The three bombs that exploded on August 19 in Tripoli should serve as a serious wake up call for the country. It is a miracle that they did not cause more than the two deaths and four injuries than they did. Libyan security forces have no doubt that the sponsors as well as the perpetrators of the crimes are supporters of the former regime. The government has already requested from neighboring countries—Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria—extradition of the most wanted members of the Qaddafi regime.
Even if these states comply and some fugitives are returned, however, this will not solve the security problem, which needs a political solution rather than a judicial or military one. There are more than 500,000 supporters of former Libyan leader Qaddafi in exile, and perhaps as many as a million. A small subset of such exiles, particularly those who were closest to the defunct colonel, have vast sums of money at their disposal. They are using these assets to foment terrorism inside Libya in order to create instability and discontent with the new government, with the goal of retaking the country. In order to break the problem down, those who have committed crimes themselves or ordered others to do so should be disaggregated from the majority, who simply supported the regime ideologically or worked for it.
The August 19 bombings in Tripoli demonstrate that Libya cannot move forward without building a foundation of social and political unity and trust. Despite the optimism expressed by political leaders and the media, Libya faces grave and potentially fatal divisions along a number of fault lines: not only pro and anti-Qaddafi, but also tribe versus tribe, city versus city, young versus old, Islamist versus secularist, poor versus rich, and so on.
What the situation requires is a complete and well thought out process of national reconciliation, which should include but not be limited to provisions for transitional justice. There are many examples of countries coming out of divisive struggles that succeeded in building pluralist political systems thanks to national reconciliation processes, such as South Africa, Greece (after 1945), East Germany, Morocco after the death of Hassan II, Spain after the death of Franco, Mozambique, and many others. Then there are the cautionary tales of countries in which new leaders thought they could do without reconciliation and instead pursued vengeance against the defeated. Most of these countries—such as Iraq, Algeria, many African countries, and Italy after its 1945 civil war—paid dearly for that choice and are still suffering the consequences of disunity. Libyans must choose between the fate of South Africa, which would require reconciliation, and that of Iraq.
Libya’s first steps toward former regime members are not encouraging. The National Transitional Council (NTC) passed Law 36 in June 2012, which freezes the assets of 300 persons (and their family members) considered sympathizers of the Qaddafi regime. It has since been increased to over 1000 persons. The list of those targeted was prepared without any proof of wrongdoing, and without giving them any recourse; most of them learned they were on this list from the press.
The newly elected General National Congress (GNC), moreover, at its first meeting promulgated a law barring any person holding dual nationality or even having a non-Libyan spouse from holding the position of prime minister or minister. Another proposal is circulating within the GNC which, if approved, would bar anyone who held any position in the former regime from holding or running for any public office for ten years. Together these two provisions would disqualify half of the Libyan population from public office.
If this is the trend, one wonders how the GNC will deal with the looming issue of property rights. What will happen when those whose properties were expropriated under the laws enacted by the regime in the 1970’s reclaim them? What position will the GNC and the new government take? What about the properties of those accused of being “Qaddafians” and forced to flee? If insecurity about property rights prevails, foreign companies will not return and new businesses will not be started, which will lead to increased unemployment and poverty.
At this point the question arises of whether there is in Libya today a political class with enough courage to undertake a process of reconciliation, which is necessary but might be unpopular with the general public. The Islamist Ali Sallabi was the first to try in May to bring Qaddafians to the negotiating table, a laudable move for which he was widely criticized. The new president of the GNC, Mohammed Magarief, undoubtedly has both foresight and courage, and could lead a reconciliation effort. Other indidviduals who held high positions in the former regime but later defected and spoke in favor of national reconciliation could also be included in a committee in charge of planning and designing a national reconciliation process for Libya.
One idea would be to create a committee to pursue reconciliation, which would combine Libyan figures such as those mentioned above with eminent members of the international community such as the Tunisian Sheikh Gannouchi, the Egyptian Rector of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Taieb, Prince Hassan of Jordan, and others of equivalent moral and cultural status. Such a committee, supported by capable staff, could work efficiently to jumpstart an effort. This is one of many ways to undertake a process of national reconciliation but the important thing is to get started now, Libya is short of time, as the August 19 bombs showed.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.