Benghazi’s Liberation is Just the First Step: Post-Conflict Recovery and the Upcoming Challenges

It’s been a day years in the making. Over the sound of fireworks, car horns and people’s jubilant cheers, Benghazi is filled with the chants we’ve waited so long to finally say; Benghazi is liberated, the war is over!

Since the killing of the US ambassador Chris Steven in 2012, to the deteriorating security situation in the years after, up until the declaration of war on May 16, 2014 and subsequent battle on October 15th of that same year, these years have been one of the most destructive and traumatic since the Second World War. Hundreds of people were assassinated or killed in car bombs, terrorizing the city. According to UNHCR, there were at least 105,000 people displaced from their homes in Benghazi in 2015, with hundreds of them forced to find shelter in public schools. Schools and universities were stopped, the health sector collapsed and infrastructure was barely functioning. We lost heroes like Tawfik Bensaud and Salwa Bughaigis as civil society became a primary target, and the city turned into a ghost town.

Today, Benghazi is barely recognizable. Most businesses and public services have reopened or are planning to, most displaced people have returned home, and there is a very strong feeling of safety and security among the inhabitants. While the official declaration of liberation was made on July 5th, 2017, the city has already begun the recovery process. Key institutions were restructured and reactivated, giving East Libya some semblance of a state. But it is also unrecognizable in a less positive way. The liberated districts have been badly hit, with many buildings destroyed or burned. The social fabric has also been damaged, as differing ideologies have created a rift between families, friends and neighbours. More worryingly, there are new ideologies slowly creeping into state institutions, a cause for alarm in a city that just won a war against extremists.

People in Benghazi now are less naive today than they were in 2011 after the announcement of Libya’s “liberation” in 2011. We know that the state is weak, weaker than it’s ever been. We are also acutely aware that the next form of governance will most likely take the form of a quasi-dictatorship, although people are between ambivalent to hostile when it comes to concepts like democracy. The joy on July 5th was not happiness at being “liberated” but rather because the war itself is over, because the hostile groups who terrorized us for years have been defeated. Liberation is the relatively easy first step, but the recovery and reconstruction from the war will be insurmountably harder. The challenges we face today can be divided as:

  1. Physical Reconstruction: Schools, hospitals, administrative buildings, electricity, water, these are just a handful of the biggest urban issues that need to be addressed directly. Benghazi already suffers from bad urban planning, and reconstruction needs to address the existing underlying problems. Along with this, the environmental problems is also crucial, particularly the issue of mines and pollution.
  2. Social Rehabilitation: Post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise, and everyone has been psychologically affected by the war to some degree. In particular, soldiers on the front line require intensive and long-term psychosocial care to help reintegrate them into society. As Libya barely has the technical expertise or infrastructure to deal with mental health issues, this will be a huge challenge.
  3. System of Governance: I mentioned before the establishment of military rule, although it is purportedly due to the current exceptional crisis situation. While this is understandable, civil society and civic actors must continue to push for the eventual transition into civil rule once again. With the increasing threats coming from groups like the Salafists and tribal actors, this is becoming more imperative.
  4. Corruption: This is probably the biggest challenge we’ll face in the next few years. Corruption has practically become part of our culture, and all eyes are now on the reconstruction plans for the city. Embezzlement and nepotism is expected to permeate this process. While it will be difficult to tackle this problem, having a strong independent media to blow the whistle on corruption, and strong NGOs and legal system to fight it, will be a step in the right direction.
  5. Reconciliation: It is now almost unanimously recognized by Libyans that the steps we took after the revolution (or rather lack of), with regards to reconciliation, was one of the main reasons why the country fell apart. We cannot repeat this mistake, and we can’t build a city or country by excluding and marginalizing anyone, even those we fundamentally disagree with. Benghazi needs to be the city that takes the first steps to reconcile between the different groups engaged in the conflict, and to ensure justice for all.

Of course, this is only a handful of the major challenges we face. There are others, such as inherently weak institutions, the continued collapsing economy, and the brewing hostility between East and West. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start local. It’s said that Benghazi has always been the city that has influenced all of Libya, and its our responsibility to make sure that this influence is always for the good of the country.

 

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Learning From A Revolution

Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come round again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.” ― Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Here it is; the five year mark. You remember, don’t you? Standing in front of the courthouse, our faces flushed from the rally and the excitement, telling any journalist who asked us about our prediction for the new Libya, “Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”

We gushed about our “new country”, our arrogant enthusiasm justified by the innocent hope and happiness that underlined it, as though we already visited the future and knew with confidence what would happen. Hard to believe it’s only been five years. It feels like fifty.

