By Vanessa Tomassini.
Reconciliation, coronavirus, security and elections. These are the issues we addressed with the mayor of Bani Walid. In this exclusive wide-ranging interview, Dr Younis al-Aziz explains the central role of his city in the current transition process that Libya has undertaken with the new Government of National Unity: “I would like to confirm that Bani Walid is with the unity of Libya, with stability through the upcoming elections on December 24th and the referendum on the constitution. The problems between regions and tribes can be solved and we are ready to collaborate with friendly countries in Europe and America for the return of stability and security to the homeland “.
Mr mayor, first of all, thank you for accepting this interview. Is Bani Walid ready for National elections and what is the people feeling toward the transitional process?
“Bani Walid is well prepared for the upcoming elections. The municipality of Bani Walid has always been a forerunner in implementing the democratic process inside Libya. I think that there is a great turnout for registration in the voter system by the people of the city, starting with the House of Representatives elections that will be held on December 24”.
Some people are saying that Bani Walid still loyal to the previous system of Gaddafi… If elections took place which candidate the people of Bani Walid are going to support?
“There are always accusations that Bani Walid still supports the former regime and this is not true. Bani Walid is always with Libya. The people of the city, its political and social elites are thinking to the interest of the country. Also, Bani Walid is where democracy exists in its correct form. There is mutual respect for opinions within the city. There are supporters of the former regime and there are also supporters of February, but at the end, the homeland unites us and our greatest concern is the stability for our country. It is true that there are always intellectual differences, but there is respect within the city. The world must see that democracy is applied in this city in its best form”.
The Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Al Dabiba, the chief of staff Mohammed el Haddad, the Turkish Ambassador to Libya, and a number of top officials and diplomatics, all recently visited Bani Walid. Why is your city so important today?
“As I mentioned earlier, some other cities and even previous governments were accusing Bani Walid of loyalty to the previous regime, and this is not true. The loyalty of the city of Bani Walid has always been to the homeland, Libya. This was actually implemented. The elites of Bani Walid participated in several reconciliations and even stopped some conflicts and wars, and for example, it stopped the war between Tripoli and Tarhuna in 2018, after the failure of the United Nations. The UN Mission was represented by Ghassan Salameh at that time, but the sheikhs and dignitaries of Bani Walid played a very important role to reach peace. Previous governments tried to visit Bani Walid but could not because these governments were not able to meet the necessary conditions to enter the city, and now you have seen the visit of the national unity government, to which we wish the best. All the government and most of its ministers have visited our city, and this is in fact an event without precedents for Bani Walid. Our city supports a comprehensive reconciliation and stability for Libya, that’s why we see officials interested in visiting us”.
What about the Factory 51?
“Factory 51 belongs to the Libyan Military Industrialization Authority. This factory has many machines and equipment that need maintenance, and therefore Turkish companies visited it. Many companies also submitted proposals for this factory, including a Czech and a Russian company. They requested to visit the factory to evaluate its reality for investments. The rumors that have spread on social media and the false news on this site are not true”.
The Parliament failed to approve the budget proposed by Abdel Hamid al Dabaiba, how this impact your municipality in providing services to your citizen?
“Parliament is the legislative body in the country, and we respect the opinions of the deputies on how to adopt the budget, as the Parliament has given confidence to the government of national unity led by Mr. Abdel Hamid al-Dabaiba. The budget has a negative impact on all municipalities, we work with limited capabilities and sometimes we have to tap into our personal account. Therefore, if the budget is not approved in the coming days, this will have a significant impact on all cities, not just the municipality of Bani Walid”.
How is the reconciliation process going on in Bani Walid and in particular with neighbouring cities like Misurata?
“As Municipality of Bani Walid, our skills concern services, we do not do politics, but certainly we support national reconciliation. The Social Council and many notables and elites within Bani Walid are working on this aspect. They have already started issuing statements calling for reconciliation at all level of Libya. For example, what the city of Misurata did with the Resolution No. 7 of 2012 had a great impact on the people of Bani Walid. It caused a social rift between the two cities as Misurata was at the head of those who implemented that decision. But this can be forgotten with the time. Now, our people of Bani Walid have begun to move towards Misurata for treatments and shopping, and there are relations that have begun to develop between the two cities. Also, there are meetings between the two Municipal Councils. This can be called a peaceful coexistence and we hope that there will be a complete reconciliation and the application of justice.”
Which weight has the tribal social structure in your city and on the municipality decision process?
“The social structure in Libya is tribal. We, as the Municipal Council of Bani Walid, always meet with notables and representatives of tribes before deliberating on some matters. The notables of the Social Council always support our decisions and they are always with us in serving the interest of the city.”
How is the general security situation inside Bani Walid?
“If we want to talk about the security situation, we need to consider Libya as a whole. The security situation has begun to improve and we hope that it will recover to better. Security in all Libya, not only Bani Walid, needs more efforts. If we look in particular to our city, the tribal social structure contributes greatly to the stability within the city. Then, we can say that the security situation in Bani Walid is excellent by 90%.”
Do you see as a positive step the entrance of 444 battalion in your city or you think is a destabilizing move?
