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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The Curious Incident of the Plane in the Night-Time

The average person occasionally wakes to the sound of birds in the morning. I woke up to the sound of a drone, lazily cruising through the skies of Benghazi. This was significant for two reasons; 1-We haven’t been paid a visit by the drone in a long time, since the capture of Abu Khattala in fact. 2-There were airstrikes in Tripoli this morning. 

The latter point is significant in itself because this is the first time planes have hit targets in Tripoli since 2011. But back then they were NATO planes. Whose planes were these? 

The Libyan Parliament, who convened in Tripoli on August 4th, voted recently on asking the international community to intervene to protect civilians. As soon as we heard about the planes, the first thing that came to mind was that foreign forces had entered the country. The Italian ambassador denied his country was involved, followed by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and NATO. 

The Libyan Interim Government released a statement saying they didn’t know who was behind the strikes, which wasn’t exactly reassuring seeing as they’re the guys in charge. Just when we were beginning to wonder if it wasn’t a UFO or maybe a good Samaritan country who felt bad and decided to scare the militia, Heftar’s forces (i.e. the East Libyan Air Force) made a claim to the airstrikes. 

Which makes sense, in a way. They’ve been hitting militia bases in Benghazi for months now. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they had somehow managed to get planes to fly over Tripoli. 

Except that the Air Force Chief of Staff released a statement saying that the planes were foreign and not local.

Huh. Curiouser and curiouser. 

It could mean that Operation Karama forces managed to get their hands on new equipment, or that they’re getting assistance from other countries. They have been active in Benghazi with recent clashes, but this would be their first operation in Tripoli. 

As baffling as these air strikes have been, they have very serious implications for the militias on the ground. The Parliament has been clear in their demands for the militias to dissolve, being a major threat to civilian lives and the authority of the state. As strong as they claim to be, their disorganized structure make them easily susceptible to systematic aerial attacks. 

It also brings up the question of what will happen if the militias are bombarded. We don’t want a repetition of 2011, where we neutralize the immediate threat but leave ourselves exposed and unprepared for future regrouping and attacks. There are currently more weapons in Libya than there are citizens, and our army is unprepared and under-funded to deal with this catastrophe. 

And then there’s the issue of the country’s political schism. The city of Misrata has gained notoriety throughout much of the country because of their support for the current operation by their militias in Tripoli (named Operation Fajr). Last Friday there was a large demonstration in the city against foreign intervention, and their Parliament members (as well as a handful from other cities) have refused to go to Tobruk, claiming that holding sessions there is ‘unconstitutional’. But with the clashes in Benghazi and Tripoli showing no sign of stopping, the Parliament will not be moving out of Tobruk anytime soon. 

Instead of moving forward, Libya has taken several steps backwards. 3&1/2 years after the revolution we are still in a transitional stage and we haven’t learned to communicate and compromise. Political parties and extremists groups have taken the country hostage and are fighting to the death for power. At this point many people are sick of bickering about political ideals, not when innocent people are dying. If air strikes can at least stop the militias in their tracks, Libya might still have a chance at making it out of the ‘failed state’ category.