Must be a record,”Fastest Destruction of a State”. Most effortless, too. We were so busy being tricked with all the parades and fireworks – the superficial festoons of freedom – that we didn’t notice the men behind the curtain, who came out and took apart the puppet show that we thought was real.

Five years later, we are shocked, ashamed, horrified. Those journalists we spoke to five years ago can’t even enter the country anymore to see the results of the revolution. We’ve lost everything in what one can argue is an ironic twist of karma, what we did to the pro-Gadhafi side is now being done to us by creatures more terrifying than they (or we, for that matter) ever were.

I always tell myself that I’m not going to write an anniversary post, after the third year when I slowly, painfully realized that it had become a sham, that the revolution and the achievements and the country weren’t really ours anymore. But that fateful day comes round, and I find myself reminiscing at how so much could change in such a short span of time.

The February 17 revolution, whether I like it or not, will always be a core event for me. It has left me with beautiful memories and a wretched life. It made me hopeful, it helped me discover my value as a person and unearthed new traits I didn’t know I had, it opened my eyes to a new outlook on life, and it turned me into a monster.

It never ceases to amaze me how an otherwise normal person, a member of society and a generally decent individual, can so easily be made to support massive amounts of violence, bloodshed and destruction. In any other setting, they would be horrified. But manipulated by ideology, influenced by the poisonous effect of mob mentality, they turn into something not at once evil, but at once repulsive, hideous.

This is what happened to me in 2011. I’m not trying to justifying my behaviour and beliefs during that time, by saying I became blinded by revolutionary fervor and lost myself in the din of possibilities, because there was a small voice, in the back of my head, who hesitantly pointed out the problems that were also appearing. I ignored that voice, allowed it to become lost among the screams of “Libya is free, Libya is free!” all around me. That’s on me.

Sadly, many Libyans have not learned from the mistakes of 2011. Instead, they have transplanted their obsequious cheerleading onto other, more fragmented causes. Those too, will fail them, and there will be an existential scrabble to find, or create, new belief systems, and on and on until there will be nothing left to believe in. One could look upon our situation and conclude that revolutions forge hope while war creates misery, but we couldn’t have had one without the other

The revolution was not built on mendacious or malicious reasons. We were fed up, people were oppressed and unjustly treated, the status quo needed to change. It was not for a love of chaos that we marched against the regime. But the moment the first black flag unfurled on the battle field, the moment the first family was forced out of their home for what they believed, we should have stopped. Taken a step back. Reassessed where the revolution was going. But we didn’t, pushed on by our own momentum, unable to assess anything, unable to feel anything but our own vague thirst of freedom.

We did stop, eventually, too late, suddenly realizing the setting we were in. Mouths agape, we ask in horrified voices, what happened? How could it all have fallen apart like this? Like those from whom the veil of madness is abruptly lifted, we gaze in awe at the very destruction we supported.

We sit now in our broken country, angry at ourselves, at each other, at anyone who comes near, disillusioned, hopeless, wishing we could turn back the clock five years earlier.

If I could go back in time to my young, foolish, naive 20 year old self, I would shake myself by the shoulders and shout, “Stop! Don’t do it! Thousands will sacrifice themselves for nothing! You will lose everything you hold dear! It’s not worth it!” But hindsight, they say, is 20/20. My younger, foolish, naive self will probably look at me, laugh, and say, “What are you talking about? Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”


When people ask me about the February 17 revolution, I don’t hesitate anymore in admitting that I regret being part of it, part of the movement it became that is still ongoing to this day. I think the turning point for me, the moment of revelation of “Oh crap, what have we done,” came sometime in 2013, when I realized that things weren’t going to end well in Benghazi. No one is denying that February 17 began with noble intentions, but it’s very difficult to extract what the revolution used to be from the movement we see today. Even without the numerous foreign elements that invaded the country, a lot of injustices were committed in the name of February 17 by Libyans themselves.  

What I’ll say is, I don’t regret protesting against Gadhafi, because while life under his rule was better, it was still horrible. He needed to know that we were fed up, that we wanted our country back and that we wanted to achieve our potential at citizens. I believe our mistake was in demanding a complete upheaval of the regime, because we had literally nothing to replace it with, and no experience or background in nation-building. No amount of revolutionary zeal and good intentions can run a country, and that was our fatal flaw. The ultimate goal was to improve Libya, and I believe that we could have, and should have, done it a much different way, one that didn’t involve creating sides and that didn’t lead to the large losses we see today.

 

Learning from Libyan Youth, and Dispelling a Few Benghazi Myths

Working group session (picture courtesy of Abdulkareem Dwaini)

Working group session (picture courtesy of Abdulkareem Dwaini)

Recently I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop on the role of Libyan and Tunisian youth as agents of change in their post-conflict and post-transition countries (yeah, I know, buzzword-y title, but it was a UN event, so it was to be expected).

