Throughout the Arab Spring, social networks have played a key role in spreading messages among activists and getting news out to the wider world. But in Libya’s slow moving war, it’s been a struggle just to get a working phone line.
Early on in the fight against Colonel Gaddafi, the Tripoli regime shut down the internet and mobile phone networks, leaving Libyans struggling to contact each other or to reach the outside world.
“Internet, mobile, fixed line, everything was centralised in Tripoli,” explains Dr Majid Ashibani, a telecommunications expert in the western rebel enclave of Misurata. “If you want to make a phone call on your mobile, the switching would take place in Tripoli.”
Almost immediately, the people of the rebel-held territories began working hard to restore telecommunications.
One of the early heroes of the revolution was Mohammed Nabbous, owner of a small computer company who brought his equipment to the Benghazi courthouse, where he set up an independent internet connection and began live-streaming raw video feed of the revolution to the world. On 19 March he was killed while out reporting around Benghazi.
Another early innovator was Ousama Abushagur, a 31-year-old Libyan telecoms executive based in Abu Dhabi, who led a team of engineers to restart Libyana, one of the country’s two mobile phone networks.
Libyana was re-wired through a switchboard in Benghazi, using telecommunications equipment donated by Qatar and the UAE, allowing it to operate independently of the Tripoli-based Libyan General Telecommunications Authority.
The new network opened in April and made phone calls available for the 2 million Libyans living in the east of the country. But text messaging and voicemail are yet to be restored and sim cards are in short supply, changing hands for as much as $200 (€150).
In the besieged city of Misurata, where some of the most intense fighting with Gaddafi’s troops is taking place, the system is far from fixed. While some landlines have recently been restored, mobile phones, including ones from abroad, do not work, leaving citizens and fighters reliant on satellite phones and “walkie talkies” – or simply word of mouth. Somehow people survive. News is carried from person to person with road checkpoints, hospitals and hotels acting as conduits for information about people’s plans and whereabouts.
The system is inefficient. With fuel supplies low, it makes little sense to drive around endlessly. But there are unexpected advantages. When Dr Ashibani asked rebel fighters at Misurata if they wanted the phone network up again, they said no. “We don’t want to lose our focus,” they told him, saying that with calls available to wives and girlfriends it would be harder to focus on the fight.
There is also concern that more connections would compromise security and fear that mobile phone lines could be tapped by Gaddafi’s operatives. “The people of Misurata, they adapt to their new life,” says Dr Ashibani, “they find their own means to communicate without phones.”