(cont’d from Part 1 and Part 2)
At the center of some of the world’s most violent conflict zones, a cadre of civic leaders and scholars are defying cynicism and fatalism to achieve what few believe possible: facilitating sustainable negotiated agreements that forestall cycles of violence, allow people who’ve fled violence in their communities to return home, and establish new terms for peaceful cooperation.
These growing networks of dialogue facilitators, supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace, are neutral third parties who help antagonists start real conversations that allow them to understand each other's perspectives and work out the parameters for resolving disputes without the kind of devastating conflict they have all experienced. Most recently, their work has led to local-level reconciliations between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq, between street vendors and authorities in Tunisia, and among and within Arab and Kurdish communities in northeastern Syria.
The facilitator networks in Iraq, Tunisia and Libya, and a Middle East and North Africa Regional Facilitators Forum allow some 60 civic leaders to work together, sharing their experiences to advance and spread the practice of dialogue. In instances where local tensions fuel overarching geopolitical competition, they illustrate in one successful project after another that even the most intense conflict—such as the Sunni-Shia rift over a bloody 2014 massacre in Iraq of as many as 1,700 Iraqi military cadets by the self-styled "Islamic State"—can be addressed without violence.
The four members of these networks profiled here display the expertise, courage, thoughtfulness and local knowledge and understanding these facilitators bring to bear in a region struggling to find its way through the fractures of transition.
Suad Almarani, Yemen
Tensions had been building for months in Yemen early last year as an ambitious project to develop a new constitution edged closer to success. Suad Almarani was on the roof of the home she shared with her parents, a sister and a brother in a neighborhood of the capital Sana'a in March 2015, when the first sign of air strikes blasted through a tranquil moment. Her mother was baking Yemeni bread in an oven of the rooftop kitchenette. Suad was watering her mother's prized mint, basil, aloe and cherry tomatoes grown from seeds her mother had brought from Berlin.
The first sign of the air war came in a flash of red over a distant hill, silent at first. Then she heard it – explosions in rapid fire, as air strikes hit weapons- and ammunition depots on Noqom Mountain. The war drags on today, as a Saudi-led coalition battles Yemen's Houthi rebels and their allies, who are aligned with the country's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The coalition is seeking to restore the rule of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March 2015 in the face of the Houthis' advance.
The air strikes dashed hopes of a resumption in the constitution-making process that Almarani had been working toward since Yemen's own "Arab Spring" toppled longtime leader Saleh in 2011. The constitution was supposed to be based on a national dialogue of 565 delegates that produced a framework in January 2014. People tracking the process called Almarani and her colleagues "the Dialogue kids." She recalls the last day of the national dialogue on Jan. 18, when the final document was to be completed with all signatures. Dr. Ahmed Sharaf al-Din, a well-respected leader, law professor and Houthi representative, was assassinated on his way to the signing. Everyone thought the dialogue would collapse.
"He was a very good person," remembers Almarani, who said she is not affiliated with any political parties. "We were crying … because it had been 10 months, every day working. We felt that it was an assassination to our dreams, not just the person."
But then Hadi arrived and announced that the session would continue. The reading of the final communique was drenched with tears of relief—and more than a little fear. It would take a year of tough negotiations and compromise before a draft of a constitution was ready in January 2015, and Almarani again had been in the thick of the process, lending support as part of the secretariat.
So it was another blow to witness the fracturing in early 2015. After hearing the first explosions that March, she and her mother rushed from the roof down to the second floor. Doors began slamming, curtains were flying from the force of the distant but powerful explosions. "I just started crying. I was praying and crying." They found her younger sister, 13 at the time, downstairs. "She was hugging me and saying, `Don't worry; it's going to be fine.' I should have played that role."
The next nine months became a typical refugee's odyssey of escape as she and her mother, sister and a brother searched for safety across the border in Oman, then in Malaysia, where they at least had connections. Her father refused to leave Yemen, preferring to mind the family home.