The main aim of the workshop was to draft youth-oriented strategies and projects for the next two years, focusing on four thematic areas; capacity building, policies, institution building and creating a productive environment. The projects were built around youth empowerment on an economic, social and civic level, with an eye on women’s empowerment and peace building. We spent two full days diligently working in groups on the issues that most affected us as youth.

What I most love about these kinds of events is that they give me the chance to meet and talk with Libyan youth activists from across the country. Aside from the brief insights we gain through social media, there’s very few chances for us to interact with our counterparts in other cities and regions. It’s interesting to hear about the issues faced by Libyans across a wide spectrum, to learn about the similarities and differences between our areas, and the work they’re doing in their own civil society communities.

There was a young man from Jufra who spoke about the cultural work his organization is doing despite the creeping ISIS threat from nearby Sirte. There were representatives of the Scouts of the Nafusa mountains who shared their amazing efforts to engage youth, as well as Red Crescent volunteers who have been tackling the daunting task of the migration crisis in Tripoli. Another young man from Derna spoke about the city’s revival in the wake of the ISIS overthrow, while a Sebha activist shared the human rights work her organization was conducting in Fezzan.

As representatives of Benghazi, we talked to other participants about the work we were doing without mentioning the outstanding political situation that the city was going through, in keeping with our stance of neutrality as activists. But the invariable questions about the war came up, although not quite what we had expected.

The most common question was, “isn’t Benghazi completely destroyed?” This question caught us by surprise because, obviously, Benghazi isn’t completely destroyed. But it’s not exactly in tip top shape either. We found ourselves having to give a detailed explanation of the city’s geography, front line areas and the role of the army, militias and extremist groups in the conflict. Benghazi residents know that the conflict here isn’t black and white, but describing the intricacies of a war is harder than expected to someone not familiar with the background.

What’s been happening, it seems, is that the media outlets have been airing pictures of a destroyed street in the Sabri district (part of which actually is destroyed) and portraying it as all of Benghazi. This is completely misleading, as Sabri is just one of over 20 large districts that make up our seaside city. But the picture is shocking enough to elicit the feel that, if this area has been completely destroyed, surely the rest of the city was affected. This is why other Libyans find it hard to believe that we’re holding workshops and other civil society activities, essentially living our lives the best we can. The situation isn’t exactly an easy one to cope with, but it’s far from apocalyptic.

Another strange rumor that’s been floating around is that people in the East want Khalifa Heftar to fill Gadhafi’s shoes. If you know the nature of Benghazi’s denizens, I don’t need to tell you how ridiculous that is. Nor do I need to tell you how utterly idiotic the other rumors are regarding tribes, separation and other controversial issues.

But like I mentioned before, Libyans almost never get a chance to properly interact with one another, meaning that common knowledge about my city is nearly inaccessible to other Libyans. So you can’t really blame them for believing what they hear through the media, and it helps to explain why the Libyan conflict has touched so many nerves and set off a slew of fights online.

Last year I attended a similar event, that time with youth from Misrata. Now, if the media is to be believed, the core of the problem in Libya is an intense and hostile power struggle between Misrata and Benghazi. But of course, the media can’t be believed. Us (the Benghazi gang) and the Misratis were initially a bit hesitant to interact (a small voice was saying, what if the media was right?) but after some ice breaking, both groups got along rather well. We all had the same vision and the same goals for our cities, and we were impressed by each other’s projects and passions. It drove home the realization that the conflict in Libya isn’t between Libyans; it’s between our depraved, asinine, power-hungry, arrogant, greed-driven politicians. And it’s no coincidence that these politicians all mostly happen to be old men.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Libya would be much better off if the aging politicians in power were rounded up and placed in a retirement home somewhere, and youth instead instated in positions of power. Regardless of the war, the country cannot move forward with fossilized thinking. The youth I met these past few days have reaffirmed my belief that we have the necessary people, they just lack opportunities.

Possibly the best part of the workshop was the final night we spent together as a group. We went out for dinner, and during the walk back someone began singing a Libyan limerick.  Pretty soon it turned into a full-fledged ‘keshk’ (similar to a singing circle), with people sharing bits of poetry and song from their regions. It’s a purely Libyan tradition, and it was fun to stand there in the night, sharing in that tradition together. We don’t get to do these kinds of things in Libya, especially now with the environment becoming more hostile. But you can mull over peace building and conflict resolution strategies in conference rooms for days, and ultimately, it’s those little moments that really create unity.

