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Q & A: Libyan militias square off

GlobalPost speaks with correspondent William Wheeler about exactly what's going on in Libya and where the conflict might go from here.
Libya Zintan Vacate TripoliEnlarge
Members and vehicles of the Al-Qaaqa brigade from Zintan get ready to vacate the premises of their Tripoli quarter on November 21, 2013, as part of a government decision to remove militias from the capital and eventually integrate them into the security forces, after a weekend of deadly clashes between militiamen and residents. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Since Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall two years ago, Libya’s delicate governments and transitory leaders have wrestled with diffusing the country’s plethora of militias.

Instead of being eliminated, the militias have ultimately held more power than official security forces and successfully hindered the country’s ability to progress toward peaceful reconciliation, generating increasing frustration and trepidation among Libyan civilians.

Libyans have consequently staged a number of protests, one, in Tripoli on Nov. 15, ending in the death of over 40 people and over 500 injuries. What followed was a two-day battle between the Misratans and the police force that drove the militia, for once, into retreat, and a week of public outrage.

Thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Thursday to demand that the illegitimate armed groups leave the city. Several of them did.

With other militias holding fast, Al-Sadat al-Badri, the head of Tripoli's local council, said Friday that the city, which has been on strike since Nov. 17—the same day that Libya's deputy intellegence chief was kidnapped in Tripoli and a month after the prime minister was abducted by militiamen —would remain so “until the capital and its surroundings are free of militias.”

Even militias on the government payroll have claimed responsibility for recent kidnappings of officials, whom they use for political leverage.

GlobalPost sat down for a conversation with William Wheeler, GlobalPost correspondent and winner of the GroundTruth fellowship for field reporting on emerging democracies in the Middle East, to find out exactly what is going on in Libya, and where the conflict might go from here.

GLOBALPOST: What’s happening in Libya right now?

WILLIAM WHEELER: Basically what’s happening in Libya is you’re seeing this squaring off—since the end of the war you’ve seen different contests and conflicts playing out that are very regionalized around the country. And increasingly those disparate conflicts have started to align with these two factions.

This competition is roughly mirrored in the parliament, in the divide betwee the two biggest blocs— the Muslim Brotherhood with allied Islamists of different stripes and leaders from cities that were strongholds of resistance during the revolution, versus the Natoinal Forces Alliance (the "liberals")—they’re really kind of local power brokers and business guys and guys from prominent families who are well educated and had some sort of accommodation with the regime—and their allies.

So from the outside we call it the Islamist/liberal divide, and that’s true to some extent. Libyans might, in a lot of ways, see it as a divide between on one hand people who only suffered under Gaddafi, like the Islamists Gaddafi persecuted, along with the revolutionary hardliners in cities that fought really hard and lost a lot of guys, and on the other hand people who sided with the revolution but also had some sort of role or relationship with his regime in the past, or had learned how to live with it to some extent. It's not quite a divide between the people who were the have's and the have-nots under the regime, but something like that.

GP: It’s easy to understand Libya’s current landscape as extremely fragmented—different groups and militias with disparate motivations inhabit different spaces—so there is no way to understand the role security plays in general without understanding how its function in Tripoli might be unlike that in Misrata, for instance. Can you talk a bit about how the function of security changes as you move from one region within Libya to the next?

WW: The spokesman for the army will tell you that 70 percent of the fighters in Libya right now are under the umbrella of the government. That means they recognize the government and they're working on government employment contracts, taking a salary from the state to provide security.

But the reality is that what we call militias operate in shades of gray. And gray is really the dominant reality in Libya. A lot of the reality can be understood in the difference between what happened in the east and the west.

Most of the people that the outside world recognized as the leaders of the revolution—the guys who helped secure outside support—were these guys in Benghazi, in the east. They were experienced opposition leaders and defectors from Gaddafi's army. Many of Islamists there formed their own brigades, independent of the official rebel army. But that army got stuck fighting in the east.

In the west what you had was a bunch local dudes rise up. They were dentists, or they worked in shops, or they were unemployed—part of this massive generation of unemployed youth—who didn’t have any training and decided that they’d sell their car or scrape together three grand and buy an AK. Then they worked with their buddies to liberate their street or their neighborhood or their city. These became the regionalized militias.

