Monday, December 30, 2013

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Najla Elmangoush

Reconstructing the Libyan Social Fabric

Najla Elmangoush was born on London, June 7. Single mother of two daughters, grew up in Benghazi, Libya. She is currently a graduate student in conflict transformation in Eastern Mennonite University.  She served as the local representative of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Libya. She has volunteered as the head of the Public Engagement Unit within the Executive Office of the National Transitional Council (NTC), which handles outreach with newly emerging civil society organizations, and has organized seminars to raise political awareness and organized Libya’s first conference for civil society. A lawyer by training, Elmangoush has worked in that capacity in the private sector, and as a lecturer at Benghazi and Tripoli University. She holds an master's degree in criminal law and bachelor's degree in law from Benghazi University in Libya.

Yago: Najla, you are very much welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness”. We want to include your witness as a woman of the Libyan revolution in the context of the “Arab Spring”. At the same time we would like to listen to your own understanding of the current situation in Libya and your strategic vision for the future.

Najla: It’s my pleasure; I am looking forward to this conversation. The Libyan revolution changed my whole life as a woman and as a Libyan citizen whom has been part of, experienced and witnessed this historical period.

Yago: In short, what is the current situation in Libya?

Najla: The current situation in Libya, more than two years since the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, exists as the euphoria of revolution has worn off and Libya faces a multitude of difficulties. In addition to more immediate security issues, Libya struggles with questions about the past actions by and against the Qaddafi regime. How are those responsible for past crimes to be held accountable? How can a deeply divided and highly militarized society establish the foundations of a more stable and secure political order?

Women's demonstration in Tripoli back in September 2011. Reuters

Yago: When I say the “Arab Spring”, what does it come first to your mind and heart?

Najla: Hope, dignity, recognition, identity, change, justice, dream… all of these different elements. 

Yago: You say that you felt “imprisoned” under Qaddafi’s regime? Could you share with us how you were affected? How was your dignity undermined?

Najla: Not only women but all Libyan’s suffered from “being imprisoned.” The Libyan revolution is a cumulative project of resistance against the dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi that began in the 1970s and ended with Qaddafi’s death on October 20, 2011. Over those 42 years Libyans contributed to the resistance movement in a variety of ways. Libyan dignities were undermined and we were ‘imprisoned’ throughout our daily life. That affected us deeply, the element of mistrust and the feeling of being neglected, without hope or sense of dignity, was affecting the way we lived, how we lived and how we acted.

Yago: You say that people in the Libyan revolution was looking for their lost sense of identity and dignity. Could you share with us how the identity and dignity of people was undermined?

Najla: You will accept anything from the people. When their basic needs are neglected and ignored the reaction will be complex. First, put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated as Donna Hicks said in her book Dignity. This understanding is because of my experience as a person who has lived in a post-conflict zone, watching the people dying every day, imagining the feeling when a small boy waiting for his father to share the dinner together instead heard that his father died. These kind of stories are considered a safety issue in my country because it is serious and threatening the daily life. Hicks connected this element with a brilliant example when she said “if leaders want people to buy into and support their ideas about governance, understanding how to keep them feeling emotionally well balanced is fundamental. “Treating them with dignity creates not only inner stability, but a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves” (pp.69-70). When I read this sentence over and over again I was thinking ‘what if all dictatorships in this world were being intentional and recognizing the people’s needs with a sense of dignity instead of creating all this pain and conflict’? If each leader took into consideration his people and validated their dignity, we would not see any wars or conflict.

Yago: And what about the rights for women in Libya?

Najla: The issue of [rights for] women in Libya is like ink and paper: it's not real, it is a long journey and the process will take a long time for men to accept women’s roles in society. As Libyan women, we have highly educated women, but for a long time they had a low profile, never wanted to be noticed. We are not as strong as we should be. We have to stop having negativity inside us and start creating our destiny.

Najla Elmangoush with other Women activists

Yago: From the perspective of a woman, how did you live the “Arab Spring”?

