Libya’s escalated warfare and the COVID pandemic are hindering formal diplomacy and thus prolonging the risks the conflict poses—from the Mediterranean to Africa’s Sahel region. Yet even as international peacemaking on Libya is stalled, long-time foes in the country’s west have overcome old enmities to cooperate amid the coronavirus crisis. It is the latest of several grassroots advances in Libya that show how local dialogues can build peace amid warfare—even when global diplomacy is impeded.
A Bitter Local Conflict
Amid Libya’s eight-year-old civil conflict, people in the brown-rock Nafusa Mountains have fought a battle over land and history between the small city of Nalut, perched on a cliff-top, and a locality called Batn al-Jabal (meaning “deep within the mountains”) on the plain below. Nalut’s people are ethnic Amazigh whose tribes populated North Africa before Arabs conquered it 1,300 years ago. Throughout the Maghreb region, the Amazigh (often known in the west as Berbers) have suffered oppression under Arab regimes such as the 42-year rule of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Batn al-Jabal, a dry plain dotted with towns and small farms, is home to an Arab tribe, the Si’an, that enjoyed greater favor from Qaddafi’s government.
Before and during Qaddafi’s rule, Nalut’s people say, the Si’an took over stretches of the plain below Nalut’s cliffs, including traditional Amazigh farming and grazing lands. In 2011, Nalut joined the rebellion against Qaddafi and raised local Amazigh forces that acquired aging tanks and other heavy weapons. Eventually, Nalut’s forces seized back some 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) of the disputed plain, including lands that provide access to the border—an economic asset in a country where smuggling is lucrative.
Malik El-Kebir, a native of western Libya, visited the Nafusa Mountains during the 2011 war. “That fighting was very destructive, with heavy weapons like trucks with anti-aircraft machine guns, and even tanks,” he said. “When the Nalut forces came to Tiji and Badr, [in Batn al-Jabal] the Si’an people felt they were fighting a war for their survival.” The civilian protection organization CIVIC reported that 11,000 of Tiji’s 18,000 people fled their homes, hundreds of which were burned. Journalists and other witnesses reported GRAD missiles fired indiscriminately into Nalut, where tens of thousands of residents fled.
Fighting between the two groups erupted again in subsequent years. “Traditional mediation by neutral tribes achieved cease-fires” after those battles, said El-Kebir, a civic activist who has worked to resolve the dispute. “But it has been unable to solve the real conflict,” return all displaced families to their homes, or fully open the highway on which both the Amazigh and Arab communities depend, he said. Batn al-Jabal’s stretch of the road controls travel eastward toward Tripoli, while Nalut controls passage westward and to the border crossing with Tunisia. Mountains and deserts hamper travel to the north and south. So with each community’s forces denying passage to residents of the other side, the economies and lives of both communities are stunted, with residents forced into long, dangerous detours to circumvent the blockades.
Moreover, the risk of renewed violence is ever present, because the two communities support opposing claimants in the war for national power. Nalut’s forces back the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, while the Si’an Arabs support the Libya Arab Armed Forces of the eastern-based military commander, Khalifa Haftar. The war has intensified in the nearly 14 months since Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli, causing a spike in casualties, 66 percent of whom were civilians in 2019, according to the British research group Action on Armed Violence. The escalation has intensified foreign participation, with Turkey supporting the Tripoli government and troops of the Russian military firm Wagner Group fighting alongside Haftar’s forces. In recent years, news reports and the United Nations have noted involvement in Libya of numerous countries—including support for Haftar from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The Coronavirus Arrives
As COVID loomed over Libya in March, the Tripoli-based government ordered families to their homes in the parts of the country it controls, and it closed Libya’s border with Tunisia. The order stranded more than 100 families from Nalut and Batn al-Jabal at the Tunisian border or on roads, blocked from their homes by opposing forces.
But as part of a reconciliation project developed by USIP, El-Kebir’s civic group—called Moomken (“Possible” in Arabic)—had recently worked with USIP to persuade the rival groups to form a joint committee to explore cooperation across the line of conflict. That committee, composed of municipal and community leaders, went to work, persuading each community to open the highway to residents of the other.
The committee also persuaded local officials working against COVID to coordinate efforts between the two communities. Importantly, it urged medical institutions to work together, El-Kebir said. “The central hospital in Nalut helped with sending medical supplies to a clinic in Batn al-Jabal,” he said. The cooperation committee members raised residents’ awareness of the pandemic, helping volunteers clean and sanitize public spaces to curb the virus’ spread.
Even more striking was the response of the two communities’ armed units as forces of the Tripoli government and Haftar fought in the Nafusa region in March. Amid that warfare, the local fighters from Nalut and Batn al-Jabal stayed to the sidelines, avoiding a new round of bloodshed between them.
Building Peace from the Grass Roots
Moomken sent Malik to begin reconciliation work in Nafusa in 2018, with training and guidance from USIP and funds from the U.S. State Department. A first step was simply to help each community envision that peace was possible. “Political leaders, the people at the top of the community often will say that ‘We will lose our positions if we talk about pushing our people to make peace and end this conflict,’” said El-Kebir. So he began instead in each community by gathering farmers, merchants, local professionals, and tribal and community leaders.
