Benghazi
By Daniel R. DePetris Contributor January 2, 2012

Without a government-sponsored national reconciliation strategy, Libya’s post-conflict transition will be even more difficult to manage.

Let’s let bygones be bygones. That is a succinct summary of the words spoken by the top two officials in Libya’s interim national government in response to pleas from Libyans who are tired of internal conflict. But how exactly can a nation move on after eight months of grueling civil war which pit neighborhood against neighborhood and likely killed tens of thousands of Libyans. The answer is generic, but one that applies to dozens of armed conflicts around the world today: a sincere program of national reconciliation.

Fortunately for the new Libya, the country’s politicians recognize that something needs to be done quickly in order to salvage the initial window of opportunity created by the demise of its strongman, Muammar Qaddafi. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and Abdel Rahim el-Kib, Libya’s newly appointed Prime Minister, both appear ready to start a difficult but necessary grassroots and nationwide reconciliation and reintegration campaign. A substantial portion of the effort must go, and hopefully will go, to the former Qaddafi camp. Remarks by Jalil have been encouraging: “Despite what the army of the oppressor did to our cities and our villages, our brothers who fought against the rebels as the army of Kadhafi (sic), we are ready to forgive them…We are able to forgive and tolerate.”

For a man whose volunteer forces were pummeled by Qaddafi’s government for months before making advances on the ground, Jalil’s words are nothing to make light of. It takes a special person to forgive horrendous crimes perpetuated en masse by thousands of brutal regime loyalists, let alone thousands of loyalists who have been on top of Libya’s political game for the past four decades.

Indeed, much of Libya remains irreconcilable, including the tens of thousands of militia members who bore the brunt of the casualties and the fighting. Conspiratorial sentiment among the militias about a possible neo-Qaddafi comeback is wide enough to cause problems even before the healing process begins. Nothing represents this conspiracy more clearly than the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Qaddafi fighters and sympathizers who remain trapped in makeshift, cramped, and poorly lit prison facilities in the capital. Many of these prisoners, some simply picked up on suspicion of working with the old regime, have suffered beatings, electric shocks, and other forms of abuse, despite the fact that none of them have been charged with any crimes.

The NTC wants to turn the page, but getting people to embrace reconciliation will be a difficult endeavor after 42 years of mistreatment under a repressive system. Yet that is exactly what needs to be done if Libya has any chance to learn from the past and apply those lessons for an improved and more integrated society.

Rapprochement not only means expediting justice and establishing judicial oversight for Qaddafi prisoners, but also incorporating less die-hard loyalists into government institutions in order to ensure that they have a stake in the new order. Prime Minister Kib’s exclusion of Islamists, whose revolutionary brigades had an essential role in the anti-Qaddafi struggle, is not a particularly positive development in this regard. Nor is the absence of Berbers from the recently formed interim cabinet—a move that alienates the entire Berber community. As of now, both communities are holding their breath and hoping that the new cabinet can exert some kind of executive authority across the country.

Their patience, however, will not last forever. Libya’s new rulers have their work cut out for them. Security remains elusive, with revolutionary militias from across the country carving up Tripoli amongst themselves. The NTC has only just begun the arduous process of building an inclusive, representative, and disciplined national army. The war decimated what little public infrastructure there was during Qaddafi’s rule. Reconstruction will be limited as long as Libya is unable to pay for it and the international community is forced to pick up the tab. But what is certain to exacerbate all of these problems is the inability or lack of political will to promote a similar goal for all of the country’s militias, tribes, regions, and ethnicities: the building of a peaceful, democratic, and inclusive Libya that gives each citizen the equal right to improve their life chances and see their demands and desires represented. This requires nothing but a devoted effort to bring every region of Libya into the government fold, regardless of past loyalty and without prejudice. This includes the men and women who once pledged fealty to a now dead and humiliated dictator.

Daniel R. DePetris is a masters candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He is the Senior Associate Editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis and has published in a variety of venues, including the Christian Science Monitor and CNN.com.

Photo courtesy of a7fadhomar via Flickr.