Najla: I was working on a project as a head of the public engagement unit in Benghazi (Libya); this unit was one of the many units in the media committee which emerged together during that time to support the Libyan revolution. It was a hard time. We worked as team volunteers, no facilities, no budget to handle the project.  We just had one Internet network which was shared with many departments in one building because the Gadhafi regime cut all the Internet services during that period. In addition, all of us did not have experience as a team, coming from different backgrounds, and most of us met for the first time. Furthermore, half of the country was still under the Gadhafi regime. It was a difficult situation, and danger surrounded us. Despite that fact, we decided to take a risk to work with the media and work publicly since our goals as a part of the media committee were to hold workshops and support the civil society. Furthermore, we developed communication between the National Council (temporary government) and the civil society.

Yago: Could you share with us how the “Arab spring” is contributing to the liberation of the Libyan Women? How can you described this process of liberation? What was the role of women supporting the revolution?

Najla: It is very timely and critically important for those concerned about ensuring that women have a role in their country's development. With the fall of Qaddafi, the different cities and towns across Libya are now struggling to agree on a unified narrative for the revolution. However, there is one part from the narrative that everyone seems to agree on: women were a crucial motivating factor in the midst of the struggle for freedom. Whether it was the hundreds of Libyan women who travelled with the men to the frontlines, those who formed makeshift kitchens or the women positioned inside Qaddafi strongholds who smuggled guns and information, women carved out a space for their participation. Women across Libya nursed the injured, while Libyan women in the diaspora returned to providing technical assistance to the newly formed NTC. Libyan women gained access and they played both traditional and non-traditional roles that earned them a clear chapter in Libyan history.

Women formed support groups for broken families in a country with no social services and mass-produced battlefield meals for a rebel army that otherwise had no means of feeding itself. They also took to the streets, joining the daily protests and celebrations in city squares.

These volunteers hardly saw themselves fighting for feminism, but have transformed into political groups that seem destined to produce Libya’s first generation of female activists. Women have made remarkable progress during recent years compared with men. Many men dropped out of school, whereas women stuck with it and went to university. We will see the benefit over time.

Yago: During the time of the revolution you finally found the opportunity to contribute in changing the history of your country, your family, and your children. You say that “the revolution was a good chance for you to know yourself.” Could you share more about this?

Najla: At first I was sceptical that ‘this’ would be the chance Libyans were waiting for to change our future – it seemed like such a daunting challenge and an impossible dream. We had been living under a dictatorship, where, day by day, we had forgotten our rights as people. Despite living in a country rich with resources and potential Libya’s small population was mired in poverty.

Court Square in Benghazi. April 2011 Source: Wikipedia

I found myself joining my college friend at the court, where the opposition was gathering, without doubt or fear. Suddenly, I realized this was my chance to fulfill my duty to my country. As I approached the doors of the Supreme Court, they opened and I was welcomed into a world where the fundamental issue was trust. Because Benghazi is a small city and most people know each other, everyone knew who had been part of the Qaddafi regime and who was joining the revolution.

There were only a few of us at the court, at first, five women and seven men, each of us committing ourselves to working around the clock without any break. The desire to do something constructive was overwhelming. I started by making signs in support of the revolution, we handed these out to protestors.

We were trying to encourage the protesters with leaflets and statements explaining the importance of being involved in this critical moment.

Soon, I found myself working with two other women on media issues. I was one of the first women who went to the local radio station in Benghazi, hoping the management would allow us to communicate with the Libyan people everywhere. I believed in the cause, despite the risks.

We soon started broadcasting. One after another on February 21, 2011, three other women and I repeated on air: “Libya al-hurra. Free Libya.” With tears in my eyes, I recognized the historical significance of the moment, and I was just one part of it. I became the first woman to read an opposition statement over Libyan radio. We delivered messages about the distribution of weapons and highlighted centers where supplies could be dropped off for opposition forces.

Najla with CNN team when they arrived at Benghazi
during the early days of the revolution
After our first broadcast, our small team became responsible for outreach with the international media. We were constantly updating foreign news outlets about the situation on the ground and exactly what measures Qaddafi’s regime was taking against the Libyan people. We sent videos to journalists with first-hand accounts and often were called for interviews, including television news programs.

