It is difficult for an observer standing outside the fabric of Libyan society to summarize the map of its militias and armed gangs briefly and simply.
In a country where democracy was toppled by an armed revolution that centered on these very same militias of overlapping family, tribal and regional provenance, there is no clear basis for reconciling the roles played by both old and new forces in the Libyan public space. The only clear thing in this equation is that Libya is in a transitional state, mired in the "rule of the militias" at a time when those militias pose a great threat to all the country’s political actors.
“The greatest challenge"
This seemed clear from the remarks of new Prime Minister Ali Zaydan, who was authorized at the General National Congress this past Sunday to form a new government after his predecessor, Mustafa Abu Shagur, failed to do so.
Zaydan, who enjoyed two weeks to “cook up” a government that could earn public trust, insisted that security was his “top priority." In this he included forming an army, police force and reaching a solution for the difficulties posed by the country’s many militias.
In reality, Libyans would need an extra dose of optimism to believe that Zaydan is capable of succeeding in pushing the militias to lay down their arms, regardless of how much they might sympathize with him as a longtime opponent of the old regime and one of the first to participate in the revolution.
Their despair deepens in the face of the high degree of overlap and conflict between the power of the militias and the writ of the state. Moreover, the state often resorts to the militias themselves in order to restore its influence in certain regions of the country.
The laxness of the government, the expanding influence of gunmen who enjoy tribal, regional or Islamic legitimacy, and the high levels of tension in the streets have combined to bring Libya to a situation resembling a civil war between armed tribes.
Indeed, the country is now in the grip of “armed demons," while government officials find themselves to be tilting at windmills in an unfair fight.
This further exacerbates the fragility of the body politic, already in dire straits following the failure of the liberal-supported President-designate to win a majority (93 out of 179 seats) in parliament. Indeed, it augurs a potential repeat of the experience of Abu Shagur, who failed to ensure equal representation for all Libyans.
When enemies and friends are one
Observers both within and outside Libya agree that the government miserably failed to provide a basic minimum of security against militias, who act outside any framework of accountability. Fred Abrahams, the special advisor for Libyan affairs at Human Rights Watch, indicated as much in a conversation with As-Safir.
“The challenge today is the transformation from the rule of guns to the rule of law," he said. "This is exceptionally difficult in situations of armed revolutions.”
Based on his experience, Abrams does not expect that “the Libyan militias will disband anytime soon, especially since they’re the product of 42 years of dictatorship.”
The American journal The National Interest recently published an article on “militia rule” in Libya. According to them, some militias belong to particular cities, others to tribes, while still others adhere to controversial Islamic beliefs or are primarily concerned with the affairs of tribal or ethnic constituencies. In an indication of the central government’s weakness against the tribes, the journal mentioned the incident of the killing of United States ambassador Christopher Stevens during an attack by the Islamist militia known as Ansar al-Shariah.
In response, the government was forced to rely on another militia to repel the attackers. But Stevens was not the only one slain. Indeed, the fighting among the militias in Mizdah, al-Zintan, and elsewhere led to the deaths of more than 200 people. In Tripoli, Islamic fundamentalists attacked the tombs and shrines of Sufi saints while the security forces stood aside, claiming that they were unable to enter “a losing battle," as the Ministry of the Interior put it.
As for the conflict between Bani Walid and Misrata, it is still held to be the mother of all battles between Libyan militias. Bani Walid is believed to be the last stronghold of Qadhafi supporters, and it has been placed under siege for the last 12 days by armed groups from Misrata who say they intend to cleanse the city of "the [Gadhafi regime’s] remnants."
By contrast, those inside the besieged town vow that “the invaders” will only enter the town “over their dead bodies.”
As Libyan journalist Nahla al-Misawi revealed to As-Safir, a number of friendly efforts seek to resolve peacefully the conflict between the two sides in ways that would avoid a catastrophic war.
She noted that what is happening is unacceptable and that a large number of “intellectuals and media figures” have issued a statement condemning “the siege imposed upon our people in the city of Bani Walid and the attacks upon them by battalions nominally under government control, under the pretext that [Bani Walid] is a rogue city harboring lackeys of the old regime. We stress that the legitimacy of the state cannot be imposed upon them by random shelling, strangling cities or putting civilians under siege. Violence only begets more violence and bloodshed.”
Disbanding the militias or integrating them?
David Kirkpatrick, a writer for The New York Times, wrote that the militias are the only police force in Libya. He pointed out that the Libyan government today is struggling night and day in order to reign in the militias after it witnessed the public’s anger in protesting against the rule of the militias.
Settling the issue by integrating armed men into the official security apparatus faces a number of obstacles. Among these is the possibility that the zealous young men who triumphed over Gadhafi’s forces may not prove to be model elements for day-to-day police work and counter-terrorism operations.
The International Crisis Group warned that the reliance on revolutionary battalions and local armed forces is a dangerous gamble.
One may add to that Fred Abrahams’ aforementioned warnings of regarding conflicting loyalties, an inability to exercise accountability, shortage of funds and rampant corruption in government.
In this context, Abrahams stresses that Human Rights Watch is working to “document militias’ abuses and push the government into imposing greater security.”
Yet he admits that their influence in this context is limited, and the organization cannot compel anyone to take particular measures.
In the end, it remains necessary to find a solution for the “state of militias." This must be the top priority before the crisis can drive Libya into a vicious cycle where state power declines and the militias’ influence — and the public’s fear — grows.
Should that come to pass, the public might prefer to resort to the militias to guarantee its security, thus endowing it with social legitimacy. This would decisively mark the end of the boundary separating militia from state.
The above article was translated from Assafir al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.
Continue reading this article by registering and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly