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How Commemoration Can Help Unite a Divided Libya

Libyans are divided by their experiences since 2011, but a new national reconciliation process provides an opportunity to foster a vision for the future.

Words: David Wood
Pictures: Moayad Zaghdani

“We are not writing the history of yesterday, but the history of tomorrow.”

In the al-Washishi district of Benghazi a burnt-out car stands in memorial to a slain Libyan National Army (LNA) special forces fighter, serving as a city-wide reflection of the country’s 2014-2017 civil war. The car belonged to Salem (Afareet) Al-Naili, whose father was brutally murdered, one of the many victims of terrorist violence in the city. Inspired by the personal loss of his father, Salem threw himself into the fighting in the city’s civil war and was ultimately also assassinated. Salem’s car and those of others killed during the fighting are placed at prominent road crossings as a testament to their personal sacrifice and as a symbol of the city’s resilience — allowing for mourning of loss, but also hope for the future.

For the families displaced from Benghazi and unable to return, often because their sons, brothers or fathers are accused of fighting against the LNA, the car holds a different meaning. It is viewed as a statement that Benghazi is unsafe for them to return to and is no longer their home.

Such examples of local commemoration with multiple meanings repeat throughout the country, reminding people of past suffering and maintaining its social and political divides, which presents a major challenge for national reconciliation efforts in Libya. But for a country that has been divided after decades of dictatorship followed by civil war, reconciliation is a prerequisite for a peace that gives Libyans hope for the future. Political commemoration is an important vehicle for furthering reconciliation — but it must be done right.

Commemoration Fosters New Divides

Libya wahad, or “Libya is united,” was a common phrase heard in social and political gatherings following the 2011 uprising against longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, providing a sense of optimism that the political transition would be short. History has proved otherwise, with Libyans experiencing over 12 years of political turmoil.

A key but often overlooked cause of this instability is different experiences and memories. The revolution was driven by a sense among some Libyans that they lost out in the Qaddafi period. This includes those in the East who felt they had been marginalized by the Tripoli government; Amazigh and other minority groups held to a lower status than Arabs; conservative Islamic groups, given the state’s political restrictions; and a range of tribes who were less well represented in Qaddafi’s political system.

The revolution prioritized the experiences of these groups. New monuments were created to valorize those that suffered from the Qaddafi regime. National symbols were changed. Some who had been part of the Qaddafi state were banned from participating in politics through the 2013 Political Isolation Law. There was wide communal punishment, including the displacement of whole communities. New values were articulated, moving away from the Qaddafi socialist model.

This process of commemoration through memorials, symbols, treatment and values, created a wave of new grievances that led to a rejection of the political transition, the formation of parallel governments in the East and West, and widespread armed violence as communities took responsibility for protecting their interests. Localized violence led to more suffering and more partisan commemoration.

In the pursuit of justice for past grievances, post-2011 commemoration has driven a wedge between social groups and created distrust in the new state to treat all equally. Instability in Libya will continue until all the country’s peoples feel that their different experiences and memories are reflected in the commemoration established or endorsed by its leaders.

A New Reconciliation Process

A new national reconciliation process provides an opportunity for Libyans to better understand each other and to forge a new future. It is ambitious, attempting to gain agreement to difficult political questions, such as governance arrangements (e.g., should Libya have a new federal arrangement?), distribution of the country’s national resources (e.g., who should control the country’s oil wealth?), and justice for those that has suffered (e.g., what does redress mean in practice?).

There seems to be an unprecedent space for such reconciliation, with significant progress in reintegrating the country’s institutions, divided since 2014. USIP has worked to support cooperation across the country’s police forces and supported a landmark agreement for a national audit body at the end of 2022. In perhaps the most substantial progress toward reunification, the country’s Central Bank announced just this week that it has reunified.

In places such as Lebanon, the absence of processes for victims — especially women — to tell their personal testimonies means that the scars of war heal slowly, if at all.

Political agreements are not however sufficient to build prosperous future for all Libyans. The many divisive local commemorations across the country demonstrate that national reconciliation is not just a question of reaching political agreements. It also requires a concerted effort to manage Libyan’s different experiences — their memories of what happened. The risk is that some past injustices are again prioritized as part of transitional justice, especially when some justice demands contradict each other, demonstrating that the new Libya does not value all its citizens equally. How can families displaced from Benghazi receive justice at the same time as the families of those killed by extremist violence?