Yago: It looks that in the beginning of the revolution it was easy to come together to work against the Regime. Did you work directly with the emerging opposition to the Regime? 

Najla: Yes, this exposure led us to work directly with the opposition National Council. Our first collaboration was to organize the council’s first press conference as the National Transitional Council (NTC). When that was successful, we organized the second and began corresponding with the local and international media on behalf of the NTC. We became the first women to write in a Libyan newspaper.

For a while, I worked with a colleague in the darkness of the Supreme Court building in Benghazi under the protection of volunteer security officers. In April 2011, I was selected to be the head of the Public Engagement Unit, the official liaison between the NTC and the Libyan people.

This period was one of the most amazing times in my life. The role was not only a new experience and a challenge for me, but a completely foreign concept for the Libyan people. In a flurry of activity, we began to use the tools of democracy. Seminars and workshops were held with the NTC and the public to discuss the following issues:  how the NTC should act, the difference between the NTC and local councils, the challenges the NTC was facing, and how the NTC could communicate with the international community. The turnout for the seminars was always strong and engagement was continuous.

Yago: What was your role in animating the Libyan civil society in the middle of the revolution? How active were women in all this process?

Najla: The Unit organized the first Libyan civil society fair in May of 2011. For the first time, Libyans were able to familiarize themselves with the role civil society could play in the revolution. Many members of the NTC attended, as did international organizations and diplomats including the French, British, and American ambassadors. To the surprise of many, the strongest and most renowned organizations were led by women. Many of these women-led organizations had supported the front lines of the revolution, providing critical food, supplies and medicine or communicating with the media. We held a second civil society fair in July of 2011.

Of course, success did not come without opposition. Convincing NTC members to participate in the process was extremely hard. It was the first time in 42 years that the public could participate in governing, so resistance was strong at times. NTC members, who appeared in the public sphere, also feared for the safety of their family members living in other parts of the country still under the Qaddafi regime.

I found myself often explaining the importance of engaging with the public. This would not only build the legitimacy and respect for the NTC in the international community, but also build the understanding of a democratic Libyan state.

Yago: You became the Country Representative for the United States Institute of Peace.

Najla: Yes, soon, I became the Country Representative for the United States Institute of Peace. Fulfilling my dream, I am now working to transform my own life alongside my Libyan experience by trying to help resolve the conflict in Libya. We have held workshops across Libya on topics such as developing a constitution, conflict management and the rule of law. So I’ve been able to help my beloved Libya, even traveling alone throughout the region.

I have been featured as an expert panelist at several international conferences. Among the conferences I attended was the first women’s conference in Libya during which I presented a comparison of the rights of Libyan women before and after the revolution, from a legal perspective. I am now able to fully share my story as a Libyan activist and, I hope, motivate others. I would never have thought myself capable of succeeding in such a position.

Najla at USIP conference. (USIP)

Women played a critical role in supporting the revolution and the Libyan people showed astonishing capacity for promoting democratic change and peaceful transition. Women have filled much of the enormous gap left by the fall of the regime, from holding leadership positions in civil society to taking office in the new government.

Still, it is apparent that women’s groups still need capacity-building and knowledge. As they patiently fight for rights, freedoms, and a paradigm shift that welcomes such changes, women will continue to be visible leaders in Libyan society.

Yago: At the time of the revolution you were a single mother of two girls and a professor of criminal law at Benghazi University. How did you manage to combine all this roles with your role as activist during the revolution?

Najla: I couldn’t manage and combine all these roles without the support of my family and their understanding of my role’s importance, even though my work during the revolution days was risky. They encouraged me and respected my desire to take part in this revolution. 

Yago: As you said before, you became the first woman to read an opposition statement over Libyan radio. You also became the first women to write in a national newspaper. How did you experience these historical moments?

