Libya's urgent need for justice – and mercy

The civil war's final battle may come this weekend in Sirte unless the new anti-Qaddafi rulers can quickly set a course for national reconciliation.

The final act of Libya’s liberation from Muammar Qaddafi’s defenders could come by this weekend. Anti-Qaddafi forces are poised to take the city of Sirte, the former leader’s tribal base and the biggest holdout of his loyalists.

But this pending battle need not happen if the former rebels who now control most of Libya can quickly show how they plan to reconcile the country and prevent vendetta killings.

If successful, the new regime forming in Tripoli could defy the Arab stereotype of a people who seek only an eye for an eye in a conflict.

Feelings of revenge are strong after the end of Mr. Qaddafi’s 42-year brutal dictatorship. Tribal divisions are raw. During the six months of fighting, reports of massacres on both sides were common. Now many Libyans could be tempted to settle scores in the largely lawless environment. And with Qaddafi still at large, his supporters may fight on – and draw retaliation from bands of former rebels.

National reconciliation is also needed quickly to prevent Al Qaeda and its Libyan agents from fomenting violence. Al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has called on global jihadists to focus on Libya.

Fortunately, the ruling National Transitional Council has promised leniency for Qaddafi supporters except those “with blood on their hands.” The council president, Abdel Jalil, is a respected former minister of justice who knows hatred can cloud one’s judgment and who wants post-civil-war justice to come in a courtroom and not on the street.

Every nation that emerges from an internal conflict must find its own path to reconciliation. South Africa, for example, achieved it after the end of apartheid by respecting white-owned businesses and going easy on the perpetrators of violence who confessed before a truth and reconciliation commission.

While Libya has a long history of competition between tribes of the east and west, the country does not have the ethnic or religious differences that have created violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the anti-Qaddafi movement that erupted in February helped unite many Libyans behind the idea of citizenship based in democracy.

Persuading Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte to give up won’t be easy. They must be assured that the new government will administer fair justice with a sense of mercy.

A whiff of that mercy came last Friday when a prominent Muslim leader gave a Friday sermon in Tripoli’s Mourad Agha mosque. Sheikh Abdul Ghani Aboughreis, according to a New York Times report, asked thousands of his Islamic followers to forgive and obey the rule of law – and not take revenge.

The sheikh himself was jailed for six months by Qaddafi forces during the uprising after he called for an overthrow of the regime. Despite that, he was able to set aside his bitterness and call on Libyans to reconcile. May they do it fast.

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