EDITOR'S NOTE: William Wheeler, recipient of the first annual GroundTruth reporting fellowship in the Middle East, is now on assignment in Libya. This is the third in a series of guest posts for this blog and he will soon be filing a GlobalPost Special Report on Libya's struggle to forge a democracy in the smoldering aftermath of the Arab Spring.
BENGHAZI, Libya — I postponed my scheduled trip to Benghazi on Saturday because of a demonstration in Tripoli, where civil society groups called for the government to strengthen the police and national army to get the militias out of the streets. The event proceeded peacefully: protesters gave speeches and carried signs with slogans like, “Elections create legitimacy and arms [create] a dictatorship,” while members of the Special Forces skydived into Martyr’s Square on parachutes embossed with the Libyan flag.
Meanwhile, in Benghazi, a similar demonstration devolved into a chaotic armed clash, and government-supported militias killed dozens of people. That night, I met a Benghazian who told me that what happened was tragic, but necessary—the only thing, he said, that would finally strip the mask off the militias masquerading as legitimate authorities.
I arrived in Benghazi yesterday and attended the burials, which created a traffic jam on the city’s outskirts. Hundreds of residents came to the cemetery after services at local mosques. In a parched and barren field, the dead were buried by hand in a long row lined by weeping men embracing each other in consolation.
The locals I spoke with told me the confrontation was fuelled by a belief that one of the major armed factions—operating under the banner of the Libya Shield Forces (LSF)—was loyal to an Islamist agenda. In the wake of Libya’s civil war, the government empowered groups like the LSF, which operates as a parallel force to the weak national army, and the Supreme Security Committee, which operates in parallel to the police, to secure the country. These groups are comprised mostly of revolutionary brigades—as opposed to career military and police officers—that are, at least nominally, under the command of the state.
But many Benghazi residents allege that the LSF unit was, in reality, more loyal to an Islamist agenda than to the state. I had hoped to interview the commander of the unit involved in the clash, but instead he was in hiding—the families and tribes of those killed were out for vengeance. The ensuing scandal precipitated a major shakeup: army units secured the LSF unit’s compound and, in Tripoli, the army chief of staff resigned.
While the dynamics behind such clashes are inevitably local and shifting, there are currents gathering force in Libya that will likely be a lasting feature of the new political landscape. One combines more liberal elements with federalists; the other is made up of allied Islamists and a revolutionary camp that calls for a deeper uprooting of the ancient regime.
A few days ago, I interviewed the spokesman for the army’s chief of staff. He had admitted the state was too weak to root out armed groups by force. That hadn’t changed, said the army commander in Benghazi. For better or for worse, the will of the people is what matters.
“At the end of the day the final decision maker is the populace, the street,” he told me. “If the street gives you legitimacy, then you will survive in Libya. If the people don’t, you will never survive.”