Najla: Yes, I was the first woman to read a statement over Libyan radio. I share this historical moment with other Libyan women. Though we knew that the Gaddafi supporters might target us at any time, we didn’t think of such dangers. I was not the first woman to write in a national newspaper; two other women worked with me. I was responsible for the written media report and the other women were responsible for the section with pictures. Even in the coldness and darkness of winter, we were worked together as a team, often late into the night. Our shared passion and values motivated and sustained us.  

Yago: You were involved in the organization of the first Libyan civil society fair in May 2011. The civil society began to have a unique role in the complexity of this process. How would you describe civil society’s unique role?

Najla: Since Gaddafi prohibited any social gathering, there wasn’t any real participation in civil society before the revolution. When the civil war started, people began gathering to support the revolution in various ways. Some provided supplies and food to the fighters, while others helped provide medical support. The people offered such assistance without prior planning or a conceptual understanding of civil society.  

Yago: You believe in the role of the Civil Society in today’s Libya. At the same time, you also say that Libya’s civil society is missing funding and strategic peacebuilding capacities. What can you say about that?

Najla: This question is related to the previous answer. As I mentioned, the concept of civil society in Libya developed in response to the crises taking place. When the government established itself, many other serious issues arose. The constitution, the election, and civic education are examples of such issues. Given their dependence on volunteers and funding limitations, small civil society organizations were heavily challenged by such issues. Thus, other actors began to take the initiative and lead activities related to these issues. A lack of leadership and strategic planning within these organizations certainly constitute obstacles to local improvements.

Yago: Gaddafi’s death has left an armed population with many years of unresolved grievances. Once the regime has disappeared it is emerging a chaotic situation where a myriad of armed groups seeks material advantage, political influence and even revenge. It exists a fragmentation of the security landscape of Libya. The heart of the issue is very much political as there is great distrust among the new actors at the end of the conflict. As part of your strategy you say that we need to look at the needs of the militias, and what is underneath its attitudes. 
You are studying the relationship between the militias and the civil society after-revolution. You advocate for the need of cooperation among them. Is there any sing on cooperation between the militias and the civil society? How do you analyze the current situation of these two key stakeholders in today’s Libya?

Najla: In a recent paper that I authored, I analyzed the conflict between the militia and the civil society of Benghazi. This conflict analysis is an attempt to understand the issue from multiple perspectives and to identify the multitude of stakeholders who have been implicated, from individual activists to the international community. The lack of coordination and trust between the militia groups and the civil society is a huge obstacle to the stability of the city. The civil society refuses to recognize the informal authority of militia groups and instead blames them for the city’s ongoing security issues. The militia is necessary because the Libyan government is still fragile and is struggling to manage the security issues of its citizens.

Through interviews that I conducted for this paper, I was able to identify multiple stakeholders from both civil society and the militia. This conflict has several complicating elements:

First, this conflict is very serious and could change the country’s developmental trajectory. Moreover, if stakeholders fail to adequately the localized challenges that they face, this conflict could further delay the establishment of a just democracy. Even now, Libya is without a constitution due to its security crisis; this circumstance continues to keep the rule of law in the city weak.  

Second, Libya is still in a transitional period. A successful transition requires a specific yet also adaptable strategy that will stabilize the conflict and create opportunities for warmer peace.

Third, ongoing violence in the forms of homicide, militia domination, and kidnapping continues to affect daily life.

Yago: Can you identify and enumerate the different root causes that keeps perpetuating the conflict in Benghazi?  

Najla: One of the most significant root causes is the political mismanagement of Benghazi. For instance, most of the employees who work in the government institution do not have adequate experience to deal with the transition. Such expertise is essential if government is to function effectively. If decision-making processes and communications between departments are to be improved, it is crucial that governance structures be staffed with qualified employees that support the political movement.

Another issue is that supporters of the Gaddafi family that are still free and located outside of Libya are seeking revenge. These supporters are funnelling money into Libya in order to support this entire dilemma. For instance, during its investigation process, the Libyan government discovered that the Gaddafi family (and their supporters) were behind many of the violent crimes originally attributed to other groups.

