Correspondent Bill Wheeler was awarded the first annual GroundTruth fellowship for field reporting on emerging democracies in the Middle East. In this running blog series for GroundTruth, Wheeler goes inside the militias that are still holding sway in the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s civil war.
TRIPOLI, Libya — Traffic crawled along a street just off the palm-lined Martyr's Square, when a blaring loudspeaker atop a bus announced a demonstration calling for the reestablishment of the regular army and police and a push to secure the country’s lawless southern border region. The announcement is code in Tripoli for the rebuilding of a state to take back power from the dizzying array of armed groups that have usurped it.
My driver, Mohammed, nodded at the bus driver ahead of us, saying, “If the militia guys see this, they're going to beat him in the street.”
On a summer return to Tripoli, it seemed surprising that for all their power, the militias were hard to spot. They manned check points outside the city but had withdrawn to strategic sites they had seized (airports, hotel complexes, and farms of presumed loyalists). Or else they were hiding in plain sight, donning an armband with the emblem of state authority, working on government security contracts. These days, the bands of Mad Max-looking guerrillas that had been parading through the streets and firing into the air after liberation were no longer in sight. Until suddenly they were.
Now there are mounting fears in Libya that these armed militias are squaring off against each other, along lines that pit forces allied with the Muslim Brotherhood against a coalition of opponents. The rebels have reportedly blockaded key oil ports and in the capital, Tripoli, they are bracing for armed confrontation.
All through the spring and summer, the militias became increasingly politicized, laying siege to government ministries. In March, rumors that war veterans’ month-long occupation of parliament would soon be broken prompted a government-contracted militia to open fire on security forces there, wounding three. Congress moved its next session to a secret location but were surprised by another group of protesters who laid a 12-hour siege demanding legislators pass a draft of a political isolation law at gunpoint.
Support was widespread for proposed legislation known as the Isolation Law that would bar some former regime officials from power. Debate over the law stretched on for months, impeding progress on Congress's primary responsibility, which is paving the way to draft a new constitution and hold elections. It also brought to light a deep divide in the country.
On one side stood the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Salafis as well as representatives from cities that had sacrificed the most blood and treasure during the civil war. These hardliners were pushing for an ongoing revolution to uproot just about all of those who played a role in the former regime. In the opposite camp stood the National Forces Alliance. They are sometimes called “liberals,” which critics would say is misleading.
Joining this camp were leaders from other cities many of whom remained neutral or had sided with the regime during the war.
“In Kremia, the [militia] people said to us, ‘either you endorse the Isolation Law or we slaughter you,’” Congressman Abdurrahman Shater told me later. “Not kill you — slaughter you. You know the difference? Killing is by shooting. Slaughter is…” He trailed off, dragging his finger across his throat. “This is terrible.”
Congress refused to vote under threat of force and after 12 hours the siege was lifted. As the president of Congress, Mohammed al-Megarif, drove off, militias opened fire on his convoy. A few weeks later, militias turned out in force, surrounding government ministries and threatening to storm parliament, pressuring the Isolation Law’s passage.
Rather than a more moderate law that would apply based on an individual’s conduct under the regime, the version that passed cuts wide and deep across Libyan society, and makes no exception for those who played a significant role in the revolution. It has drawn widespread international criticism. According to a recent op-ed by William Lawrence, a former US State Department official in Libya, “the law not only further weakens already weak institutions, it could cripple them.”
The law’s passage was seen as a major victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller Islamist parties, who are expected to gain a wider majority of seats in parliament as a result. Among their political opponents, there is a widespread belief that this is part of a slow-motion coup.
“The Islamists have their own agenda to capture the country, like what happened in Egypt,” said Shater. “No doubt about it.”
Shater was an independent affiliated with the National Forces Alliance (NFA), a party that is largely composed of members of the elite who did not leave Libya and so had to find some form of accommodation with the regime. We were speaking in his home office in Tripoli.
He echoed a common sense of despair about the direction the country is heading. “Things are deteriorating. Inflation is going up. Unemployment is getting worse. Health services [are] very, very bad. Education also. So we are going backwards,” he said. “We will be in this hassle for ten years. We will not be able to build our country in a democratic way, a civil country trying to join the world,” he said. “Unless some blood will be [spilled] in the streets.”
Libya is grappling with the legacies of Muammar Gaddafi’s reign and the civil war that unseated him. In many ways, the real divide is between the people, tribes, and cities that Gaddafi pitted against each other in a strategy of divide and rule, whether they stood with or against him during the war, and how much they suffered. From afar, it looks like an ideological divide. But analysts insist it is at least as much a power struggle for control of Libya and its vast resources.
Styling themselves “the real revolutionaries,” the revolutionary camp seeks “root and branch renewal of the political and business elite to their advantage,” according to a new report from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
Their opponents want “to draw a line under the period of upheaval and fear further loss of influence to the revolutionaries.” These include those from cities or tribes that supported the regime or remained neutral, tribal elders calling for national reconciliation and many members of the NFA.
The revolutionary camp is often described in the press as an Islamist bloc, but its real unifying ideology is more often about who suffered under the regime or what they sacrificed to defeat it. One day, I was speaking with a handful of revolutionary brigade commanders from Suq Al Juma, a Tripoli neighborhood known as a Salafi stronghold and the site of heavy anti-regime resistance. I asked if the conflict was really between those who had learned to live with the regime in some form and those who only suffered under it.
One of the others pointed enthusiastically to a bald man with a thin mustache on the opposite couch, telling me his father – “the Nelson Mandela of Libya” – had been imprisoned for years and finally executed by the regime (the rumor was that he had been buried alive in a room filled in with wet cement).
Mohamed Alhetwash, now one of the roughly 300 commanders of the Supreme Revolutionary Council that organized the siege during the debate over the Isolation Law, told me he had been imprisoned during the revolution in the same prison where the regime had executed 1,260 Libyan political prisoners. He saw no place in the new regime for anyone who had collaborated with such an oppressive system.
“My friend, you are joking if you say that you forgive, for example, [former Interim Prime Minister] Mahmoud Jbril. We don’t kill Mahmoud Jbril. We tell Mahmoud Jbril, you stay a distance between us and you. Ten years… You are our brother. But you are never to be our commander.”
At its disposal, the revolutionary camp has thousands of armed men, who can be mobilized to their cause. On the couch across from me, an anguished looking 32-year-old fisherman — the resident expert on making bombs with blastfishing dynamite to attack army checkpoints during Tripoli’s struggle — finally spoke up.
“I want to put down my gun," he told me, “but what am I going to do?”
A government-sponsored program to send former revolutionaries to study abroad (which could cost billions) has been long delayed. He planned to spend his own money to go to Malta for psychological counseling.
“All the time I hear bombs and the sound of gunfire everywhere,” he said. He wants to go back to fishing but has yet to register his boat because he can't stomach having to deal with the same bureaucrats who served Gaddafi.
The idea that a strong Libyan state, like a firm father, should merely assert its authority over the unruly militias misses the reality in the country today.
After the war, the security vacuum left by the regime’s collapse was filled by an untold number of armed groups. Rather than rebuild the weak police and army, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Yousef Mangoush turned to the revolutionary forces. It was not a completely illogical move.
Frederic Wehrey, the former US military attaché in Tripoli, called the army “a shell of an institution.“ Contracting with the revolutionaries did bring them somewhat under the authority of the state. But it was also a “Faustian bargain” that gave brigade commanders and their political patrons leverage over the government.
This quickly gave rise to the growth of parallel forces that now overshadow the regular army and police — Wehrey agreed with a local reporter who told me it was “de-Baathification by neglect,” referring to the American removal of all Iraqi public employees who had served under Saddam Hussein, a policy which drastically weakened the government’s ability to operate.
The new interior minister reached out to civilian revolutionaries that organized uprisings to form the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), which operates as a parallel police force. Offering higher salaries than the regular police — and buoyed by recruits laid off from foreign companies pulling out of the country — their ranks swelled to an estimated 100,000 nationwide.
Soon after, a parallel army of revolutionary brigades formed. The Libyan Shield Forces, was, as Wehrey described in Foreign Affairs, “in many ways, a bottom-up initiative by brigade commanders themselves, designed to resist the incorporation of their fighters into the official army or police and to preserve the structures of the brigades — albeit under a different, more official-sounding name.”
