil society groups have played a key role in amplifying the voices of locals whose livelihoods have been interrupted by conflict, poor governance, and climate change.
Recent government decisions have threatened the ability of any of these environmental groups to continue their work. Civil society groups are getting swept up in a broad crackdown on political activity prior to upcoming elections. On March 13, 2023, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s office issued a circular which instructed the Civil Society Commission to revoke the licenses of every NGO created in Libya since 2011. The government is still stung by the success civil society groups had highlighting corruption and malfeasance prior to the 2021 elections, and it appears to fear the possibility that such groups would question the election results or mobilize the public to demand change. It would much rather drive politics to be about patronage, attracting voters with economic packages, small loans, and promises of stability.
When the government announced its moves to revoke the legal status of NGOs, the public reaction was mixed. Some Libyans expressed outrage, but others praised the move and blamed civil society organizations for engaging with international NGOs and eroding the conservative fabric of Libyan society.
International actors have pushed back, careful to avoid playing into accusations that civil society organizations are puppets of foreign powers. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs publicly urged the “rapid adoption of a modern civil society law that meets international best practices” after her visit to Tripoli and Benghazi on March 22. The same day, Prime Minister Dbeibah issued a new circular, allowing NGOs to continue working under temporary status. Still, a group of 22 organizations issued a joint statement on April 6, calling on authorities to end their repressive laws.
The government has publicly acknowledged the negative effects of climate change and has described it as a priority. Environmental organizations have emerged as a key source of institutional memory and manpower for climate action, particularly amid Libya’s political instability. In the past, government officials have worked alongside NGOs on a range of environmental issues and have sponsored workshops and events aimed at tackling pollution, biodiversity, desertification, and water insecurity in partnership with environmental civil society. The government’s recent efforts to delegitimize the work of civil society are counterproductive. As Libya’s climate fragility increases, the government needs more partners in this space, not fewer.
Lubna Yousef is a research associate for the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Will Todman is a fellow with the CSIS Middle East Program.