Rebels spread weapons during the revolution period following the fall of the military centre of operations in Benghazi. It followed that most of the weapons were taken to free the city; civilians became the fighters holding the guns. Once the government established itself and asked the fighters to return the weapons, not all of them were willing to do so.

As I mentioned above, there is considerable conflict between the militia and the military. The militia joined the military as one large group rather than as samller individual groups. However, these small groups still take order from their previous leaders. It follows that there is tension between previous militia leaders and current military leaders. Militia members do not feel loyal to the head of the military.

When I interviewed one of the armed groups which joined the military by his own decision, he indicated that the military ignored the needs of militia groups. He mentioned to me that, in spite of their huge role in supporting the revolution, most of the armed groups felt neglected. This circumstance in and of itself may spur considerable violence, especially if/when there is no communication between them (militia groups) and the government.

Since the revolution started, all Libyan boarders have been opened. This has led to an array of broader security breaches. For example, the East boarders with Egypt originally opened to support the fighters but, without adequate control and strong checkpoints, have since been used in order to exchange drugs and weapons back and forth.

Many of the armed groups are traumatized; they suffer from deep emotional pain and physical challenges. Without localized shifts in consciousness around trauma-related issues, grievances of this nature will only compound and complexify.

Another complex cause is Islamic extremism. As this ideology has become a reality on Libyan soil, it has become even more complicated. Since some radical groups are funded by specific countries, some people attribute increases in Islamic extermism to international interference.

Photo: UPI/Mohamaad Hosam
Injustice will prevail when the rule of law is fragile and there is no accountability for crimes committed. Armed groups carry out unlawful investigations and arrests of wanted individuals, set up checkpoints, and force their way into people’s homes in the name of capturing outlaws or people involved with the previous regime.

Given my brief outline of the root causes, we can begin to understand why this security crisis exists. Murders and abductions create a collective sense of fear and disappointment within the city and within these different armed groups (Drouah, militia under government, and Ansar sharea). People no longer trust official bodies (such as the police) because they have shown themselves to be inadequate, if not fully incapable. As a result, there is little respect for governmental institutions. Two ministers have resigned from the ministry of the interior due to the security crisis. On nearly a daily basis, varied acts of violence are directed at government buildings or officials. As I have been describing, the core problem of this conflict is a generalized security crisis that has enveloped not only Benghazi, but the whole country.

Yago: What is the theory of change that you have developed in your conflict analysis?

Najla: I focused in one theory to change this conflict. My theory is to increase capacity to prevent violence between specific militia Drouah and specific local organization LIAS, in Benghazi. I focused on the efforts of a few activists and how I can invest in these efforts at a larger/wider scale.

Yago: How are you planning to implement your theory? 

Najla: Through conducting conflict problem-solving meetings that focus on relationship building and the development of mediation skills with civil society leaders, tribes’ leaders, and militia.

To solve the security issue in Benghazi, it would first be necessary to practice this theory with a specific group, in a specific neighborhood. I would start with the key factors with the tribes' leaders first. There are several strong tribes that have conflict amongst themselves and with militia groups. If leaders from these various tribes and militia groups can be brought together and organized, they may be able to develop an agreement that will prevent futher violence. Such an agreement would demand increased communication and continual trust-building. Eventually, if they sign an agreement, their process could be a model for violence-prevention dialogue at a national level. 

Yago: According to International Crisis Group, it has been well over a year since Qadhafi’s regime was ousted and still there is no functioning court system in many parts of the country, while armed groups continue to run prisons and enforce their own forms of justice. Revolutionary brigades, criminal gangs have been operating above the law, hindering the work of investigations and judges. NTC vowed to build a new justice system based on the rule of law. Things are much more complex than expected. As a lawyer, how would you describe the current legacy of the judicial system during the dictatorship of Qaddafi?

