Saturday, February 18, 2012

report on 'rebuilding libya' event at frontline club

Ian Black (L) and Carsten Jurgensen

The five panellists at the ‘Rebuilding Libya’ evening held at the Frontline Club in London on February 15 gave markedly different perspectives on the situation in Libya. The date of the event, chaired by the Guardian newspaper’s Middle East editor Ian Black, coincided with the first anniversary of the start of the uprising in Benghazi two days before the February 17 2011 “day of rage”.

The Frontline Club was packed out for the event in which presentations by the panellists were followed by a lively question and answer session. A large screen displayed real time tweets on the event, hashtag #FCLibya . Those tweeting included the Libyan writer, doctor, blogger and podcaster Ghazi Gheblawi, @Gheblawi

Ahmed Gebreel and Rana Jawad

Ahmed Gebreel, deputy head of the Libyan embassy in London, has been a political advisor to the National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman and was spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the revolution. He said that he preferred a “comparative approach” in international relations: if we compare Libya today with other countries that have experienced civil war such as Iraq or Somalia the situation is “remarkably stable... You can walk in the streets in any city and there is no threat, no harm. We hear about some clashes here and there, I think they are normal, they are expected, but still the situation is very very stable.” Those clashes that do occur are “always dealt with in a very responsible manner by the people and by the authority.

Gebreel also prefers a “comparative approach” on human rights. “People in Libya are not really knowledgeable about human rights concepts. We had some complaints, the authority in Libya is not denying that there have been some violations of human rights. In fact these have been condemned by the NTC and I think the NTC are doing their best to deal with this issue. They have been very responsible and if we compare human rights in Libya to some other countries, for example Iraq or Afghanistan, human rights organisations - Amnesty International for example, Human Rights Watch - have been given full access to detention centres in Libya. This didn’t happen In Iraq, it did not happen in Abu Ghraib, it didn’t happen in Bagram in Afghanistan. Also they have met with the highest authority in Libya which means the authority is realising how important, how crucial, this issue is and they are willing and ready to deal with the international community to solve this problems.”

On the challenges ahead, Gebreel said: “Some people say it is security, some people think it is the economy, but I think the main challenges for the NTC and for the government are the high expectation of the Libyan people and how they can practice democracy in the future since they have not practised democracy for the last four decades.

Dr Faraj Najem

The Libyan writer and historian Dr Faraj Najem said that as a Libyan he is optimistic: “We have no choice but to be optimistic and to look forward to the future. I’ve been going back and forth to Libya since the mid-1990s so I’m well placed to offer judgement. Libya in the last year or so has changed dramatically for the better and Libyans are very delighted, as Ahmed said, to see an end to a vile regime that has no respect for human rights and human dignity.”

Dr Najem added that there are however “lots of teething problems, and challenges ahead that we need to deal with. Libyans with the help of the international community are countering some of these problems.” The concrete steps taken include the Constitutional Declaration, and the recent passing of the election law, “so we are sticking by the agenda that the Libyans have drawn up for themselves.”

But one must not be complacent: there are challenges and serious problems. The first is the need to deal with Gaddafi loyalists “especially those who are outside the country, mainly the family – the one to watch out for particularly is the daughter [Aisha Gaddafi] who is going to cause lots of problem. These people have the connections, they have the money, and they are angry about what happened to them because they’ve been deprived of their little empire, for ever I think.”

Dr Najem identified the second category of people who need to be dealt as “those who served with Gaddafi and propped up his regime but who joined in on the side of the revolution. And these people need to be extricated, but this needs to be done gently. So we don’t want the infamous de-Baathification of Iraq but at the same time these people must understand that they did not serve Gaddafi well, and I don’t think they’re going to serve us well either, and therefore they have to make way.

