Libya: One Year Later

This Monday was supposed to see the start of the trial of Al Baghdadi al Mahmoudi, the former Prime Minister of Libya under Moammar Gaddafi. He is facing charges of corruption and the ordering of mass rape during last year’s uprising. The trial was scheduled to start only four days after Libya’s parliament swore in their Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s cabinet, the first democratically elected government Libya has seen in four decades. Although al Mahmoudi’s trial has been postponed for a month, Oct. 20, 2012 marked the one-year anniversary of former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s death and al Mahmoudi’s trial is an important reminder that, although Libya is moving in the right direction, Gaddafi’s legacy continues to present challenges for Libya’s transition to democracy.

In his 40 years of power, Gaddafi suppressed Libyan civil society, violently repressing any perceived threat to his rule. Gaddafi was ruthless and unforgiving. University students, a source of potential for change, knew this all too well. In April 1977, following university student protests in 1976, Omar Dabbob and Mohammaad ben Saud were hanged in public on the campus of Tripoli’s Al-Fateh University. Leaving nothing to chance, the hangings were broadcast on state television, in case anyone was still unaware of the consequences of dissent. The students had held anti-Gaddafi protests in light of his declaration banning all independent student unions. Between 1977 and 1984, April 7 was a day of annual public student executions and a tragic symbol of the demise of Libyan civil society.

Although civil society is showing promising signs of revival, it is still incredibly weak after decades of violence and oppression. Since Ghaddafi’s death, private media has been allowed to operate again, seeing a proliferation of services such as an English-only radio channel. Such services would have been unheard of under Ghaddafi’s rule and have helped move Libya’s press to be given the status “partly free” in the 2012 Freedom House Index. These tentative signs of progress, while positive, are exactly that: tentative. Only last year, the Freedom House Global Press Freedom Index placed Libya fourth to last, narrowly beating Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and North Korea.

Libya’s weak civil society is also threatened by a traditionally divided Libya. Libya has always been a country more divided, both regionally and tribally, than unified. One of Gaddafi’s political talents was to manipulate the rival sentiments between regions, cities and tribes in a classic divide-and-conquer or, more accurately, a divide-and-control maneuver. Today, these exacerbated natural divisions in society are compounded by the current ubiquitous presence of firearms. October 24 saw government aligned militias, finally, proclaiming victory over Gaddafi loyalist militias in Bani Walid, a Gaddafi loyalist hold out. It had taken them an entire year.

That Bani Walid was won by government-aligned militia, not by the government military force, is an important distinction, reflecting the weakness of the central government. Only two hours west of Bani Walid is the city of Misurata, transformed in the past year into a de facto city-state by all the violence. Visitors are greeted by a formidable wall of checkpoints and a ready view of armed militias guarding the city borders.

One year after Gaddafi, Libya has defied critics’ fears of a civil war. But with a weak civil society marred by tribal and regional factionalism, Zeidan and his government must focus strengthening the foundations of civil society and reconciliation. Calls a year ago to form various Truth and Reconciliation Committees, inspired by the South African focus on accuracy and healing, should not be forgotten. The process of reconciliation is just as important of an antidote to decreasing violence as law enforcement, both in the long and short term.

Recently the International Criminal Court has asked that Libya not grant amnesty to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, former heir-apparent. While Zeidan and his government might be tempted to grant amnesty to past perpetrators, the process of reconciliation requires thinly balancing the need for a country to forget and move on, and the need for a country to remember.

Reconciliation on a more national, or collective, level is essential for a country to come to terms with its past. The role of “TRCs” lies in their ability to introduce to society a respect for the rule of law. By creating peace and stability through the rule of law, reconciliation will be a key component to a successful transition to democracy for Libya.  Hence, it is important that Zeidan does not extend amnesty to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and that he allows the ICC to continue their inquiries.

The recent Libyan focus on individual trials as a way of reckoning with the past should be supplemented by a strategy to include all stakeholders of the conflict. Since Libya faces the danger of factionalism, TRCs should focus on “group sessions” where tribes come together in a safe space to have meaningful dialogue.

Four decades of repression and violence will not die overnight; it will be a long process, surely dented by a few setbacks here and there. But it is important to start the process now.

Anja C. Nilsson ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sophomore in Currier House.