Libya and the Attack on Women


Benghazi’s senior lawyer Salwa Bugaighis voted in Libya’s general election on June 25. The polling was spare. Threats of violence kept people at home. Despondency amongst the people did not help. An ongoing military campaign called Operation Karama (Dignity) led by General Khalifa Hifter against the Islamist militias of Benghazi deepened the divides in the city, and in the country. Bugaighis returned to her home, where, a Libyan official said, “unknown hooded men wearing military uniforms” barged into the house and shot her dead.

Bugaighis, with deep roots in Benghazi society, had left behind her lawyers robes to take an active part in the Coalition of the February 17 Revolution, one of the groups in 2011 that challenged the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Like other lawyers from Benghazi who formed a central part of the Coalition, Bugaighis felt frustrated by the collapse of institutions in Gaddafi’s Libya. The government, she was fond of saying, saw the people as a mass, in whose name the leader governed. The Libya she wanted would see the people as individual citizens who had rights and interests. It was to this end, a liberal one, that she put her wits.

salwa 2Salwa Bugaighis.

Like many Libyan liberals in 2011, Bugaighis was not going to go to the battlefield and take on Gaddafi’s troops herself. She had little mass base. This was a weakness, and Bugaighis knew it. She did not share the youthful enthusiasm of her fellow lawyer, Fathi Terbil, another leader in the Coalition. Futures other than peace lay before Libya as the city-based militias and the Islamist militias emerged as the main fighting forces against Gaddafi. It was already clear that they would make political claims when the fighting ended. NATO operated as the air-force for the militias and the Islamists, giving them a clear run to Tripoli and political power. There was no need for the militias to submit to a clear civilian chain of command both during the war and in its aftermath. Whoever became the Prime Minister would need to bow to the power of the militias and the Islamists.

Bugaighis joined the National Transitional Council in March 2011, but quit four months later. She had become frustrated with its leadership, people such as Mahmoud Jibril, a banker, and Abdurrahim el-Keib, an academic. Like Bugaighis, these men had no mass base and little connection to the sinews of Libyan social power. They relied upon their backers in Washington, Paris and Doha for their authority. Neither Jibril nor el-Keib had a genuine commitment to women’s rights. Temperamentally and politically, these men were unwilling to fight for the kind of agenda that Bugaighis felt that Libya required – namely for the creation of a liberal constitution that would give women full rights and opportunity to participate in the state structure. Jibril and el-Keib did not seem to share the ethos of the 2011 revolution.

Bugaighis’ disappointment would be clarified in January 2012 when the parliament, in its second draft document, removed a clause that provided a ten per cent quota for women in the national constituent assembly. Why a quota? Women are respected in Libyan society, Bugaighis often said, but this does not translate – despite Gaddafi-era rhetoric – into support for women to enter politics. “I know the society is not ready yet because of the tribal mentality, the stereotypes of women. We have to work hard to change the mentality of society,” Bugaighis said. Magdulien Abaida of the Hakki movement had been part of a national campaign to push for this quota. “In our society,” Abaida said factually, “people will not vote for women.” She later told me that it was women such as herself – of all ages, all backgrounds – who had fought for the quota. In fact, Bugaighis had said that nothing less than thirty per cent would do. Abaida and Bugaighis felt betrayed by the parliament.

The uprising of 2011, Bugaighis said the next year, “was an earthquake to the cultural status of women in Libya. We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained as Libyan women.” She was herself fearless, unwilling to bow to the encroaching social orthodoxy in her native Benghazi. No head-scarf for Bugaighis, whose fearlessness gave courage to others. But not to her political allies. Jibril and el-Keib, Bugaighis said, “knew that women were very effective and very strong in the revolution, but they think that now the advantages are for men.” She was not alone in this assessment. Health Minister Fatima Hamroush lasted a year before she resigned from the cabinet. She tried to rein in corruption amongst the war veterans, many of whom began to submit outlandish claims against the new government’s coffers. When Hamroush tried to create a procedure for this, she received neither the backing of her cabinet colleagues nor protection from the anemic state security. She would drive around Tripoli with eight bodyguards, unable to go freely in the new Libya. Hostile tribal leaders and Islamist militias intimidated and threatened two city councilors – Benghazi’s Najat al-Kikhia and Bani Walid’s Amina Mahmoud Takhtakh – so that one quit and the other went underground. Abaida, the leader of Hakki, fled the country for fear of being killed – by just about anyone. Each of these women had great faith in the new Libya in 2011, but within months saw their faith turn to ashes.

Lawyers like Bugaighis fought to try and establish the rule of law in Libya, to no avail. The problem of lawlessness haunted the new Libya. NATO refused an evaluation of its military conduct by the UN, the new Libyan state was unable or unwilling to honour the International Criminal Court warrants for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and the US decided to conduct warrantless “snatch and render” raids to seize its targets (Abu Anas al-Libi in 2013 and Ahmed Abu Khattalah in 2014). A wave of political assassinations swept Benghazi from the killing of lawyer and political activist Abdulasalam Elmessmary on July 26, 2013 to the killing of Miftah Bouzeid, editor of Burniq, on May 26, 2014. Most of those killed held positions in the security forces, but sprinkled amongst them lay important voices for political reform and social change. They never had a chance.

The new governments in Tripoli spent their time cutting oil deals and trying to stabilize the currency. They had little time to create a central security apparatus or to whittle away the growing assertion of the Islamists. The September 2012 attack on the US consulate came amidst a slew of attacks in Benghazi against ordinary people and against the oil installations. There was no grand gesture from the new government to live up to the promises of 2011. Flashy Libyans from the diaspora appeared on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi, coming to reclaim their inheritance lost in the 1969 coup. Those who fought on the frontlines against the Libyan army – the urban militias and the Islamists – began to assert their right to the new state, and to do so with the one coin that they had, violence. The liberals who understood oil contracts better than their own society made hasty deals with the old social classes, the urban militias and the Islamists. Women’s rights could be sacrificed to the pressures from the orthodoxy. Salwa Bugaighis’ agenda was set aside. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist militias claimed the new Libya, handed to them by NATO’s war. It was those social forces that likely killed Bugaighis on June 25.

Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New Delhi: Leftword, 2013).

Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.

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