With each community group, “I helped them write down scenarios for what their lives are like, and for how they want to change them,” El-Kebir said in an interview. “I asked, ‘Do you want to live always with tigers, carrying weapons because you know that there is always a tiger hunting out on the road, waiting for a chance to attack you? Or do you want to live like flamingoes, who live in flocks together—eating together and flying together cooperatively so that their flying and living is easier?’”
Those discussions helped build a constituency for reconciliation and a willingness to discuss compromises, El-Kebir said. That allowed Nalut and Batn al-Jabal to create the cooperation committee that helped solve problems when COVID hit. After years of a “negative peace” that had achieved only a halt to the shooting, the cooperation committee marked a step toward “positive peace”—the first time that both municipalities have agreed to work together since before the 2011 revolution.
The need to work through civil society, and from the grass roots, is amplified by Libya’s lack of a truly national government, El-Kebir says. The grassroots progress between Batn al-Jabal and Nalut is just the latest in a string of cases in which activist Libyan citizens, many of them women and youth, have organized to solve problems and build peace in divided localities.
In Libya’s main southern city, Sebha, local peacebuilders led dialogues between tribal communities that repeatedly have fought in the streets, uniting them in a campaign to oppose the deadly local tradition of celebratory wedding gunfire. The nearby city of Ubari was left shattered and impoverished by a 2014-2016 war between local Tebu and Tuareg tribes. But in the past year, activist citizens, led largely by women, persuaded the city’s old rivals to work together to halt violence in the city’s schools and to reopen the city’s weekly market, which had been closed since the war. When the pandemic hit Ubari, a youth-led organization helped raise awareness across tribal lines.
Each of these local reconciliation campaigns, while led by community members, has been supported with training, mentorship, or other conflict-resolution guidance from USIP. To develop the reconciliation effort between Nalut and Batn al-Jabal, USIP gathered staff from Moomken and some members of the joint liaison committee for training and practice in analyzing conflicts and facilitating community dialogues.
Civic, Not Civil, Engineering
Before Libya’s plunge into civil war, El-Kebir had no plans to practice conflict resolution. Living in the capital, he prepared to follow his father’s path as an engineer. He studied civil engineering at Tripoli University in the department where his father was a professor. But when the nation overthrew the Qaddafi dictatorship, engineering students were among those who quickly pivoted to civic activism.
Moomken (its full name is the Moomken Organization for Awareness and Media) was co-founded by Ahmed Al-Bibas, one of El-Kebir’s fellow engineering students. The founding students “decided that civic work is the best way to help people understand democracy,” said El-Kebir, who joined the group shortly after its creation.
While Libya’s authoritarian history has bequeathed the country innumerable local conflicts like that of Nalut and Batn al-Jabal, young Libyans responded with a remarkable flourishing of civil society energy such as that reflected by Moomken. By 2014, just three years after Qaddafi’s fall opened the way for voluntary associations to form in Libya, 2,000 such organizations were operating, one researcher estimated. That is a per capita ratio six times that of Iraq and parallel to that of Egypt. “But many of these organizations have been small and underdeveloped. The continued conflict, lack of resources, and constricted space to operate has sharply constrained what they are able to achieve,” noted Nate Wilson, who manages USIP’s work in Libya. “We have found an unusually effective partner to work with in Moomken.”
With Moomken and other organizations, El-Kebir has helped build websites to provide resources for schools around the country, and to help civic organizations find volunteers and build support through social media. He worked to improve government policies on youth. And he began to specialize in peace and reconciliation work.
Now, instead of building bridges across highways with steel and concrete, El-Kebir builds them across Libya’s ethnic and political divides by helping solve local conflicts. “My father one time asked me, ‘Malik, why do you do this? Wouldn’t it be easier to live and make money by going back to engineering?’” But for El-Kebir, young Libyans like himself who are building their nation’s first modern civil society “are doing what our country needs now.”
As it happens, El-Kebir’s next goal with his partners in Batn al-Jabal and Nalut will require both types of bridge-building skills. On the all-important highway that links the two old enemies and their hopes for a better future, El-Kebir has cast his engineer’s eye on a bridge over a large wadi near the Batn al-Jabal town of al-Jawsh. In 2011, the bridge took a hit from an artillery round that blasted through the road surface and damaged the beams below. After a decade of only temporary and partial repairs, “the bridge has gotten more unsafe, and the concrete and steel will fail at some point,” El-Kebir said.
“Both Nalut and Batn depend on that bridge, so we think that working cooperatively to repair it will be a good way to build trust between them,” El-Kebir said. The Tripoli-based government “is not spending money on infrastructure right now,” he said. So Moomken and USIP are working on a possible search for funds from an international donor. USIP is also mentoring members of the joint liaison committee to strengthen their skills and ensure the committee’s sustainability over time. Should funds be acquired, the committee will play a crucial role in bringing the two communities together to collaborate on the bridge’s repair. This process will require—and can advance—continued work by both communities to turn their conflict into cooperation.
Abigail Corey is a USIP program assistant for Libya, based in Tunis. Esra Elbakoush is a USIP program officer for Libya.