“We need to gently convince them that they have to make room for aspiring Libyans who want to serve their country. After all, this revolution was unthinkable, it was a dream, it was delivered by young men who almost had nothing to do with the regime and were seen as powerless – however, they managed to give a big blow to the regime. “

The third category who need to be kept an eye on “are much less dangerous than the first two –these are the zealots, the extremists, whether they are tribalists, or regionalists, or the Islamists, or the liberalists. We don’t want them to cause us problems especially now when we are coming together as Libyans to heal our wounds, to rebuild Libya... even though we welcome debates and there are serious debates in Libya, there are serious disagreements. Libyans now breathe freedom, they speak democracy - there are petitions, there are demonstrations in the streets, there are major disagreements with the government, with the NTC, but luckily this is all done peacefully and hopefully we are going to keep it this way.”

The British-Lebanese journalist Rana Jawad, who is married to a Libyan, has been a resident of Tripoli for the past eight years working for the BBC. She operated under conditions of extreme danger reporting undercover for the BBC throughout the revolution. Her book on Libya and on her experiences during the revolution, Tripoli Witness: The remarkable first-hand account of life through the insurgency is newly published in the UK by Gilgamesh Publishing. She signed copies of her book at the end of the event.

Jawad said: “It was almost impossible to do my job for the BBC the first seven years I was there and there are stark differences now – people are open to talking, people want to be interviewed. It is very refreshing to have that.” But “there are a lot of problems the authorities need to start addressing. And I’m here more to reflect I think on what people feel on the ground – it’s partly my job – actually is my job.” Certain issues, like security, need to be addressed immediately. “We can talk about democracy and I think it’s a very vague term to a lot of Libyans at the moment – there are some who will argue that people are ready for it and they are politically mature.” But “a lot of people don’t understand what democratic values are in the country. It’s partly I think why we are seeing what Amnesty International and other human rights groups, Human Rights Watch, are talking about - which is the rampant violations of human rights and detainees.”

Jawad continued: “I think in the medium term – we can’t say short term because it will take time for that to happen - power needs to be centralised. Yes we do have the NTC and there is an interim government but overall a lot of people don’t feel they’re actually in charge – it is the militias that are running things.” People are complaining of a lack of transparency in the country and a lack of money. “A lot of fighters who took part in the uprising feel that they’ve been marginalised since the end of the war ... they feel they haven’t been paid for example.”

She said: “Overall I am optimistic of the journey Libyans will take but I don’t doubt for a second that it will be extremely difficult – and I think anyone who thinks it will happen in the next year or two is quite delusional. I am sorry to say that if it offends anyone but I think it’s a very long process and it is going to take a long time, but ultimately it seems like Libyans are striving for it, so a lot of people are hoping that it will work out.”

Khaeri Aboushagor

The Libyan media researcher, political activist and human rights defender Khaeri Aboushagor, who has called for a secular state in Libya, was critical of the NTC and of the way things are going. He said Libyans had essentially carried out the revolution “to recover their dignity, to recover their worth as human beings. And that’s why the whole country united in getting rid of Gaddafi ...they had a focus, they had a target to achieve and they managed to achieve it with the help of the international community.” Last March he was one of those who campaigned in the Houses of Parliament, at the European Union, and in many other places for intervention. “Without the international community the Libyans would not have been able to achieve what they have achieved. So I think the international community have an obligation to see this through – that the Libyans actually do establish a proper state that respects human rights and that works for the well being of all Libyans.”

Aboushagor cited Mahmoud Jibril, the ex prime minster, who said recently that Libya is not a functioning state. It “has no functioning army... no proper police, and the militias run the show. And human rights abuses are rampant all over the country, and that is the reality”. Yes, Libyans are free to talk and free to express themselves, to a certain extent. But for 42 years Gaddafi denied Libyans the basic elements of social and cultural development. “And this means that Libyans have a problem in recognising difference, have a problems seeing the other way, it is a closed conservative society and people had no option but to be like this because Gaddafi prevented them from opening up to the world, the country was closed. ... for a very long time.

