22 Sep 2014

Murdered in the fight to build a democratic Libya

When I heard about the killings of two teenage civil society activists in Libya this weekend, I found myself thinking about Scotland.

All those 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds with saltaires painted on their faces passionately arguing pro and anti independence. How lucky they are that now, win or lose, they can go back to school or college and get on with their lives, invigorated and enriched by their first experience of democracy.

How much higher are the stakes in Libya.

Tawfik Bensaud (pictured below) was 18. His bright face and dark curls stare out from any number of social media sites. He was part of a youth movement based in Benghazi, enthusiastically debating what kind of government Libya should have after the revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

“If youth are given a chance, they can find a peaceful solution,” he said. “My message to Libya’s youth is: you are powerful and you can make change. You just need to take the opportunity and act.”

According to a source in Tripoli, on Friday Tawfik and his friend Sami were driving through central Benghazi early when three cars suddenly appeared. One blocked their path. Men sprang from the other two and shot into Tawfik and Sami’s vehicle. Both young men were killed.

Eight other people, three more civilians and five army officers, were murdered in the same 24-hour period. They’re calling it Black Friday.

Why were they killed? Their friend and fellow activist Alaeddin Attiga believes that Islamists, who hate civil society activists and have killed scores of others, were to blame.

“He was a strong voice against them,” he said. “He never got afraid of them.”

Islamists are also believed to have been responsible for the killing of the Benghazi lawyer Salwa Bugaighis. another key civil society activist.

A retired general with his own air force has attacked the extremists but neither side has managed to prevail. Libya has no effective police force or army, so armed men take the law into their own hands.

Back in 2012, Tawfik took part in a song and dance routine with other young people (see below). “The sky’s the limit, I have no more fear,” they sang. “We want the good, we want safety, we can make a change.”

Courtesy of the British Council, he and his friends came to London to see how parliament works and to meet young political and civil society activists here. How innocent those days seem now, as Libya is torn apart by competing militia, politicians, neighbouring countries and criminals.

Tawfik’s friends are struggling to keep faith that one day Libya can emerge from chaos and one day build the democratic state they dreamed of.

“I think we should all be ashamed that we reached a point where Tawfik is dead,” said Alaeddin Attiga. “This is a very sad and shameful day for all off us. Somehow everyone is responsible for this, even those who loved him.”

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