Jason Pack and Haley Cook
on : Tuesday, 16 Jul, 2013
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A Law unto Themselves

Militias dominate the post-Gaddafi political scene

In Libya, like in Egypt, guns and not the ballot box are the final arbiters of legitimacy. Despite attempts to engineer a democratic transition and forge national institutions, politics in Libya remains dominated by the county's myriad militia groups.

Residents of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi carry the body of one of the demonstrators that was killed during clashes between former rebels and anti-militia protestors on June 9, 2013. ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

Residents of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi carry the body of one of the demonstrators that was killed during clashes between former rebels and anti-militia protestors on June 9, 2013. ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

Like its revolutionary neighbor, post-Mubarak Egypt, post-Gaddafi Libya is characterized by continual upheavals in which elected officials are frequently forced to resign. In June, Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) elected Nouri Abusahmain as their new president. He replaced Mohammed Magarief, who was forced out of office in late May after the new political isolation law, Libya’s equivalent to Iraq’s de-Ba’athification, made him ineligible for office. Abusahmain’s primary tasks now are overseeing the elections for the constitutional committee and creating a political climate that will facilitate the central government’s attempts to forge functional security institutions.

The outgoing president was known for his personality clash with his more liberal colleague, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. The only way Abusahmain can succeed is if he listens to the demands of last week’s anti-militia protests and chooses to work with Zeidan by forging a united front against the militias. This step was sorely lacking during Magarief’s tenure, when the GNC and the Cabinet frequently worked at cross-purposes. No one yet knows how Abusahmain will get along with Zeidan, or if he will reverse his predecessor’s penchant for appeasing two of the most polarizing forces in the country—the Islamists, with whom Abusahmain is known to sympathize, and the Cyrenaican federalists, with whom he does not. A further complicating dynamic is the known disagreement between Zeidan and acting Army Chief of Staff Salem Gnaidi over the best strategy for forming a national army.

The militia challenge

Libya’s greatest security challenge remains the existence of hundreds of militias that refuse to disband. The elected government simply does not have sufficient trained forces loyal enough to counter these armed groups, even though they impede the functioning of the government’s nascent forces and continually threaten to interfere in the decisions of elected officials. Like Egypt’s army, Libya’s militia leaders view themselves as more legitimate political actors than their elected opponents because they claim to represent the whole of the population and the will of the people. The Libyan brigades also tout their popular, grassroots and revolutionary nature and emphasize the continued presence of Gaddafi-era officials in the ministries, military and police.

In the wake of Mursi’s ouster in Egypt, the militias are less likely to comply with the diktats of elected officials. After the fate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, there are indications that Libyan Islamists have concluded that elections will not achieve their political goals, instead deepening their support for the brigades who prefer informal politics. Brought to its natural conclusion, this development would cement the distrust between the Islamist and non-Islamist forces that are progressively coming to characterize the North African political scene—at exactly the moment that inclusive, consensus political solutions are needed.

The armed brigades—especially those with the funding, training and arms that come from alliances with Islamists—have the power to influence the highest levels of government by operating outside legitimate democratic processes. Although they prefer to have their agendas implemented through threats and blackmail, they are not above resorting to violence. Blockading or occupying government facilities, including ministries and the parliament building, is a favored tactic. Curiously, now that these stratagems have been shown to succeed, both militiamen and their opponents are resorting to them. Armed anti-militia protestors blockaded the interior ministry yet again on July 2. Paradoxically, this time the protestors were calling for an end to the lawlessness of the interior ministry’s own Supreme Security Committee (SSC), which is comprised of disparate Islamist-leaning militias. On Wednesday, the government finally dispersed the protestors through a negotiated settlement, but it is unclear if it is the protestors, the ministry, or the militias who have won this engagement.

What is clear is that the brigades and the protestors, both of which practice informal politics, have proved themselves masters of posturing. They have so far largely used mass demonstrations and the threat of force, rather than outright attacks. Yet the government has neither waged a successful public relations campaign nor made believable counter-threats of its own. This means that most meaningful politics in Libya today is informal. This is useful when the government changes an ill-thought-out policy in response to a mass protest, but it is another thing altogether when informal politics reign supreme. In the current situation, the government is continually letting its legitimate decisions be abrogated by the short-sighted whims of the armed mob.

The battle on the ground

As the government remains weak, it must be more systematic about its previously attempted divide-and-rule strategies against the militias, picking off the weakest and least popular militias one at a time. A head-on confrontation with all the brigades must now be avoided, as it would certainly fail. Any plan under discussion by NATO countries to train Libyan security forces is a long-overdue step in the right direction and could begin to slowly tip the balance of power towards the government, but it will take more than six months or a year for its impact to be felt.

