Pushing back against Libya's extremists

The people of Libya were invariably forced to express their support for Muammar Qaddafi for over 40 years in order to ensure their personal safety. The intolerant and authoritarian nature of Qaddafi's regime constrained Libyan's political, civil, and religious rights by curtailing their freedom of expression and thought, freedom of association, and free access to information.

Authoritarian and autocratic regimes abuse the rule of law in order to protect themselves and their interests from scrutiny and accountability. Since toppling Qaddafi from power, the people of Libya now have an excellent opportunity to protect and safeguard all the aforementioned freedoms. In the last year alone, Libya shot up 23 spots on the World Press Freedom Index. But, these freedoms are in danger of being compromised not only the political level, but also social and religious ones too.

In December 2012, journalist Amara al-Khattabi was jailed on defamation charges against the judiciary (under a Qaddafi-era law) after publishing a list of 84 judges implicated in corruption cases. Also in December, an Islamist militia arrested female activist Magdulien Abaida twice in Benghazi after suspicions that she was linked to the Libyan Jewish community in diaspora. Magdulien had to flee the country and was granted asylum by the United Kingdom. Religious intolerance has flared in more drastic incidents where Sufi mosques and shrines have been destroyed by Salafi groups. Christians have also been targeted throughout eastern and western Libya. This is just a small showing of what is allowable in present-day Libya.

Pushing back against intolerance is a movement called al-Tanweer, or Enlightenment. Formed in 2013, they're trying to re-engineer the Libyan mindset to encourage critical thinking and discard their history of submissiveness. For the past 36 years, Libyans were forced to submit to Qaddafi's ideology and live by the Green Book, written by Qaddafi himself on his political philosophy. Books and knowledge were tightly controlled under the former regime. When Libya was liberated, people symbolically built bonfires, burning their mandatory Green Book copies.

One of the first major events organized by the movement was to organize a second hand book fair. The event was a huge success with its offering of over 7,000 donated books, all for sale for under $15. The event attracted a high-profile audience including the Culture Minister Habib Mohammed al-Amin and former Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib, among other officials and dignitaries. The fair spoke volumes about the appetite of Libyans for reading and expanding their awareness.

Ahmed el-Bokhari, a writer and co-founder of Tanweer, stresses the movement's objective to "encourage and empower creativity and innovation" as well as thinking conceptually out of the box.

This is especially important as Libyans navigate their way and work to set new foundations. Part of the movement's vision is to "encourage tolerance and help establish a Libyan identity that absorbs all the ethnic, religious, and ideological differences in a healthy democratic environment."

The Libyan revolution brought with it an unprecedented space for previously-denied freedoms, but it also brought with the rise of extremist groups and ideologies. Many backward cultural barriers and values have been reaffirmed. According to Ahmed, "cultural and social barriers that have been widely entrenched in the Libyan society will be one of the obstacles that would face the movement's mission and progress towards establishing a new reality based and knowledge and reason."

However, it is not just social and cultural barriers that are at play. There is an increasingly influential and violent extremist minority in Libya, and even the name "enlightenment" could put the movement at odds with such intolerant extremist minority. However, Tanweer activists are aware of these possibilities. "We chose this name to give ourselves distinct presence among Libyans and to help counter these extremist minorities and the culture of intolerance in the name of religion, ethnicity, or ideology in the Libyan society through knowledge, reading, and books."

The precarious security situation in Libya will make the work of movements like Tanweer difficult. Nevertheless, they are determined to expand their activities by establishing a complete center for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking in Tripoli that would serve as their base to reach out to the rest of Libya.

"Only through freedom of thought ... [can we] build a new Libya with a distinct and unique identity, a Libya that is able to integrate in the global community and add to the human heritage and civilization." It will take a while before certain freedoms are fully protected by the law, but movements like Tanweer are pivotal to counter any religious, cultural, or social intolerance. Through the power of knowledge and reason, the forces of intolerance that have so far targeted different segments of the Libyan society can be confronted.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.



Undermining the quest for justice in Kenya

Last week, the Permanent Mission of Kenya to the United Nations submitted a letter to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), asking for the "immediate termination" of the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. They are currently scheduled to begin trial this July and May, respectively, for their alleged roles in inciting ethnic violence in the aftermath of the 2007 election and are being charged with crimes against humanity.

