Before Libyan rebels seized Benghazi, education was heavily politicised and the bias of Muamma Gaddafi’s preferred ideology permeated all levels of education. Portraits of ‘the colonel’ adorned the walls of school classrooms (2) and, from an early age, children were expected to memorise and reproduce the teachings of Gaddafi and his version of past and current events through mandatory weekly lessons.(3) History was distorted and large chunks of that history were omitted – especially past revolutions and events that Gaddafi feared might “make people stand up for their rights.”(4) Mandatory military training begun early in schools under Gaddafi and, overall, children were taught that dissent and questioning the ‘wisdom’ of Gaddafi would not be tolerated.
In Libya, rebels are not only up against the military onslaught of the Gaddafi regime, but also face a “pervasive ideological system that begins at the earliest age.”(5) The rebels in control are faced with the monstrous task of rebuilding schools and revamping curriculums before schools, closed since the beginnings of the uprisings, are to reopen. Positive shifts in this direction are already apparent. The task of rebuilding schools is being taken on enthusiastically and with commitment by the citizens of Benghazi. Teachers, parents and children have shown admirable solidarity, commitment and industriousness in a quest for freedom and democracy in a country ravaged by civil war.
This CAI paper highlights various pro-active initiatives currently undertaken in Benghazi’s schools to help children deal with their immediate situation and to remodel a ‘Gaddafi free’ curriculum for Benghazi’s children.
Starting from zero
Schools in Benghazi have been closed since mid-February. It seems that there is no immediate end to the closures. Rebels in control of the city have confirmed that schools will not “reopen until the strongman is toppled and the rebel-held east is reunited with the west.”(6) Whilst the closure of schools could be viewed with a great deal of concern, one needs to recognise the arduous task of rebuilding a deeply flawed school curriculum that, for over four decades, has served only the ideological preferences of Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime. As Rory Mulholland asserts, parents were not overly concerned about the school time lost, pointing out that “they had lost 41 years under Kadhafi, so one more didn’t really matter that much.”(7)
The foundations of a new educational approach are being laid. Rebels have been quick to pinpoint the areas in need of urgent redress. The weekly lessons on the Gaddafi doctrine will be scrapped, history books will be rewritten and it has been recognised that most subjects will need to be revised given that the ‘Gaddafi ideology’ has permeated the whole curriculum. Furthermore, teachers will “have to be retrained to encourage free thinking and end corporal punishment.”(8) According to Hannah el-Galaal, a senior education official for Benghazi, it is imperative that the “wall of fear” is destroyed and children and university students are allowed a more stimulating, nurturing environment.(9) It is hoped that schools will be re-opened by June this year so that children can begin to catch up on their studies before the start of the new school year in October.(10)
Some schools are being run by volunteers (often teenagers) at the moment, offering informal classes about the current revolution and other activities aimed at instilling a semblance of normality in the children’s lives.(11) Activities are primarily aimed at helping children deal with “the trauma of the violence on the streets of Benghazi before Kadhafi’s forces were chased out,” including drawing, singing and other activities that encourage free expression.(12) The semblance of the old is barely visible within the new. In one centre, Gallal commented that “children were drawing the pre-Gaddafi era flag taken up by the rebel movement and singing the pre-Gaddafi national anthem, all unprompted,” and when divided into groups they “named the groups after revolutionary heroes…”(13)
Without classes to attend, many of Benghazi’s youth are using their time off to assist rebels, playing their own important part in the revolution. The tasks that children have taken up vary from assisting in rebel canteens and refugee camps to helping traffic officers collecting trash. Other children have taken to helping organise daily rallies against the Gaddafi regime. Many youths old enough to serve on the military have signed up at the rebel military training facility in Benghazi.(14)
Hannah el-Galaal describes the youth in Libya as “the major drivers” of the uprisings, similar to the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt. In fact, the youth are the ones who “will teach us about the revolution,” she says.(15) Although formal education has been put on hold, the Benghazi children’s experience of the revolution gives invaluable insight into the promises of change and freedom.
It is clear that even Benghazi’s youngest citizens are enthusiastically coming forward to claim their own future and participate proactively in building of democracy. Children are adapting well to the new situation, an encouraging sign that the new education system will be a success. Benghazi encourages much hope for youth who may grow up in an environment where expression is free, history is more rounded and children have had first-hand experience in determining and building their own future.
(1) Contact Carrie Byrne through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Optimistic Africa (
(2) Borzou Daragahi, ‘In Libyan school: reading, writing and Kadafi’, Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2011, http://articles.latimes.com.
(3) Deepa Babington, ‘Libyan rebels remake schools for Gadaffi-free thought’, Reuters, 8 May 2011, http://www.reuters.com.
(5) Borzou Daragahi, ‘In Libyan school: reading, writing and Kadafi’, Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2011, http://articles.latimes.com.
(6) Rory Mulholland, ‘School’s out for Libyan children of the revolution’, Middle East Online, 11 May 2011, http://middle-east-online.com.
(8) Deepa Babington, ‘Libyan rebels remake schools for Gadaffi-free thought’, Reuters, 8 May 2011, http://www.reuters.com.
(14) Rory Mulholland, ‘School’s out for Libyan children of the revolution’, Middle East Online, 11 May 2011, http://middle-east-online.com.