Almarani finally returned to Yemen in late December 2015 as the fighting ebbed enough for some chance at survival. A United Nations envoy now is coaxing the warring sides back into talks. Almarani says that whatever materializes will be based on the groundwork laid before the 2015 meltdown. The draft constitution from January 2015 is still valid, though a couple of provisions remain to be re-negotiated to be more acceptable to all sides, she says. Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, told a USIP audience in September that the U.S. should push to renew the national dialogue process.
Almarani said she's surprised at the optimism she sees in Yemen, even—and maybe because of—everything that's happened.
"There was a lot of criticism and mistrust" during the previous negotiations, she said. "But once the bombings happened, the critics understood the alternative."
Dr. Saieb Al-Gailani, Iraq
In between saving lives as a cancer surgeon, Dr. Saieb al-Gailani is trying to save his country. From the earliest days after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, al-Gailani has worked to calm the chaotic aftermath and tamp down violence. He served on the first Baghdad Provincial Council advising the U.S.-led coalition and chaired the panel's health and environment committee. From Fallujah in 2004 to Mahmoudiyah in 2007 to Tikrit just a year ago, al-Gailani also has been a senior negotiator, mediator, advisor and trainer for individuals and organizations struggling to build a sustainable peace in Iraq.
He was a member of the governing council team that participated in negotiations in May 2004 at Fallujah to ease tensions in an area that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the years following the U.S. invasion. As the violence in Iraq escalated, al-Gailani had to flee Baghdad in 2006 amid threats because he'd been nominated to replace one of two deputy ministers of health who had been assassinated. He moved to Erbil in the country's autonomous Kurdish region, but continues his civil society work through his non-governmental organization in Baghdad and Erbil.
Al-Gailani has worked alongside USIP as a facilitator and trainer since 2004 and became one of the founding members of the institute-supported Network of Iraqi Facilitators. The group joins forces with SANAD for Peacebuilding, an Iraqi NGO established in 2013 with USIP support, on dialogues such as last year's intervention to forestall renewed violence in the northern Iraq area of Tikrit. Shia tribes had accused Sunnis in the area of collaborating in the 2014 massacre by the self-styled "Islamic State" group that killed as many as 1,700 Iraqi military cadets, most of them Shia, at a nearby military base known as Camp Speicher. When Iraqi government troops and Shia militias ousted the extremist group from Tikrit in early 2015, local Sunnis feared retribution and even more fled the area.
USIP assisted SANAD and the facilitators in a complex process of engagement with tribal leaders, the Iraqi government, parliament and the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The dialogue deepened Sunnis' understanding of the horrific losses Shia families suffered and helped Shia leaders grasp that not all Sunnis were complicit and that many even helped survivors. Sunni tribal leaders were willing to work toward identifying and bringing individuals involved in the massacre to justice. The result enabled an initial return of 400 Sunni families and a mechanism that ultimately ushered more than 100,000 residents back to their communities.
Despite the tragedies of the past 12-plus years, al-Gailani says U.S. support, especially for civil society and good governance, continues to be essential as Iraq wrestles with the social legacy of authoritarianism. Iraq's natural resources, not only oil but also the sun for solar power, represent its enormous potential as a valuable partner for the U.S., he says.
Iraq needs assistance "not to do everything for us, but to advise, to help," he said.
Sherine El Taraboulsi, Egypt
For a scholar studying how civil society affects the development of new governing structures in divided societies, the Middle East and North Africa has offered tragic examples in recent years. Sherine El Taraboulsi, a doctoral candidate in international development at Oxford University, has examined transitions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and northern Nigeria in her research. As a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, she has delved into how political transitions affect the distribution of resources in a country and studied the dynamics of development and reconstruction after conflict.
Originally from Egypt, she particularly remembers interviewing a fighter in 2012 in Libya, the subject of much of her research. As this already battle-hardened combatant talked about his experiences under the rule of Muammar Qadhafi and in the civil war that followed his fall from power, the young man broke down in tears.
"He said, `I remember the eyes of the people I killed,'" El Taraboulsi said. "`I remember that they were Libyans just like me,'" he told her. Even those who didn't take up arms—the women, the children—were fearful and traumatized by the fighting all around them, not to mention the 42 years of oppression under Qadhafi's regime. Yet international engagement after Qadhafi fell in 2011 was focused mainly on moving the country rapidly to elections for a new leader and a new parliament.
"Not only were they not prepared, it was a population that was not given the chance to handle the trauma that they'd been going through," she said.
Fluent in Arabic, English, French and Italian, El Taraboulsi has spent years trying to understand these phenomena. As a member of the USIP-supported MENA Regional Network of Facilitators, she has helped analyze the undercurrents of conflict in war-torn transitions and the factors that escalate disputes or help resolve them.
"He said, 'I remember the eyes of the people I killed. I remember that they were Libyans just like me.'" – USIP Facilitator Sherine El Taraboulsi on a research interview with a former Libyan fighter.
She has served as a Libya expert for the Bertelsmann Transformation Index and is a member of a working group on rebuilding societies after conflict that USIP leads for the Middle East Strategy Task Force of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. In Egypt, El Taraboulsi served in several roles at the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo and consulted on research for the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
El Taraboulsi laments the collapse of once-promising transitions such as Libya after the fall of Qadhafi. In an article she co-authored in June 2015 on the Oxford University Politics Blog, she cited the lack of coordination on international assistance and the tendency of foreign donors to simplify Libya's needs in the aftermath of the revolution. The international effort poured money into Libya, including into its civil society organizations, but too often required projects to deliver what the funders wanted to see rather than what Libyans felt was needed and too rarely engaged substantively enough to ensure effective results, she said.
"Libya, with the largest oil reserves in Africa, was well-positioned to launch a new era," she writes. "The international community has a role to play, but unless that role is clearly defined and adequately informed of the deep power dynamics, it will continue to fail Libya as well as itself."
Zoughbi Zoughbi, The West Bank
Storytelling has been a fascination for Zoughbi Zoughbi since he was a child. His father died when he was only six years old, and as the second-youngest in the Palestinian Christian family he recalls hanging on the coattails of his older siblings and hearing their stories, handed down through generations. He now draws on the stories of Arab traditions alongside poetry from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. or any number of cultural or religious touchstones to test approaches that might forestall or mitigate violent conflict at the community level in a region seemingly constantly aflame.
"It's important to find messages to defuse conflicts within a religion as well as between religions," he says.
Zoughbi is founder and director of the 21-year-old Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center Wi'Am in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. He has conducted and written about community-based mediation among Palestinians for decades, including exploring lessons that can be drawn from Arab traditions. The center offers mediation, training and counseling to help resolve community disputes. It includes a trauma-coping program for children, leadership training for women and education in nonviolence.
The center received the 2010 Peacebuilding Award in the World Vision International Peace Prize competition. World Vision commended the organization for "successfully integrating traditional Palestinian mediation customs with innovative academic models of conflict analysis to address the very difficult circumstances of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank."
A former City Council member in Bethlehem, Zoughbi also serves on the advisory committee for the Millennium Challenge Corporation's work in the Occupied Territories and is active in the work of the World Council of Churches, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Arab Partnership for Conflict Prevention.
Zoughbi last year published the second edition of a book entitled Sulha: Community Based Mediation in Palestine, compiling research and interviews on conflict resolution and "transformation," a term used in peacebuilding to suggest a deeper, longer-lasting change in relationships to sustain peace, rather than ephemeral agreements that can too easily be broken.
Efforts at peace must go further to be sustainable, Zoughbi said during a break in one of a series of USIP-supported meetings of the Middle East and North Africa Regional Facilitators Forum, of which he is a member. Too many peace negotiations and agreements cover general principles without sufficient regard to how they are implemented, he said.
"It's not about drafting texts," he said. "It's about building ideas and developing the minds."