“So the Libyans are happy now that Gaddafi’s gone but there is as Rana rightly said there is a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done to straighten everything. There are a lot of Libyans who are very optimistic and who work extremely hard to make this right – but I think we need the educated, especially those who lived in the West so democracy is functioning. Democracy is not just elections, you can’t just create democracy out of the blue by holding elections and say you have a democratic state. It much broader, much deeper than that. If we recognise that we know that the obstacles we have to solve, we can solve them. But if we deny, if we are in a state of denial, I think that would be wrong...”

The fifth panellist was Amnesty International’s Libya researcher Carsten Jurgensen. The event came on the eve of the publication of Amnesty’s highly critical report on the state of human rights Militias Threaten Hopes for New Libya . Jurgensen recalled that he was previously Libya researcher in the late 90s “when initially we couldn’t go to the country ..and research was practically not possible because there was so much monitoring it was impossible to talk to people freely.”

Jurgensen said: "I was very delighted when last year I was able to come to Libya and also to experience the new spirit of civil society and all of a sudden you had various NGOs who formed themselves including in the area of human rights.” He admires those people who are now working on these sensitive issues “because in my first visit in September ..people look at not so happy side when we went to detention centres and saw what happened and abuses. What struck us was that those who committed the abuses were quite open about what they did and told us, ‘yes, of course I beat him because he has to tell me where his weapons are’. ‘So how do you know he has got weapons?’ ‘Oh we know.’

In preparing the new report “access to people, detention centres, militias was not difficult – perhaps it was difficult to find certain detention centres which are kept secret, so we wouldn’t have seen if we hadn’t made an effort to find also places which are not so easily accessible.” Amnesty issued at the end of January preliminary findings on detention centres in and around Tripoli and in and around Misrata. “We came across horrific injuries of detainees who had been battered by all sorts of instruments, people given electric shocks, they told us, and of course we raised it with those who were holding them, all centres under the control of militias so not prisons or other facilities under the control of the ... authorities.” Those in charge of the detention centres “would probably admit to some incidents but would not admit that it happened on such a large scale many other ... report just about to release tomorrow where we document many cases including cases where people have died under torture. And we have spoken to relatives ... people who died ..of course they are upset that nothing happens maybe with the exception of a few high profile cases – no investigations are conducted – the judiciary totally weak they say they can’t, I can’t go and interrogate the chief of militia ..not able to protect citizens, not able to provide justice.”

During the question and answer session a young Libyan man who has lived in the UK for around 10 years said that Libyans have paid a high price for their freedom, and shouldn’t be told “your expectations are way too high for us to meet them”. The Libyans’ main observation so far is that "the performance of the government and the performance of the NTC is sub-standard in comparison to the expectations and aspirations of the Libyans. You look at the Libyan streets: they went out demonstrating, they understand what rights are, they understand what democracy is, they shouldn’t be told 'oh you shouldn’t be expecting this, this is way too far or you shouldn’t be centralising government'. Because people are the ones who made the revolution – it is not the NTC, it’s not the government, it’s the people and they need to be respected and understood and what they say should go on the ground now."

He added that the government is not addressing the judiciary situation and that this is the fault of the government and the NTC. "Libyans deserve all the expectations they have and I think the NTC should really understand what they are doing before criticising the Libyans for their expectations."

Ahmed Gebreel said that his comments on high expectations had related to timing. "Some Libyans think that what prevented them from achieving what they had dreamed of is Gaddafi, and since Gaddafi’s gone then they can achieve all they have dreamed of within days or weeks or months. I agree with you that the Libyans are the ones who carried the revolution, NTC was a part of it. We can’t also ignore that the NTC was the people, the NTC have made the sacrifice, they’ve paid, they are Libyans they deserve some respect and acknowledgement of what they have done to the country. The NTC has been established less than a year ago with limited resources and .. doing their best."