While Kenyatta and Ruto are now allies, it has not always been this way. In fact, they are accused of orchestrating and financing horrific, armed attacks against members of each other's communities in 2008. It's widely believed that their current alliance is little more than a strategic attempt to combine forces against the ICC. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows indeed.

Much of the debate around the letter has focused on whether or not the pair authorized it, but there has been less attention on the messages contained therein. What is particularly alarming is the attempt by UNSC Ambassador Macharia Kamau to paint the ICC as an illegitimate and irrelevant arbiter in relation to Kenya, which he does by using the recently concluded (and contested) election as "proof" that Kenyans believe the suspects are innocent. This is tantamount to amending the historical narrative to exclude Kenyan support for the Court.

Ironically, this line of attack works against the very people Kamau purports to represent, the Kenyan people. It obstructs the victims' pathway to justice and undermines the creation of a truthful and representative national account of the 2007-08 violence. These are critical to a peaceful and democratic future.

In his letter, Ambassador Kamau goes as far as to say that Kenyatta and Ruto were "overwhelmingly" elected, thereby proving that Kenyans do not support the cases against them. This is highly suspect reasoning, given the fact that the 2013 election was fundamentally flawed and had major issues with its voter registry and counting system. But, if we take the numbers reported to be true, Kamau's assertion still falls pretty flat. Out of the just-over 12 million votes cast, Kenyatta only received 50.07 percent. With the runner-up receiving 43.31 percent of the vote, this can hardly be counted as "overwhelming support."

The letter also makes the claim that the ICC undermines the sovereignty of Kenya, painting the entire process as foreign interference in Kenyan affairs. What he seems to have forgotten, however, is that the Kenyan government signed and ratified the Rome Statute, thereby agreeing to the terms of the ICC and showing support for its activities. Furthermore, Ambassador Kamau states that the Kenyan case was taken up by the ICC prosecutor at his own behest, who then cherry-picked particular individuals to investigate.

This is patently untrue.

Ambassador Kamau's expressed rationale is confusing given that it was the Kenyan government that refused to establish a local tribunal to try the cases on two different occasions (February 2009; November 2009). This opened the door for the ICC, which is only allowed to become involved if the country in question chooses not to conduct its own investigations and trials. The Kenyan delegation in Geneva agreed when ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo started his preliminary investigations. Moreover, the list of suspects was created by the Kenyan commission investigating the 2007-08 post-election violence.

Overall, the process proceeded entirely with the support of Kenyan politicians and the general public. As of February 2013, 66 percent of Kenyans said they supported the ICC prosecutions. Surely, 66 percent support is far greater in significance than the .07 percent "overwhelming" majority claimed by Kamau.

The Kenyan Mission also tries to claim that the cases against Kenyatta and Ruto will threaten the stability of the entire region. This is entirely backwards reasoning when contrasted with what we know about countries moving forward after wars and violent conflicts. As we see again and again, publicly acknowledging and legitimizing the trauma inflicted on society is crucial to the process of achieving future stability. In 2012, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was sentenced to fifty years in prison for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone back in the 1990s. Today, cases against perpetrators of the violence in the former Yugoslavia are still ongoing, more than a decade after the end of conflicts there. Yes, general stability may have returned to these former conflict zones before the tribunals, but ensuring the perpetrators of war crimes are brought to justice has been recognized as critical for these societies to be able to confront and resolve the past. Governments that fail to pursue justice send the message that they are not committed to the rule of law. This can intensify inter-group mistrust, hinder security and development goals, and can even lead to the cyclical recurrence of violence in various forms. 

Undermining the Kenyan victims' quest for justice is an insult to what they endured, and that would be the real threat to long-term peace in Kenya. Indeed, there are already signs of unwillingness to confront the past in Kenya. The Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the 2007-08 post-election violence, was statutorily bound to release its report on May 3 of this year. That report has yet to be released, and speculation abounds that the delay is due to the president's opposition to the report's details about his family's controversial ownership of massive tracts of disputed land.

Ambassador Kamau's letter asks the Security Council to give Kenya time to deal with the cases in a local context, stating that Kenya "has the capacity to offer a homegrown solution." Disregarding past support for an ICC trial, there is no Kenyan court which has the capacity to try crimes of this stature. In fact, the closest manifestation of such a court would be the International Crimes Division of the Kenyan judiciary, which is still in the process of being created. Where, then, is Kamau'scourt? Who then, if not the ICC, will allow for justice to be served?

Seema Shah is a political analyst based in Nairobi.