At the end of December, Libya’s prime minister in Tripoli, Fayez Serraj, announced that Libyan families displaced from the town of Tawergha since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011 could return home.
The people of Tawergha allegedly fought on the side of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Their return to Tawergha, in western Libya, will mark one of the first successful reconciliation efforts between embattled communities in the country.
In an email interview, Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University focusing on Libya, discusses the ongoing obstacles to communal reconciliation.
WPR: What has been the fate of the Tawergha community since they were driven from their town during the war, and what is behind the government’s decision to let Tawerghans return home at this stage in Libya’s conflict?
JH: The case of Tawergha cannot be separated from the four-decade rule of Moammar Gadhafi, during which he often favored historically neglected communities while undercutting groups traditionally perceived as elites. By doing so, he created internal tensions that helped him retain power.
When it came to Tawergha—a town that historically was a hub for the trade of sub-Saharan slaves—Gadhafi used its racially distinct population to counterbalance the ambitious business class hailing from the nearby merchant city of Misrata, a segment of the population he viewed as a challenge to his tyranny.
In 2011, from March 29 through April 22, the Gadhafi regime subjected Misrata to an extremely brutal siege. Although there is little reliable evidence I know of, many Misratans say that terrible atrocities, including systematic rapes, were carried out by Gadhafi-backed Tawerghans during the regime’s onslaught.
As soon as Gadhafi’s forces were pushed back from Misrata, Misratan armed groups exacted revenge on the Tawergha community as a whole. That, too, included atrocities against unarmed civilians.
During the revenge operation, the town was destroyed and approximately 40,000 Tawerghans were displaced throughout the country. Today, many are in the Tripoli area and in Ajdabiya, in the east, while others are scattered in central Libya, including a few in Misrata itself.
Officially, a reconciliation agreement was signed by representatives of Tawergha and Misrata and ratified by the Tripoli government in June 2017, paving the way for the physical return of Tawerghans, and providing them with an indemnity from the Tripoli government.
Yet prior to June, a similar agreement had been signed in August 2016 that was never implemented. This is because irrespective of the various agreements, return attempts were deterred by threats emanating from hard-line groups in Misrata.
Very recently, however, a few Tawerghans were able to return home without incident, and there is talk of a larger wave of returnees next month. But beyond the issue of physical security, for which there remain some concerns, there is still the basic fact that the town was destroyed in 2011 and has never been rebuilt. It remains to be seen who will fund its reconstruction.
WPR: Are there any similar efforts to reintegrate other groups perceived as pro-Gadhafi, and if so, how successful have they been?
JH: Because they were fully displaced, and also perhaps because they are racially distinct from most Libyans of the littoral, Tawerghans have received the lion’s share of attention. But there are other communities that have been marginalized because of their perceived loyalty to Gadhafi.
There is the well-known case of Sirte, which is entirely ravaged, but also the city of Bani Walid, located 100 miles southeast of Tripoli. Although it wasn’t destroyed, Bani Walid was subjected to its own siege in 2012, and today its people remain in stark isolation from the rest of the Libyan coastal region’s population.
Bani Walid is more indicative of the state of Gadhafi-allied communities and the lack of reconciliation with the wider public than the special case of Tawergha. There are, however, a few exceptions among other previously warring city states, such as the truce that Zintan and Misrata signed in 2015.
It is important to highlight the effort coming from Egypt, which has played a positive and constructive role in trying to facilitate reconciliation between Misrata and Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s faction in eastern Libya.
While the Egyptian government is obviously not a neutral party, considering its military and diplomatic support of Haftar, its mediation effort has been a serious initiative.
Unfortunately, the Egyptian effort has lost much of its momentum in recent months. Hard-liners in eastern Libya were not really forthcoming, while the Misratans wanted some kind of a concession from them, to no avail. Moreover, the senior Egyptian official personally in charge of the talks, Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy, was removed from his role as chief of staff of the military in October after a deteriorating security situation inside Egypt.
Perhaps more importantly, Mohammed Eshtawi, the mayor of Misrata and a key figure among the city’s so-called moderates, was assassinated last month. As a result, Egypt’s peace initiative is in tatters.
Separately, another figure who has pushed for reconciliation has been Ghassan Salameh, the United Nations special representative in Libya.
While Salameh has been preoccupied—rather unsuccessfully so far—with trying to forge unity between the internationally recognized government in Tripoli and the rival government in Tobruk, he remains a very credible voice who can help Libyans find a resolution on more local issues like reconciliation between communities.
Egypt would do well to revive peace efforts in coordination with Salameh. Tunisia and Algeria, which maintain a wide network of contacts across all regions in Libya, could also help as credible mediators at this particular point in time.
WPR: What are the major challenges to reconciliation efforts in Libya going forward, and what are some opportunities for success?
JH: There are two aspects to reconciliation efforts in Libya, one soft and the other tangible. In the case of Tawergha, for example, the soft aspect is achieving material compensation, recognition of displacement and an official, unambiguous reconciliation with Misrata.
On the tangible side is the actual reconstruction of infrastructure on the ground and resuscitation of socio-economic life in Tawergha, which would enable its people to return home. While some progress has been made on the soft end, I don’t have many illusions about the tangible aspect.
Easing tensions and promoting a return to a semblance of normalcy through reconciliation and reconstruction is difficult. Libya is currently grappling with a civil war, which although less intense than those in Syria or Yemen, is still serious.
Libya is also in the grips of a debilitating economic crisis. As the months go by, Libyan society is growing more fragmented, not less.
Atrocities are committed periodically in Libya on both sides of the civil war’s main fault line. Every time such crimes are perpetrated against unarmed civilians with impunity, resentment thickens. The judiciary, for its part, is weak and unable to carry out state-sanctioned justice.
In the past year, the chief prosecutor in Tripoli, Al-Sadiq al-Sour, has shown more assertiveness, including arresting militants involved in atrocities, and perhaps he will be able to make more headway in 2018.
Yet generally speaking, neutrality, transparency and, more importantly, enforcement are elusive when it comes to justice. This environment deters reconciliation and, instead, fuels a vigilante mentality.
Top Photo: Libyan men displaced from Tawergha pray at a makeshift mosque at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya, Nov. 26, 2013 (AP photo by Manu Brabo).