Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Perils of Public Opinion Research in Libya, circa 2000

This story of how Mabroka al-Werfalli (lecturer in politics at the University of Benghazi, previously the University of Garyounis) managed to conduct the research for her book, Political Alienation in Libya, is fascinating as a window into life in Libya under Gaddafi around the year 2000, and the difficulties of ascertaining "public opinion" in such a society:
Researchers always require an official authorization for opinion surveying in Libya. The problem was who should be contacted to get the permission? Although I was doing the research within my own society, it was difficult to identify who was in charge. Because institutions and individuals do not realize they are entitled to any sort of power, I was trapped for nearly four months in a revolving door of authorities, revolutionary committee offices and security agencies, none of which wanted to stick out their necks. It appeared that nobody wanted to shoulder the responsibility for giving the go-ahead for distributing such a daring questionnaire. (p. 1)
She then tells the story of how she gets shifted from the Basic Popular Congress, to the Head of Internal Security, to the Revolutionary Committee Liaison Bureau, to the governor of the city of Benghazi, and back again to the RCLB, all of whom require someone else's approval, or tell her they've gone on vacation, or simply refuse to meet her. Weeks pass, and she enlists friends and family members in the effort to secure a permit. Eventually, through the good offices of her uncle, she meets someone in security who is willing to grant her the permit "on the grounds that [she] was from the same tribe" (p. 2). But having a permit turns out to be a mixed blessing for her research:
It was not possible to wander around knocking on people's doors and requesting them to fill in forms. Libyans are not familiar with surveys of any kind apart from the population census that takes place every few years, so it is highly unusual for them to have individuals on their doorsteps asking them to answer unusual questions. 
The problem was how to calm people and attain their trust. I wanted to show good will by presenting the security permission, but people then suspected me of being sponsored by the security agencies, and consequently were afraid of me. When I approached people without showing my permit, they were also nervous and would not cooperate with me, fearing that I might have been doing something against the regime and wishing to avoid any involvement in this. People expressed a great deal of hesitation and apprehension when they read the questions set in the questionnaire. A number of them just said sorry and slammed their doors in my face. (pp. 2-3)
She does not give up, however. Enlisting her siblings and their close friends, she forms a team to help convince residents of the Al-Orouba district of Benghazi to answer her questions. Basically, they have to visit every house four or five times to gain people's trust, and some of the people who agree to be interviewed even help persuade some of their neighbors to cooperate with her. But even then sometimes people back out, or family members convince them that it was too risky to participate. Some people would only agree to be interviewed in a car, not in a house. And then the security officer who had given her a permit started getting nervous himself:
First he asked my late uncle to stop the process; then I was summoned to the headquarters where he worked and asked to make people write their names on the forms. I explained the irrationality of doing this, as it would jeopardize my entire project. They let me go but called me again about two weeks later and asked me to hand over all the completed forms I had by that time managed to collect. This was the most serious problem I faced while doing the survey. The decision to be made then was either to hand over the forms and lose all the months of work, or to run off with the forms in order to save them. I had to leave the country before all the forms had been collected. 
After I had left the country, security patrols visited my family to ask if I had managed all the forms so they could take them away. My family told them that I had managed to collect only a few forms, and that I had left for Britain. Because the fieldwork had taken so long, I was running out of time, and I had to go back to England to pursue my study [the book started as a PhD project]. So far, this excuse has protected my family, particularly those who were involved in the distribution and collection of the forms, from inevitable intimidation and detention [the book was completed in 2008, from the UK]. (p. 4)
Problems with the security services were not her only difficulties. There were also cultural obstacles. Interviewees did not wish to be interviewed at their homes, for obvious reasons; so they asked to be interviewed at her home. But her home turns out to be complicated to use:
It was quite difficult to do the interviewing in my home because 47 out of 76 interviewees were adult men, and because I had therefore to meet my interviewees either at the male-lounge (marbou'a) or on the roof above the flat, ... The roof was a good place when the weather was fine, but it was not convenient at all when it was raining and windy. The reason I resorted to the roof was that the male-lounge kept being occupied by guests coming for different purposes so I always had to leave immediately, not only because of violating the privacy of the interview but also because, as a female, I am not allowed to stay in the male-lounge if there is a male visitor. (p. 5)
She does get some help from the fact that she was the daughter of an Imam, but not enough. Trust was built up a little at a time; people who had completed the forms told their neighbors that it was safe to do so, and eventually the survey came to stand for something larger:
People regarded my interest in their political life as a promise to change the circumstances surrounding them, while others regarded it as a confidential and safe way to speak out, since their voices would be heard while their identities would never be revealed. (p. 5)
All of this can be neatly summed up in an observation she makes later:
For a relatively long period the state has been a strange entity for the individual in Libya. He or she has always dealt with it using extreme caution, or has avoided dealing with it altogether, believing that engaging with the state or its authorities involves a high risk to personal safety (p. 11)
The observation applies to other places as well. (One more for my file on the irrelevance of legitimacy).

Anyway, I haven't finished the book, but I think this has got to be a contender for "most difficult to carry out public opinion survey EVER." My hat is off to Dr al-Werfalli; she shows real grit, determination, and courage. I hope she is doing well in post-revolution Libya.


  1. That was a great post. Truth is always comforting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice post. This is not proposed to abuse the American public, but rather to issue out that their vigilance had been drawn to the disputes and regime change in another place in the Middle East.