In Tripoli, forgiveness reigns for now

Libya's National Transition Council in Tripoli is stressing reconciliation instead of revenge. But not all Libyans are convinced the goodwill will last.

By , Staff writer

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    A Libyan woman smiles after the weekly Muslim Friday prayer at the former Green Square, renamed Martyrs Square, in Tripoli, Libya, Friday. Rebel party leaders are focused on national reconciliation, forgiveness, and the rule of law rather than revenge.
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Vengeful graffiti aimed at former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and his lieutenants can be found around this city, which is emerging from decades of his brutal reign. But calls for revenge in revolutionary Libya are turning out to be rare sentiments.

Libya's new rulers have instead focused on national reconciliation, forgiveness, and the rule of law at every turn, aware of the risks to the post-Qaddafi Libya of tit-for-tat violence and revenge that bred such instability in Iraq since 2003.

Despite a history of violence that includes brutality against Libyans by Italians during the colonial era, and the psychological and sometimes physical stress of living under Mr. Qaddafi, many Libyans say that the peace that prevails in Tripoli, and the goodwill evident so far, signal the possibility of a relatively calm transition.

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There are exceptions. Giant blue letters sprayed across the walls of Abu Salim, Libya's most notorious prison, call for the death of Qaddafi's former military intelligence chief: "In God's name, Abdullah al-Sanoussi will be murdered here in revenge for the blood of the martyrs who died here." Mr. Sanoussi ordered the killing of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim in 1996, one of the most brutal events carried out by the former regime.

"Some people like to express themselves, but real action is different; once you implement real justice, this will disappear," says former prisoner Mustafa Krer, after reading the fresh prison graffiti during a visit there with his family.

A Libyan-Canadian activist, he was arrested in 2000 and imprisoned at Abu Salim for eight years. He says he faced frequent beatings and a week in a metal box in the scalding sun. Now the prison is closed, empty of inmates and filled only by visitors – and some looters – looking for a glimpse into the closed-off world of Qaddafi's Libya.

"Yes, I am angry," says Mr. Krer. "But we are going to build a new country, and we have to build it on a strong foundation. One step is reconciliation, and giving rights to others."

Krer says he does not forgive all his jailers, because many "were tough, were terrorists, in a way, [who] meant what they did. And if they catch me now, they will do the same."

But Krer and many other Libyans exude a raw optimism that Libya might avoid the society-changing violence that marred transitions in countries like Iraq and Romania. "Libyans can rise above this violence," adds Krer. "Libyans are somehow merciful with each other. If we provide some conditions like justice, equality, and freedom, I think we will be good with each other."

Such high expectations are widely heard in the afterglow of Libya's revolution, which took control of Libya on Aug. 20. Tripoli was taken with little fighting, and has so far involved few of the vicious acts and manhunts that accompanied the rebel takeover of Benghazi last February.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) has sent public service announcements to Libyan mobile phones. An Aug. 25 message read: "Remember when you capture any loyalist of Qaddafi, remember that he is a Libyan like you, and his family is your family also."

An Aug. 28 message read: "It's forbidden to take revenge against prisoners, and beating and hunting them down inside the prisons."

Those messages have been sinking in, and are frequently reinforced. During his first press conference in Tripoli on Thursday night, Mahmoud Jibril, Libya's acting premier, said that "the ability to forgive and reconcile for the future" was one of Libya's biggest challenges.

"The choice before the Libyans is either to take actions against those who made our past, or to make a new future for themselves and their future sons and generations – and that is not an easy feat," said Mr. Jibril.

'Some want revenge'

Not all Libyans are convinced that the goodwill is real. "I'm sure if a Qaddafi supporter were here, they would kill him," says one Libyan visiting Abu Salim prison, after hearing the words of forgiveness of several revolutionary fighters who spent time behind bars, and described torture and abuse during the Qaddafi era.

"Don't believe everything you hear about good treatment," he says. "They say this out of respect for you and to put a good light on it. But some want revenge; it is normal."

Jibril also warned of losing the fight “against ourselves,” and referred obliquely to political divisions that were already emerging within the TNC and revolutionary authorities and commanders.

Those concerns seemed manifest on Friday night at a large anti-Qaddafi rally that filled Green Square – now called Martyrs' Square – with thousands of flag-waving, jubilant Libyans.

But when the head of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdulhakim Belhadj, was getting ready to address the crowd, a fight erupted behind the stage as some revolutionary officers from outside the capital – from places like Misurata, Benghazi, and the western Nafousa mountains, which saw heavy fighting for months – tried to prevent Mr. Belhadj from speaking.

Another scuffle erupted as the Tripoli military chief descended the stage, and officers were overheard complaining that the capital was less safe than it appeared.

Just hours earlier, in the same square, the Friday prayer leader delivered a pertinent sermon. “God will help us solve all the arguments between us, and forgive all those who hurt us,” he said.

The cleric added that Libyans should “shake hands with our enemies; this is what God says to us … . The challenge in front of us is how to forgive; don’t let anyone take you in a different way … . Don’t dirty this revolution.”

'No vengeance. No violence.'

Still, there are positive signs. At state-run TV, the new interim director, Abdul Raouf al-Mannaie, said he had sent a conciliatory note to those who once worked there, which included quoting the prophet Muhammad on forgiving enemies. Within days, half a dozen former senior staff had returned their official latest-model BMW cars, with keys and documents.

“It will be changed from the roots, from the beginning to the end, because we believe in freedom and we took it by blood,” says Mr. Mannaie. “They gave their cars and [official] weapons, and we respected them and treated them very well. If we do differently, how are we different from Qaddafi?”

The official sentiment has even taken root on the battlefield. While Tripoli fell to rebels in three days, when the push finally came, revolutionary leaders took a much more flexible approach with holdout pro-Qaddafi cities like Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of here, and Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, to the east.

Several deadlines passed in the space of two weeks for both cities to lay down their weapons. Libya's new leaders said they didn't want a fight and wanted to avoid any more bloodshed. But negotiations – all of them rich with talk of reconciliation – failed as the new Libya ran into the old. Fighters began battling for Bani Walid late Friday, and reported breaching the gates of the city overnight.

That hasn’t stopped the messengers of the new Libya from trying to forge a different future. Besides the anti-Qaddafi venom on the prison walls, these words can also be found on one Tripoli street corner: “No vengeance. No violence. Clean it up and keep it clean.”

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