Dr Faraj Najem said that "the revolutionaries are often referred to negatively as militias". These young men "are the ones who gave hope to the country ... yes there are problems, there are fringes on the side who do commit human rights abuses – me and my colleague on Al-Jazeera spoke out against this... But we must not forget that these men do wonders for the country – they are the ones who are maintaining security, they are the ones who helping Libya as a state but also as a people to realise their dream. This is largely unpaid voluntary work but they need politicians to guide them, to lay down their arms and to go back to their jobs. So it isn’t all bad."

Ian Black noted that there is "supposed to be a plan to disarm and to integrate 75,000 thuwwar, fighters, revolutionaries, whatever you want to call them, into the army, integrate them into jobs - and that is not happening."

Faraj said "It is happening, recently there has been a commission .. these kind of things need money – unless they have the liquidity, unless they have the money, they won’t be able to do it. So there are plans. The other thing the government needs to do is to activate its court system, there are lawyers and judges who are sleeping in their homes – they need to rise up to the occasion and they need to come back to the courts and they need to challenge these human rights abuses and get the help of the Libyans in order to put this country straight.

“And the other thing is expectations. Libyans did the undoable, Libyans overthrew Gaddafi, no one would dream of doing this and Libyans now have vast imaginations.” He added jokingly that “Libyans have become a bit like the American military bless them, they don’t know where they are going but they get there before everyone else. This has become a guiding philosophy.” He told of how he was in Benghazi last month "and the newly elected Tunisian president came and he was begging them, he said please stop using the word 'now', because Libyans they want everything now, they want democracy now, freedom now, and he said you cannot just plant a palm tree and say can I have dates now, it is impossible, you need to be patient... But Libyans ask for this be done now, because they have suffered for four decades. And they have the money, they have the brainpower, they have a small population, they’ve got the world on their side and they have a right cause. I think the government and the NTC as my friend here said, they need to rise up to the occasion but again I don’t blame them, the government and the NTC, because their capacity is limited, they don’t have the means, they need the money which is still by and large frozen.

Khaeri Aboushagor said: " I think it’s common knowledge these days that anybody who follows Libyan affairs would come up with the conclusion that the NTC performance leaves a lot to be desired, and the NTC is not really living up to .. the trust that the Libyan people have entrusted in them. The NTC has a lack of transparency, of not properly communicating with the people, of not properly getting in touch with Libyans and feeling what exactly their needs are and addressing them. Of course the NTC has done a great job at the time when there was a war – they did a lot – but for the NTC to actually enforce itself or get the trust of the Libyan people and get the belief that the Libyan people will actually go with them in whatever they are doing they have do a lot and they are not actually doing that. When you see people flying on private planes from Tripoli or Benghazi to Washington to just pass on a message of thanks – people say what’s that – and then someone in the NTC complains about lack of funds or lack of money – there is a lot of money now, today, being squandered and being taken out of the country and nobody is watching, .. forget the billions that disappeared in the past – actually there is a lot of corruption – people live in Tripoli, live in Benghazi, they are very angry – they don’t think that the revolution they sacrificed their blood for has given them much. Of course they will have to have patience and will have to wait but they have to see signs that give them promise that things will actually get better – I don’t think they are seeing that.

Carsten Jurgensen commented that the functioning or non-functioning of the judicial system, and the role of the militias, are very much connected. "Militias are taking on roles they shouldn’t have – we see in detention centres whether we call them militias or thuwwar or whatever we are going to use as labels .. and people who are affiliated with armed groups – who are conducting confessions, conducting interrogations. They use all kinds of means I described earlier to force people to confess and this is written down in testimonies which are then fingerprinted and signed I imagine with the idea that these kind of documents could be used in a future trial. And of course such a thing could never be used in a trial – so the first step to make clear would be that no interrogations should take place in any detention centre which is not under the control of the authorities. And the second step would be to make sure that these detention centres are closed. I mean I know that it’s in the process but it’s a slow process – I know that the authorities are now in control of a number of detention centres but there are also many militia who are not willing to let go of those who they are holding so it is a slow process. I think the authorities need to be very strong and decisive – this situation can’t go on."

