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Story Publication logo September 10, 2013

Libya’s Government and the Militias: Is the Tide Turning?


The Creative Chaos of Libya

Despairing of the ability of their squabbling leaders and militiamen to reestablish the state...

Media file: p1160971_-_script_10a_-_a_government_soldiers_primes_his_gun_and_grenade_at_a_funeral.jpg
A government soldier primes his gun and grenade at a funeral. Image by Nicolas Pelham. Libya, 2013.

The scavengers for disused metal fled, as riot police wearing their old Qaddafi-era uniforms drove back into their old base after recovering it from one of Libya's most powerful Islamist militias, Libyan Shield Number One. "It's good to be back," said the police commander after the battle on June 8th, which left 35 Libyans dead.

Despite declaring three days of mourning, Libya's leaders are celebrating what they herald as the beginning of the end of militia rule and the restoration of a functioning state. Since the rebels ousted Muammar Qaddafi's forces, first in eastern Libya in February 2011 and then countrywide six months later, militias have largely ruled the roost, preventing the country's elected government from asserting itself. "Farmers should go back to being farmers and let the army do its job of protecting the nation," said the armed forces' new chief of staff, Salim Gneidy. He vowed to confront Islamist renegades, whereas his predecessor, Yusef Mangoush, who resigned in the wake of the June 8th battle, had sought to co-opt them. Many expect further purges of Islamists, including veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan, whose militias General Mangoush had licensed, elevating their leaders to high office.

Libya's liberals, too, cheer the demise of what they have seen as the armed wing of their Islamist foes. Only last month the Islamists seemed set for domination after their militias surrounded the national congress, Libya's proto-parliament, and forced its members to pass an "isolation law" banning from public office anyone who had worked in a senior post for Qaddafi.

Many of Benghazi's exhausted people also welcomed the first signs of order, such as police cars tentatively back after two years of near-absence from the streets. Though Benghazi was the first city to throw off Qaddafi's rule, bouts of unrest have kept it on edge. The killing of the American ambassador in September turned it into a no-go zone for most foreigners. Such was the easterners' disillusion with the central government's failure to fill the vacuum that some of their cars began to sport the black flag of Barqa, or Cyrenaica, Libya's once-separate eastern part.

Not everyone feels so sure salvation has come. The rockets fired into the Libyan Shield's base belied claims that the protesters were all unarmed. Commandos from al-Saiqa, a unit set up under Qaddafi, claimed to have led the storming of the base. Outside a mourning tent for an Islamist killed in the fighting, a Salafist accused al-Saiqa of staging a military coup. Backed by NATO and the West, it had wrested control of the city from the "guardians of the revolution", he said.

Originally published in The Economist on June 15, 2013

Though al-Saiqa and the Islamists are both largely local, their struggle to control Libya predates the recent revolution by 15 years. In the mid-1990s, al-Saiqa helped to suppress the rebellion of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an armed movement led by jihadist veterans of Afghanistan. Although al-Saiqa joined the rebels in the early days of the revolt against Qaddafi two years ago, hostile Islamists later killed its commander, Abdel Fatah Younis.

Though the Libyan Shield's men have fled some of their bases, they drove off with their arms intact. Other Islamist groups are still entrenched in bases near Benghazi. And underground Islamists can be even more dangerous. After the Benghazi battle, a bomb was found under the Italian ambassador's car in Tripoli, the capital. The Islamists will not go away quietly.

But in Benghazi they have struggled to win a majority of hearts and minds. After the American ambassador's death, protesters drove Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia which had torched a Coptic church, out of Benghazi's main hospital, al-Jala. The militias were notorious for their harshness, often imprisoning people they disapproved of. At the same time, al-Saiqa is far from gentle, often expressing the paranoia of its Qaddafi-era origins. It tends, for instance, to see all foreigners as spies.

The new rulers in Tripoli also seem prone to the old ways. The congress has stopped live coverage of its sessions and bars journalists from its proceedings on the grounds that Libyans are not yet ready for full-blown democracy. Proponents of civil society try to make their voices heard, not least via a plethora of satellite channels. People talk politics in restaurants, but wonder apprehensively for how long. "Are we replacing the regime?" asks an interior designer, who is both a poet and an Islamist. "Or just its personnel?"

Originally published in The Economist on June 15, 2013


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