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City Spotlight: Sabratha, Libya

Located on Libya’s northwestern coast, Sabratha was founded by Phoenician traders in the fifth century BC. With over 2,500 years of history, it boasts well-preserved Roman ruins, including a grand theatre – one of North Africa’s largest – designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Sabratha’s location presents both opportunities, such as partnerships to boost energy supply, and challenges, including cross-border smuggling, human trafficking and illegal migration, all of which have significant implications for trade, security and regional stability.


What is the local government concerned about?

Persistent conflict and political instability in Libya have led to weak security and porous borders, creating a volatile environment that facilitates the infiltration of extremist groups in Libya. Sabratha has not been immune to these threats. For example, from 2015 to 2017, ISIS-affiliated extremists attempted to establish a presence in the city by exploiting local rivalries and criminal networks. At the centre of these activities was a local militia that morphed into a complex criminal organisation involved in illegal migration, violent extremist activities and illegal smuggling operations. 

Further, the city’s proximity to the Tunisian border and role as a primary departure point for migrants (both Libyan and those transiting through the country) heading to Europe have been exploited by criminals across the country. They take advantage of the unstable political climate and porous borders to traffic in drugs, commodities such as fuels, and people. This adds strain on Sabratha’s already limited resources. 

How is the local government responding?

Municipal councils have emerged as one of Libya’s most effective and enduring democratic institutions since the country’s first municipal elections in 2013. These bodies have played and continue to play a pivotal role in addressing the needs of local communities, ranging from providing essential services to addressing security concerns.  

National-Local Cooperation (NLC) 

In the aftermath of a targeted airstrike on a terrorist cell that had infiltrated Sabratha, the Municipal Council established an “operations room” bringing together key municipal stakeholders and representatives from various national agencies. This coordination hub enhanced NLC by enabling local and national actors to jointly plan a response and share resources and information to effectively address the terrorist threat. Crucially, the Council played an important trust-building role, leveraging its access to local communities to garner support for the City’s cooperation with national partners, demonstrating the potential for local governments to serve as an important and effective interlocutor between local populations and national governments.  

Community Engagement 

Sabratha and other municipalities across Libya have benefitted from international support, for example from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union, to enhance their capacities for effective public service delivery and governance.  

The Municipal Council has encouraged city officials to take part in capacity building, including on topics such as strategic communication and citizen engagement. As a result, the Council established regular monthly town halls through which to engage citizens on their concerns. This enabled the Council to make decisions (e.g., around urban design) that are informed by residents themselves. For example, concern raised in town hall sessions led to the creation of a family park and improvements in road infrastructure, achieved in collaboration with civil society. Importantly, such efforts demonstrate the Council is able to respond to the safety and other concerns of the communities it services and thus enhances trust between residents and the local government. Town halls are supplemented with a Facebook page the Municipality manages and weekly call-in radio shows, both of which further enable direct engagement with residents. 

Through these initiatives, the Municipality has made a tangible positive impact on local communities. For example, research on citizen perspectives of local governance shows that residents perceive the local government as one that is consultative and instrumental in resolving community concerns.  

What’s next?

Municipal practitioners, elected and non-elected city officials, have raised a number of priority areas with Strong Cities’ Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Hub. These relate to the need to:  

  • Establish mechanisms for transferring knowledge and good practices from former elected officials to newly elected ones to ensure sustainability, continuity, and effective governance.  
  • Deliver or otherwise organise capacity-building programmes for newly formed councils, including youth and women’s municipal councils, on community engagement and other good governance practices.
  • Enhance efficiency and transparency by investing in digital capacities, transitioning from paper-based to digital systems.  
  • Launch awareness-raising campaigns that emphasise the crucial role of women in local governance and municipal work, and actively encourage women’s participation in decision-making processes and leadership roles.  

Where possible, the MENA Regional Hub will support the Municipality with the above priority areas, for example by providing dedicated technical support, deploying relevant experts, connecting the Municipality with other cities for sustained peer-learning – and other relevant international partners – and more.  

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