Libyans have lived under a dictatorship for over 40 years and the effort to think and act freely doesn't come easily. In Benghazi, a small women-led group called Express is waging a psycho-social effort to "Get Rid of the Gadhafi Inside You."
BENGHAZI, Libya (WOMENSENEWS)--While rebel fighters battle for a democratic future in the west of Libya, a handful of women back in the rebel capital of Benghazi are working on showing people what democracy actually means.
The small group, going by the name Abeer or Express, will be hosting its most ambitious project to date later this summer, after Ramadan is done--the First Libya Youth conference to spread the ideals of democracy.
"We don't expect [change] to happen overnight," Heba Abdelgader, a Libyan-American born in Los Angeles who came to Benghazi to help out, told Women's eNews. "The new Libya is between the hands of the youth."
The organizing group for Express is very small. It lists only six people as its core members--five young women and one young man--but its goal is ambitious: to ensure that democracy and personal freedom flourish in Libya.
For 42 years--since Col. Moammar Gadhafi's 1969 coup--the country has known mainly autocracy and secret police acting on the colonel's behalf.
Members of Express say Libyans crave democracy but aren't quite sure what it means.
Fourth-year medical student Halima ben Jomiah, 22, is the founder of the group. Two years ago, she stumbled across the subject of human development and self improvement in books like "Do Not Grieve" by Sheikh Aaidh ibn Abdullah al-Qarni and "The Leader In You," the 1936 classic by Dale Carnegie. Ever since, she's been hooked, reading about psychology and how to realize human potential whenever she could find the time.
Ben Jomiah, her sister and her friends decided that for the revolution to succeed, people have to have correct attitudes about democracy: not being afraid to speak, but at the same time, having the respect to listen.
They called their group Express in order to focus on personal expression as a form of civic participation.
As a first step, the group has interviewed dozens of Libyans to get a sense of their hopes and dreams and what is standing in the way. Express has also solicited opinions from advanced researchers in human development, such as Egypt's Sherif Araba and Libya's Omar Gnaiber.
They have also studied government models in countries like Japan and Switzerland, which the group considers to have robust democracies.
This work has culminated in the "Getting Rid of the Gadhafi Inside You" campaign.
As part of the campaign, the group has passed out thousands of brochures in Benghazi's Liberation Square, where crowds gather to listen to speeches from the political open microphone on the stage. They also held a public lecture on the subject of respecting others' opinions and put together a video montage of Libyans saying what they want to change in their country.
Benghazi is not entirely out of war danger. A car bomb exploded two months ago in front of the radiator-shaped Tibesti hotel in the city's downtown. And yet last week, as the sunset streamed through the windows of the hotel, which is commonly used as a meeting point for revolutionary business, the six members of Express gathered on the second floor to catch a faint Internet signal, sit in a circle and plan for the future.
Ben Jomiah, soft-spoken and wearing a pink hijab, typed rapid-fire ideas on her laptop under the heading "Express."
"After revolution, people have lots of motivation to change," said Ben Jomiah, taking a break from her work to speak with Women's eNews. "If someone is into the revolution and wanting to change, you want to give them an open plate and show what are the norms of democracy."
Seismic Shift to Civil Rule
The unexpected events of Feb. 17--when Benghazi rose up against Gadhafi's regime--created a seismic shift to civil rule. Gone were the orders from Tripoli. Police stations that had kept a strict eye on the populace were all lit on fire and later rebuilt. People formed neighborhood watch committees and organized in mosques to have self-sufficient administration. It was the first breath of democracy.
But ben Jomiah, who attended the meetings along with many other young people, soon worried. Tribal elders and the most assertive males in the room were falling into old patterns and taking over. People were shouting. Ideas and suggestions were getting ignored or hastily rejected.
When several people suggested the segregation line between men and women at Liberation Square be dropped, the self-appointed meeting leaders vehemently said no. When some objected, they were told that they didn't have to come to the meetings.
"It was 'my way or the highway,'" said Abdelgader, the Express member from Los Angeles. "Oppression trickles down from the government to the family."
Toufik ben Jomiah is a Libyan human rights activist and Halima ben Jomiah's father.
"A big problem," he said, "is people are not digesting the changes, the situation they're in . . . Gadhafi's systematic abuse is still in their minds and his ideology of the mass and that he is the leader, the teacher. Gadhafi brainwashed people to prevent them from solving their own problems."
Strict religious thinking is also involved. Islam is Libya's main religion. (The Islamic star and crescent is prominently in the middle of the rebel flag.) Islam makes distinctions between "haram," or forbidden activities, and "aib," improper, undesirable ones.
But in Libya, "the two words have merged to the point where it's hard to distinguish," said Abdelgader.
This merging often stifles people's freedom of choice, especially for women who bear the brunt of the immodesty crackdowns for not wearing a headscarf correctly or trying to have equal rights to men.