At present, not only does the government lack the firepower, but such a confrontational strategy could actually galvanize Libya’s militia groups to form their own united front. At present, the militias are fractured and represent a wide variety of interests, ranging from localist to Islamist to federalist to tribal. The most dangerous possibility—an anti-government, Islamist-supported coalition of militias—could lead to a low-level civil war or calls for the government to step down. Fortunately, it remains a remote possibility and is not in fitting with the Libyan national character and the positive emotional resonances of the revolution. Most crucially, it can still be averted by careful policies that actually put teeth behind official anti-militia statements and utilize the people’s support for such measures.

On June 26 and 27, more than ten people died and over a hundred were wounded in fighting between rival militias in Tripoli. First, a brigade from Zintan guarding the Al-Sharara oilfield in the south attacked the Tripoli headquarters of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, part of the Ministry of Defense, in a dispute between the Zintan brigade and a local brigade over the rights to guard a drilling site. The Al-Sharara field was shut down to prevent the fighting spreading. The next day, the conflict expanded as the SSC’s use of force to restore order led to fighting between itself and various Zintani militias. Meanwhile, in the east, a colonel working in the Joint Operations Room who was meant to coordinate operations between the army and the pro-government armed brigades while supposedly tackling the militia menace was killed by a car bomb in Benghazi on June 26.

These targeted assassinations and increasing militia-on-militia violence followed the already-plummeting popularity of the brigades with the Libyan populace. In Benghazi in early June, the 1st Brigade of the Libya Shield Force—a highly prominent brigade that operates, in a quasi-official status, with the Ministry of Defense—was involved in an unprovoked shooting that left at least thirty-one civilians dead after protests calling for the brigade’s disbandment turned violent. Simply put, these events provided an ideal opportunity for Zeidan and Abusahmain to confront the militia menace by incentivizing demobilization and facilitating the defeat of the most destabilizing brigades. More Islamist and Berber militiamen might consider handing over their arms and accepting the government’s demobilization packages if Abusahmain cajoles them while burnishing his bona fide Berber and Islamist credentials. Moreover, in the wake of the events in Egypt, some militia and tribal groupings—led by the Zintanis—have seen that their future lies with the government and have convened a tribal conference to urge the government to stop political infighting and focus on drafting the constitution.

The struggle for the future post-Gaddafi

It appears that, spurred on by members of the populace, the central government’s patience with militia-on-militia violence is finally wearing thin and that decisive actions may finally be in the offing. But nine months ago, we thought the swearing-in of Zeidan’s first cabinet was a similarly auspicious occasion—but that was proven to be overly optimistic.

Complicating the formulation and implementation of any new comprehensive disarmament and demobilization plan is the recent turnover among high-level officials occasioned by the political isolation law. Nouri Abusahmain is new in his post, and may be unwilling to rock the boat in his first months. The Armed Forces’ chief of staff, Gen. Yusuf Al-Manqush, resigned following the aforementioned trouble with the Libya Shield Force, and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan removed Defense Minister Mohammed Al-Barghathi on June 27. Permanent replacements have yet to be made, leading to questions of whether acting Army Chief of Staff Salem Gnaidi will have any real authority. Even more confusing is that in response to Mursi’s ouster, Libya’s two main political parties—the liberal National Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party —have both suspended their membership in the GNC. It is now totally unclear how Libya’s parliament will function and oversee the constitutional drafting process.

As usual in post-Gaddafi Libya, uncertainty over who has the authority to do what has hamstrung the government’s ability to take coherent action at a time when decisive action is needed. One even gets the impression that the militias are quite happy with the fact that, by bullying the GNC into passing the political isolation law, they have relegated the government to dealing with nit-picking legal issues and a witch hunt against former Gaddafi officials. The militias are thus given free rein to dominate their own quasi-territorial fiefdoms. On the other hand, as the political isolation law has theoretically been implemented—in practice few other than the president have been affected—it might still prove to be a blessing in disguise, as militia objections to the legitimacy of the elected government should diminish. Signaling this trend, GNC President Nouri Abusahmain oversaw the handover of Gharyan’s Khalifa Al-Tekbali camp from revolutionaries to the army on July 1, a positive step for demobilization that was only possible because of the political isolation law.

While Egypt and Syria exercise dominance over the global headlines, Libya is rapidly approaching yet another fork in the road: the militias’ increasing assertiveness could destroy any prospects of a transition to constitutional democratic governance or, conversely, it could prove to be the militias’ final undoing. The Libyan people are growing weary of the myriad of armed groups who claim to be acting on their behalf. Possibly, the injection of some new blood into Libya’s top political echelon might gradually lead to a long-awaited change in the game plan. Conversely, there are indications that the oft-delayed constitutional process may never happen, or that it may unfold so slowly that the militias will entrench themselves as permanent, quasi-legitimate political actors. The rise of Afghan-style warlord-ism abetted by Pakistan-style Islamist-dominated government security forces seemed quite remote eighteen months ago. Now, it no longer does.

Jason Pack and Haley Cook

Jason Pack and Haley Cook

Jason Pack is a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2013). Haley Cook is director of research at Libya-Analysis.com.

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