Najla: Many issues exist within the current judicial system, namely corruption and mismanagement. Rather than detail these problems, I will suggest several primary steps to resolve them. We should plan to develop Libyan capacity to promote the rule of law.  We need to conduct public and professional organized-crime threat analysis in Libya so that we may gather data on current trends and predict future trends. This particular assessment would inform recommendations for reform that would address these crime problems. Also, we should undertake an assessment of prisons in Libya. Such an assessment should provide an overview of the number and type of prisons in Libya. We need to better account for the needs of prisons, particularly in regards to training. Even though I come from a legal and criminological background, I believe these kinds of analysis are necessary because without them we can’t deal with this legacy in a manner that cultivates sustainable peace. I shifted from criminal law to peace studies when I realized that the conditions for establishing rule of law had not been satisfied. At the current moment, I am concerned with the realities of many countries’ customary justice systems. In particular, I am interested in how we prompt legal empowerment. It may be necessary to be more inclusive of customary justice systems within the scope of legal reform and development efforts. In other words, how I can make a bridge between the rule of law and restorative justice in post conflict areas? (Local legitimacy, rule of law, local leadership, transitional justice)

Yago: How do you envision the process of reconstruction where the dignity of the Libyan people can be preserved and their sense of identity be recovered?

Najla: I can answer this question in one sentence. Dignity is an essential element to resolve conflict. As Donna Hicks said, “If we do nothing more than be aware of people dignity in our everyday lives and practicing honoring dignity, we will be making an enormous contribution to the healing of injustice. For a simple reason, it brings out the best in each of us.”

Yago: You can see that Libyan people showed astonishing capacity for promoting democratic change and peaceful transition. Is Libya in need of Transitional Justice?

Najla: Yes, this is a priority for the Libyan people right now. The national Congress issued transitional justice law. Though this is an important step, it is not enough to address the country’s problems. What is missing is a strategy for more interpersonal and intrapersonal transformation. How can we influence and change the people’s attitude? On other words, how can the people practice transitional justice and reconciliation? What kind of skills and acknowledgment are necessary if we are to see change on the ground?  

Yago: During the course of United States Institute of Peace (USIP)’s recent work in Libya, both high-level Libyan officials and the community identified trauma as a major issue affecting and hindering the establishment of rule of law. What can you say about this?

Najla: To be honest with you, I wasn’t aware of the trauma issue until last year when I attended an event organised by USIP. When I heard about the trauma as a concept and reality, we lived in my community (especially during the conflict) without recognizing how trauma fuelled the invisible struggles that affect our lives. I started to learn more about trauma. I am lucky now because I will take a trauma transformation course next semester in order to understand how we can transform trauma into constructive energy that may positively impact our lives. I have a personal opinion regarding trauma: that some level of trauma might be essential  to grow and change in a positive manner, sometimes we need trauma to understand ourselves and our lives.

Yago: What is the direct impact of trauma on current and future efforts to build justice, security, and the rule of law?

Najla: The impact of traumatic events can be pervasive and destructive to individual lives, families, communities. The cost of unresolved trauma to society is incalculable. Trauma has been correlated to physical and mental illness, learning disabilities, addictions, deviant or aggressive behaviour, polarization of belief systems; racial, ethnic and religious intolerance and violence in individuals, in schools and communities, between groups and between nations. However, the good news is trauma is treatable and preventable.

Awareness of trauma and its effective treatment must become an underlying force in society. Trauma healing processes are essential if Libyans are to share their narratives and stories. That could be the beginning of building trust as a society and encourage all the parties to be part of the process. This could lead to the establishment of healthy relationships necessary for sustainable peace. 

Yago: What is your strategic vision for the future of Libya?

Najla: I am hopeful even with all this conflict because I believe with conflict there is an opportunity to establish peace; conflict could be the foundation of stability. However, that requires a careful and well-adjusted plan in order to implement and actualize effective interventions. As I have said before, this intervention might be the need for a national reconciliation process to include important sectors of society, including women, civil society organizations, and tribes. My role as a woman, as many women in my country have found in this revolution, is to demonstrate a way to start a new beginning, new hope.

Yago: Najla, thanks a lot for your courageous witness. Indeed you have gone through a very challenging period in your life. Let us keep learning from one another as we build a more peaceful and just world.

Najla: Thanks Yago for giving me this opportunity to share my story.