After Months of Dialogue, UNSMIL’s Peace Plan Falls Short

This week in Libya: murder, mayhem and the continued push towards total state failure. While the army in Benghazi continues to inch towards complete liberation of the city, the conflict in Derna becomes more complicated. The South continues to be ignored as smuggling, immigration and the ethnic fighting goes on unchecked. And in West Libya, ISIS casts a longer shadow with each passing day.

But hey, that’s what all this around-the-world dialogue is for, right? In case you’re one of the growing number of people who are cutting news and social media out of their lives, here’s some background; the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is conducting a series of national dialogue sessions with the warring factions of the Libyan conflict (which includes the GNC, the HoR, prominent (or so they say) members of Libyan society, and war lords, among others). The ultimate goal of these talks is to reach a ‘peace agreement’ between all sides, in order to lift Libya out of civil war.

Several drafts of the peace agreement have been released to the public (although how these drafts were reached is hard to determine, as UNSMIL remains tight-lipped on the particulars of the dialogue sessions). The fourth (and supposedly final) draft was released last Monday, to a less-than-enthusiastic Libyan audience.

Within an hour of the release of version 4 of the draft, Libyan social media erupted with comments. Using the hashtag  (#FourthDraft), Libyans remarked (and in some cases ranted) on the document that is touted as the saving grace of the country. Opinions ranged from “This is a reasonable and workable draft” to “This is all a conspiracy against us!!”

So, what makes this final peace agreement draft such a debated and heated topic? From my own observations:

1) The High Council of State: In the peace agreement, the House of Representatives remains the legislative authority of the country, and a new ‘National Accord’ government is designated as the executive.

But a third body has been created, ‘the High Council of State’. According to the draft, this body is purely ‘consultative’, although it does appear that they hold some legislative powers as they are granted ‘binding opinions’ on draft laws.

However, it’s not just the blurry role this council has. In the last draft, an article has been added that states that 90 seats of the 120 seats of the State Council are to filled by members of the General National Congress.

Yes, THAT General National Congress. The same one that has led us to this mess in the first place. It appears that this move was taken solely to appease the GNC so that they can agree on the draft. However, bringing back half this defunct body and giving them a place in the new government structure isn’t exactly a popular move. In fact, most of the outrage about draft #4 has been over this move.

Besides the fact that the GNC doesn’t exactly have an impressive record of achievement for them to be consulted on matters of state, the current body as it exists continues to show support towards groups like Ansar Shariah. Giving them three quarters of the seats in this council is also an inordinate percentage.

2) Councils, Committees and Commissions Galore: The State Council isn’t the only body to be created if this agreement is implemented. While I haven’t counted the exact number, there appears to be at least a dozen councils and committees to be formed. These councils are specified for a wide array of jobs, from a ‘Women’s Support and Empowerment Unit’, to a specialized council for reconstruction of war-affected areas.

In my limited experience, the councils and committees that are set up in Libya are done so for the primary goal of providing a fancy position for people who want one. With this draft, there will be a seat for everyone who’s currently clamoring for some kind of power, probably with some to spare, too. But how effective (or even necessary) some of these committees will be is not guaranteed. Among them is the ‘Libyan Political Dialogue’, which apparently transforms from the group orchestrating the dialogue process into an actual body. They will continue to exist with questionable levels of authority.

3) Who’s Who?: As many observers have noted, the distribution of powers in the new government structure is rather vague. The HoR is supposed to be the legislative authority, but the State Council seems to have some sway with regards with legislature. The ‘Libyan Political Dialogue’ also seems to hold exceptional powers.

Aside from the power division, there is some confusion over the terminolgy. The Libyan army is recognized as the regular military force, but who is officially covered under the term ‘army’? One of the problems in the conflict is the double meanings that various terms have. One man’s ‘revolutionary’ is another man’s ‘terrorist’, and one person’s ‘army’ is another’s ‘azlam’.


Overall, I believe the draft is an acceptable document. I think I speak for many, many Libyans when I say that the war has gone on for too long. Any solution at this point is welcome, as long as it means an end to the bloodshed and the return of normal life.

However, with that in mind, a peace agreement must be one that ensures peace, not one that simply divides power. The current document, as it stands, has a number of loopholes that can keep the conflict going on indefinitely. Aside from that, there’s really no guarantee that any of the people who will be appointed into the overall structure will actually work towards creating and maintaining peace, or some kind of mechanism that deals with those that attempt to obstruct the process.

The final date to accept this peace deal is June 17. So far, all sides are still deliberating on it, and a meeting in Germany today hasn’t produced any tangible results. I’m not sure what will happen next week, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that hopefully, we see an end to the war soon.