The Ethics of Political Commemoration

Learning “the ethics of political commemoration” from other countries provides some guidance as to how national reconciliation in Libya can encompass different and competing histories. There are four critical elements to this type of political commemoration.

1. Individual experience. The national reconciliation process should emphasize the individual experiences and injustices faced by Libyans, no matter their political or ideological belief, or the part of the country, tribe, or ethnic group they represent. It should not lead to competition as to who has suffered most and hence has the most “just cause” that is worthy of commemoration.

It is important to focus on the individual experiences of post-Qaddafi Libya, as this is the best way of building Libyans’ empathy for each other — to help transcend the different collective identities that exist across the country. This means giving voice to those that have suffered, as every Libyan should be heard.

Rwanda is widely held as a powerful example of giving direct voice to victims, as a contribution to both justice and reconciliation. In places such as Lebanon, the absence of processes for victims — especially women — to tell their personal testimonies means that the scars of war heal slowly, if at all.

2. Positive stories. Commemoration can often focus on negative experiences of loss and trauma. Such stories, while essential for transitional justice, do not provide a positive vision for the country’s future. So, the process should identify individual stories of how Libyans have helped each other for the good of all.

There are many such examples, from a mother in Ubari who helped stopped inter-tribal violence when her son was killed, to the local government officials who work night and day to maintain their communities’ services. A key part of national reconciliation is to identify and promote these positive stories, so that Libyans are not shackled to destructive histories, and are helped to build optimism for a shared future.

In 2022, a Yemeni mediator, Hadi Jumaan, was recognized for his work in returning the bodies of the dead to their families. His international recognition has been a source of pride in Yemen across all sides of the political divide — a rare point of unity in a divided country.

3. Legitimate authority. It is important that there is legitimate authority to lead national reconciliation. This authority should place unity and the best interest of the public at the forefront. A crucial aspect of this is the capacity to uphold and implement the reached agreements. Libya has demonstrated that without the ability to deliver on agreements (for example, compensation payments), reconciliation efforts are likely to fail, fueling frustration and reigniting conflict.

Libya’s Presidential Council has exhibited strong leadership in establishing the national reconciliation process, but it needs buy-in from a broader set of national leaders to ensure its success. A critical challenge facing the Presidential Council will be to draw in a wider set of credible and representative leaders to provide the process with a sense of public legitimacy — to enhance trust it will not be manipulated for political gain — and to spread the responsibility for delivering on any agreements reached. Wider leadership is especially important when reconciliation processes endorse commemoration.

In Tunisia, a “quartet” of leaders was essential for its 2013-14 national dialogue — encompassing the country’s main labor and business unions, human rights defenders and lawyers. This group had the credibility to mediate a historic constitution for the country.

4. Local ownership. Responsibility should not be restricted to political leaders but should be spread among all Libyans at a local level. The more that national reconciliation happens locally, to deal with the country’s various local conflicts, the more likely that the national process will succeed. This means that the political leaders of national reconciliation, including the Presidential Council, provide guidance, but also space, for local reconciliation without dictating its outcomes.

Local leaders are best placed to understand how reconciliation will succeed locally and are the only ones who can take responsibility for the results. There is a proven history of local leaders in Libya making a difference whether the Tebu-Tuareg reconciliation efforts in Ubari, the Misrata-Tawergha dialogue that created the space for Tawerghans to return home, or between Bani Walid and the towns that led a 2012 military operation against it. Local leaders will also have a stronger sense of what local commemoration will best help with reconciliation.

These are big tasks — to focus on individual experiences, promote positive stories, ensure wide leadership and promote local responsibility — and mistakes will be made along the way. There is however reason to be optimistic, as those organizing national reconciliation are aware of these tasks. In a recent workshop on national reconciliation organized by USIP for the Presidential Council, one participant summed up their ambitions as “we are not writing the history of yesterday, but the history of tomorrow.” Benghazi will be a test case for how national dialogue can have a local impact, especially now, as the destruction of the city’s historic center, damaged by war, is contested. It is a difficult balance to build a new Libya while respecting the past.

This article originally appeared in the United States Institute of Peace’s “Analysis and Commentary.”

David Wood

David Wood is a professor of practice at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations and a senior researcher at The Geneva Graduate Institute.

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