In February this year the British Council ran a series of empowerment workshops for women in Tripoli. Included in the workshops were discussions about the role of women in the political process.
Word of mouth spread and the interest was phenomenal. The Council had more than 100 people participate each evening, with another 3,000 or so following via social networks.
The Libyan government’s plans (later abandoned) to have a 20% quota of women in the new constitutional council were particularly controversial, and the discussion became very animated.
“It was extraordinary,” says Cherry Gough. “I looked out at this room packed with people; mostly, but not all, women, some in headscarves or even full veils, some without, all totally engaged and speaking out eloquently because they wanted to influence the future of their country – and really believed they could.”
As Director of the British Council in Libya, which acts as a cultural advocate for the UK, offering programmes in arts, society and education in English, Gough witnessed first-hand the revolution that swept Colonel Gaddafi from power last year, and the rebuilding process currently underway to create the country anew.
“In education the Council is concentrating a lot on vocational training as there’s a big problem with employment in North Africa,” she says.
“We’re also working with the universities to help rebuild – quite literally – helping them adopt a curriculum system.”
The Council runs projects throughout the country and, with the exception of a brief hiatus when staff members were forced to evacuate at the height of the violence last year, has been doing so since 2001.
“We had to close down in February 2011 and evacuate a large number of people,” she says.
“We had around 100 people here, mainly teachers with families. The teachers were in ten cities around the country.
“Fortunately from an early stage we decided to bring them all together in Tripoli, except for the people in Benghazi. We were too late with them. The airport had already closed. That was very worrying as we had to wait for the HMS Cumberland to sail into Benghazi [to rescue them]. In that type of situation you’re never quite sure what was going to happen. We were very worried.”
The Council reopened with local staff in October last year, and was back to full staffing (including Brits), by December. “Since then we’ve had to completely rethink what it is that we are doing,” she says.
I ask Gough if she was surprised that such an entrenched regime as Gaddafi was finally toppled.
“Yes and no,” she answers. “I personally was surprised that the revolution happened so quickly – that it started so quickly. But I wasn’t surprised that it ended so quickly. I had always been convinced that the anti-Gaddafi feeling was very strong in the country, so when people in Tripoli had the option to stand up, I thought they would and that’s what eventually happened.
Gough adds: “There were some moments in June and July when you started to think maybe I was wrong, maybe there is support for Gaddafi, maybe they [the rebels] make it to the city they won’t be welcomed. But by August they were here, confirming what many of us thought all along.”
Since the revolution the country has changed enormously, she says. “Coming back to Tripoli you can sense the positive feeling people have about the country."
“Change is always difficult - it can be two steps forward, one step back – and there’s now some realism about the pace of the change. To do things properly will take time, but my experience in Tripoli is that people are still optimistic and positive about the future.”