When I asked Colonel Ali Al Shekhi, spokesman for Chief of Staff Mangoush, to name the greatest security threats in the country today, he mentioned the spread of weapons, escaped convicts, tribal tensions, even the rise of militant groups that may be implicated in recent attacks on Western targets.
“We don't deny the fact that Libya is still a weak state,” he said.
It doesn't help that they are surrounded by weak neighbors, he said, forced to defend long, porous borders that are being infiltrated by smugglers of weapons, drugs, and fuel, and that their own oil fields are still “open targets” they have not yet properly secured.
He didn't mention the militias. When I asked him what the government was doing to bring armed groups under its control, he said the majority of revolutionaries had been absorbed into forces (nominally) under the authority of the interior and defense ministries.
The groups that don't want to fall under government authority are a small minority, he said, probably mostly Islamist units in the east like Ansar al-Sharia (the radical group American officials allege carried out the attack on the US Consulate). The government has “an open door policy towards them,” but using force to disarm them is not really an option, Al Shekhi said. “These groups are in communities, they’re in neighborhoods, among tribes. They have families too.”
Basically, all carrot, no stick.
“What they're telling us now is that once they see a constitution in place that makes them feel this is going in the right direction and elections to parliament then they'll be more comfortable handing in their weapons,” he said.
I pointed out that, with their brigade structures intact, it didn't seem that the revolutionaries operating under the government's authority were necessarily under its control. He replied that the security contracts the Libyan Shield Forces members had signed were due to expire and their new contracts would require them to either join the national army or be integrated into a civilian ministry.
“We understand that this will not be easily achieved,” he said, without the pretense of optimism. “We will see.”
Integration of revolutionaries into the Supreme Security Committee has already begun, but the revolutionary hard-core seem to be set against it. The more realistic plan is the creation of a new force called the National Guard, which would be composed entirely of revolutionaries and would allow them to survive yet another transition with their brigade structures intact. Shekhi admitted it was essentially a way to appease the revolutionary camp—a temporary body that they could use to gradually demobilize fighters while strengthening the national army.
Wehrey agreed the national guard idea was a good idea, but many fear it will simply be the Libyan Shield Forces by a different name.
A recent report from the International Crisis Group chronicles the self-perpetuating cycle in which Libya is trapped.
The revolutionary camp distrusts the judiciary and sees the slow pace of trials against former regime officials as confirming their suspicions that the judges are all Qaddafi loyalists. So armed groups have increasingly taken on the roles of the police, prosecutors, judges, and jailers — drafting their own lists of wanted figures, setting up their own checkpoints and bursting into people's homes to arrest them, and detaining thousands outside the reach of the courts that are even functioning. As armed groups continue to entrench themselves and take over more powers of the state, they further undermine it. Libyans see militias as the real power on the ground, free to operate above the law.
The first step in breaking the cycle, justice minister Salah al Marghani told me, would be to defuse tensions between the winners and losers of the revolution by delivering justice: prosecuting war criminals, compensating victims, freeing the innocent (among thousands in jails beyond the reach of the state), and investigating cases like that of the Tawerghans, who are accused of committing mass rapes against their Misratan neighbors.
But, not surprisingly, the camps in Congress have failed to pass the transitional justice law needed to start that process, divided over the question of whether the prosecution of war crimes would only include crimes committed by the regime (as opposed to the ongoing "crimes against humanity" that, a UN inquiry concluded, have been waged against the Tawerghans by militias since the war's end). He also hoped that the new interior minister would succeed where his predecessor failed in breaking up the structure of brigades in the SSC. In late March, he spoke out publicly about militias in the SSC running their own private jail at the Mitiga International Airport.
The next day, they shut down al Marghani's ministry.
“They felt insulted that they are called an armed group out of control,” he said. “When they invaded I came over and tried to reason with those guys. They asked, 'are we militias out of control?'"
He said he laughed at them, saying, “You're just proving it — you are in the Ministry of Justice!”
This reporting was supported by a grant from The Correspondents Fund.