“The 444th Brigade is a legal formation that belongs to the Tripoli Military District and moves according to the orders to eliminate smuggling and illegal immigration. I can’t deny that some mistakes occurred creating inconveniences to civilians, but we hope that they will not be repeated. In general, there is satisfaction and popular welcome for the operations carried out by this force.”
Some people are saying Bani Walid is the meeting point of illegal immigration, Nassma area for example, is that true?
“Illegal immigration traffics start from the south, the eastern region and end to the Italian coasts. These kinds of operations are organized by major countries, there are organized gangs operating at the level of countries, and even the European countries are involved in these traffics.
Bani Walid is a transit area only. These gangs use people in our city, in Nessma and some cities that are considered a transit area to facilitate the migrants’ transit until they reach the end of the migration line, from the Libyan coasts to Italy. I do not know why the city of Bani Walid is always accused of supporting immigration while in fact it is nothing else than a transit area for immigration convoys. The responsible are organized gangs that are difficult to confront. Even if they wait for hours or days and then continue their way until they reach their place, Bani Walid is not the end point in the migration line, but the sea and Europe are. So, we cannot say that Bani Walid embraces immigration.”
Is there illegal immigration detention centers and what is the impact of human trafficking in your area? And how those gangs afflict the life of local communities?
“Bani Walid is considered a safe area. There are not many problems here. Also, these gangs do not have an impact on civilians inside the city because those who deal with these gangs are very few individuals and for financial purposes only. We do not have the capabilities to accommodate immigrants, but we have a place we call the safe house. When we find anyone, who has escaped from these gangs or is being chased by them, we shelter them in it or even host them in our homes until they are deported from the competent authorities”.
How is the situation of coronavirus pandemic in your city? Do you have enough equipment and means to fight the virus? How is the situation in the isolation centres?
“Coronavirus had a great impact on the city, with the weak medical capabilities and the lack of medical cadres to assist the patients. The state did not care to open an isolation center inside the city in the past, despite our repeated appeals, but finally we are now in the process of opening an isolation center inside the city in the next few days, shortly after Eid Al-Adha. During the first wave of the virus, we were able to confront it with our simple capabilities and with the absence of an isolation center inside the city, so the infected cases were transferred to the isolation centers in Misurata, Tripoli and Zliten. Now we can say that there is an isolation center in Bani Walid to deal with this new wave of virus. Today we notice a decrease in the number of cases compared to last week, on 120 swabs conducted, 30 resulted positive. This is a lower number than in the previous period, when the contagions might be 100 or 102. We can say that Bani Walid is one of the municipalities that are dealing with Covid-19.”
When Bani Walid airport will start to operate international flights?
“Now, Bani Walid Airport is used for logistical matters such as receiving cash and delegations. It is also used for ambulance planes, and we are now trying with the government to activate domestic flights and then international flights.”
Are there other facilities damaged during the last war on Tripoli? And from 2011 NATO’s offensive?
“The destruction caused by the recent war was concentrated in the south and the vicinity of Tripoli, but after the withdrawal of the forces present in Tripoli towards the east, they were stationed in some locations inside the city. When they left Bani Walid and completed their way towards the east, some operations of sabotage occurred like in the city’s airport, where looting, burning and sabotage took place, due to the chaos of that time. As for the year 2011, the city was subjected to heavy bombardment by NATO forces and also from the forces that invaded the city by land. As a result, the city of Bani Walid was destroyed by 90%. The government tried to pay some compensations, but not enough for a destroyed house in Bani Walid. It was marginalized by the previous governments that did not care about it. Even the compensation was to raise the blame more than compensating the owners of a house that was destroyed or had suffered major losses. We can say that Bani Walid was marginalized and completely destroyed in that period.”
Are there political prisoners loyal to the previous system? And what’s your opinion about the political prisoners in general?
“As the city of Bani Walid, we do not have political prisoners. This issue contradicts the principles of the 17 February’s revolution, based on freedom and social justice. A political prisoner is a prisoner of belief, and on the contrary, opinion differences must be respected. All countries have an opposition, and political prisoners are political opponents, so we must release them and benefit from their views.”
What are the main economic activities in Bani Walid and what are the opportunities for foreign investors if any?
“Bani Walid is an area that depends on agriculture and breeding. There is Factory 51, which is one of the huge factories, as well as the wool products factory, one of the largest in the Arab world.
Invitations have been sent to investors to set up projects within the city, and this will contribute to reducing the unemployment rate of local community. There are also large agricultural projects, and others belonging to local companies”.
Would u like to add something?
“In conclusion, I would like to confirm that Bani Walid is with the unity of Libya, with stability through the upcoming elections on December 24 with the referendum on the constitution. Problems between regions and tribes can be solved, and we are ready to cooperate with friendly countries in Europe and America for the return of stability and security to the homeland.”
And what about Italy?
“Italy is a friendly country, there are many things and common interests. There is also a historical depth of the Libyan-Italian relationship. There are many Libyans living in Italy, and the State of Italy is one of the closest countries to us. Indeed, we held several meetings with the Italian municipalities. I received an invitation from the municipality of Taranto, and we will be in Sicily next September, for joint cooperation and exchanging experiences. The Italian and Libyan municipalities are very close in terms of work, and in the future, we will see a joint cooperation, God willing.”