Several members of the audience raised questions on issues relating to women - for example women's empowerment, women's rights, and polygamy. On the question of polygamy Rana Jawad not that sharia law had been "part of the Libyan constitution under the monarchy as well as under the subsequent Green Book ad hoc laws of Colonel Gaddafi when he was in power It’s not new. I think part of the issue was when Mr Mustafa Abdel Jalil mentioned in that now infamous speech he made at the commemoration of the liberation of Libya when he said polygamy is allowed or something to that effect, and many people pounced on it. Polygamy was not widespread under the Gaddafi regime, but it was practised even though by law he had officially announced that it was illegal. A lot of people did practice it – but it wasn’t rampant, I’m not saying it was rampant. To a young Libyan man in the front row she said, "I know you’re shaking your head – I know a lot of Libyan women who are second and third wives."

The young man sid that they were meant to have the authorisation of the existing wife before remarrying polygamously, while under the new dispensation this would not be necessary.

Jawad interjected: "I’m not advocating polygamy! On the contrary, if my husband wanted to remarry I’d happily divorce him! I don’t think he’s going to do that. That’s not the point. But it was practised."

The persistent young man said "it was, but under a different madhab - it was a maliki madhab ... Gaddafi, this was the only law of his that I agree with, if you want to get married again you have to get the official approval of the previous wife before you go ahead. Now Mr Abdel-Jalil decided..."

Jawad said "a lot of women would actually argue they don’t want them to be able to marry again." To which the young man replised "yes but you have to address this."

Khaeiri Aboushagor said he had lived in Libya until 1982. "In the 60s and 70s polygamy was practised, it was part of the culture, but it was on a very small and limited scale. It was never available to everyone ... especially in the cities – I think in the countryside, the far away places, it’s a lot easier for men to marry more than one. It was never a big problem, it existed." As for Abdel Jalil's speech, "his advisers wrote a speech for him and trained him to deliver it and when he got up to the podium, he kept the speech in his pocket and he gave the speech he wanted to give."

He added: "I think women in Libya in the 60s 70s had lots of rights .. especially in the city I grew up in, Tripoli, Libyan women were just like ordinary women in Egypt and Tunisia and North Africa. What changed is ..North Africa in the 1980s and 1990s Islamisation bringing in a new culture which is actually alien to this society – this is now what exists today. Now women in Libya today are trying and working extremely hard to gain their rights, to preserve their rights, and I think their campaign for quotas in the law of election, parliament and all that was a sign of success. But there is a lot to be desired and I think the idea now that only Libya will be a functioning and prosperous state has elections is wrong.. Libyans need to understand that to have a proper country and a state to live in peace and dignity and opportunity they need more than just elections, they need to understand what it means to respect human being. Respect human rights. And to understand that people can be different but they can be from the same country, from the same nationality."

He recalled that when the NTC first drafted the Constitution Declaration a German journalist asked them why they didn't t include a clause on the freedom of thought and religion. "They said we don’t need that because we are 100% Muslims. .. not true, but the society is geared, is pushed, towards thinking that it is homogenous, it’s single faith, people don’t have to look somewhere else, we have everything in Islam, ... .a single school of Islam exists – but that’s not true. ... Libyans are the ones who suffered for 42 years because of one man .. thinking in a particular way. We should realise that with plurality, with multiculturalism, with the ability to think for yourself and choose your path you want to do, that’s how you become a proper human being and you’ll have the opportunities to choose to go down the road you want to. Everybody hopes the elections will bring an end to the dysfunctioning NTC... they will elect the body that will have the responsibility of drafting the constitution. The big problem with this constitution is if it’s written and drafted to be a lasting constitution ... very difficult to change, I think it is going be a big problem because the country is not ready yet for a proper constitution that cannot be changed."
Susannah Tarbush

1 comment:

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...