A New and Optimistic Libya, Struggling to its Feet

14 Feb

Here is a blog on my recent trip to Tripoli posted on the website of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP): http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/new-and-optimistic-libya-struggling-its-feet

February 10, 2012
By Colette Rausch

The moment I learned the gun battle erupted down the street from my hotel, my mind started racing with the implications it could have on Libya’s tentative steps toward its new chapter.

I was just wrapping up a trip to the newly dictator-free North African country. My colleague Vivienne O’Connor and I had been in the country to work with our Libyan colleague Najla Elmangoush and Lebanese colleague Ali Chahine and offer our assistance and experiences working in transition countries. We were also there to conduct workshops on rule of law and justice in the country where — until so very recently— both were foreign concepts.

NATO strike on Qadaffi forces concealed position. Misurata, Libya

We traveled the coastline from Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, to Tripoli, then to the rebel towns of Zawia and Misurata that came under heavy attack by Qaddafi forces, as he struggled to put down the revolution spreading across Libya.

Everywhere we went, we encountered enthusiastic and energetic Libyans, eager to experience the freedoms and challenges of good governance in a country where none had existed before. They understood that their chosen path was not an easy one. In fact, just the day before our arrival in Benghazi, the governmental headquarters of the new National Transitional Council (NTC) had been overrun by a mob of protestors. They cited frustration with the slow pace of reform and the lack of both transparency and inclusiveness of the deliberations of the new transitional leadership.

Munitions collected and displayed in front of Misurata war memory museum

As we arrived in Tripoli, news circulated of torture of Qaddafi fighters held in Misurata prisons. And there is widespread anxiety over what is seen as a growing criminal element in Tripoli in a country already awash in weapons.

At the same time, there are a large number of fortified checkpoints and armed militias still occupying the country’s streets—equally fearful of a return of Qaddafi loyalists as being left out of the emerging power structure. But despite these significant concerns and challenges, a spirit of optimism prevailed on the streets of Libya.

We were asked on multiple occasions to pass along the Libyan people’s thanks and gratitude to the people of the United States, and specifically to President Barack Obama for coming to their aid.

Bombed out hotel, now war memory museum in Zawai,Libya

The Libyans’ newfound freedom came at a very heavy cost. For example, while in Misurata, we did not meet a single Libyan who had not lost a friend or relatives or both to the conflict. Driving down the renowned Tripoli Street and surveying building after building in ruins, it was not hard to understand the impact on the people of this seaside city, the third largest city in Libya. We visited no less than three “martyr museums” in three cities, dedicated to those who had lost their lives in the struggle and the excessive brutality that had been arrayed against them.

Over 11 days, through workshops and meetings in Benghazi and Tripoli, as well as small group meetings in Zawia and Misurata, we met with a variety of people, from governmental officials to civil society groups to youth and taxi drivers to discuss the lessons from other countries in transition and asking a number of questions: What is your vision for Libya in five years? What are the main strengths of the justice and security system and challenges that lie ahead? And, when legal disputes arise, what mechanisms are being used to resolve the dispute?

Discussions in Benghazi on rule of law in Libya

In the workshops in Benghazi and Tripoli, the participants created a list of priorities in the short, medium and long-term. They also suggested how outsiders can support their efforts at building a Libya that is just and secure. It was an honor to work with them as they take the first tentative steps toward a just and free society based on the rule of law.

Compared to other conflicts, Libya is doing OK given where it has been. We heard over and again how its culture, customs and traditions are what have held it together thus far. We witnessed this firsthand during our travels.

So when the gun fight erupted down the street, I knew there was the risk of it spiraling out of control. Not the gunfight so much. But experience has taught me that this would be a story that would splash across the news for days to come and overshadow the real story of a new, optimistic and free Libya, now struggling to its feet — warts and all.

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