By the time the war was over that first crop of leaders had been swept aside for various reasons.

Today, when it comes to security you have these groups that the government is trying to get under its umbrella without angering anyone because the militias have all the guns, the fighters, the loyalties, but they aren’t really obedient to the government.

In Tripoli they’re trying this experiment in cracking down. For instance, there’s this big massacre that just happened and they’re trying to get all these guys from different units to create a cocktail mix of five thousand guys whose loyalty would only be to the state. And their job is going to be to crack down on other militias that are not.

Because in Tripoli you still have all of these outside militias like the Zintan guys and the Misratans that won’t leave. So it’s a struggle between these forces that are more loyal to the government and those that are still trying to hold on to their autonomy.

But there's very little lika a truly neutral force, whatever that would mean in the Libyan context. Security plays out differently in the east than it does in the west. In theory, many of the militias are part of the official government-recognized security forces, but they have their own alliances and their own interests.

GP: The international community is calling for the government to put a stop to the violence, and condemning the Misratans for last week’s massacre in Tripoli. The Libyan government is being criticized by human rights groups because the government-aligned forces did not intervene in the shooting. Can you give some insight into that dynamic in particular and why—despite government efforts to clear these militias out—there was no decisive action on their part?

WW: I think the question with that is there’s really less and less of a neutral security force. There are people who talk about it, but more and more it seems like there’s the revolutionary camp and they’ve got their guns, and then there’s the old-guard leaning camp, the “moderate factions” camp, you might call it, that have their guys and their guns.

So when it comes to what happened this week in Tripoli, the question is who is capable of enforcing that? And who is willing to do so?

The optimists in Libya will say that Libyans have been able to pull themselves back from the brink every time it looks like they’re on the verge of civil war. That the real power brokers since the revolution have been the people—the street. So it seems like the street has had enough now. And I talked to a lot of rank and file militia guys from all sides that had pretty legitimate grievances—about jobs, the new constitution, polititcal leaders that hadn't discarded the habits of their predecessors—and they say they want to lay down their arms but need to see change. The question is whether this latest tragedy will create that kind of opening.

In the meantime, the government is just trying to coax militias into a political dialogue. And one hope might be that while the government goes around building its armed forces, the public tide will pull pressure on these militias to withdraw. Or at least stop surrounding parliament and dictating policy and shooting civilians in the street. But the momentum has been going toward a civil war and a lot of the brigade commanders on the ground told me that’s what they are afraid of.

GP: So the political landscape—not just the physical landscape of this conflict—is very complex. Can you tell me about some of the elements, outside of the issue of security and fragmentation, that are making it difficult to work toward a resolution of some sort?

WW: The legacies of Gadaffi's rule and the way it was upended left a lot of big questions hanging. About the role of religion in the new Libya. And who, after a war that was won piecemeal, has the legitimacy to lead? In a revolution of arms, who decides when the revolution ends? When the rule of the gun is no longer legitimate?

In hindsight, the revolution was very much about getting rid of Gaddafi without a whole lot of discussion or thought or consensus about what kind of country comes next. And the paranoid nature of his rule left this huge legacy of tribes and cities and business networks vying against each other—Gaddafi was threatened by individuals which left no way for Libyans to really relate to each other in what we call civil society or institutions. There’s no backbone to the society that would exist without Gaddafi.

Then the war played out in differently in different cities and at different times, so it left all of these young guys that were battle-scarred and shell-shocked that fought on their own and didn’t necessarily feel a connection to people in other cities.

The third part is the sort of vested interests that have developed since the end of the revolution. The central government didn’t project authority around the country, or they couldn't, so local councils ruled, and local brigade commanders assumed authority. And as time goes on they are less and less content to give up their power.

Those are the three complicating factors that are really standing in the way of political dialogue: the preexisting tensions that Gaddafi manipulated, the inheritance of power and economic interests that came out of the way the revolution was fought, and the security void afterwards.

GP: We sometimes have an impulse to ask about parallels between contexts of conflict, but I think it’s also really important, especially in thinking about Libya, to understand the issues in isolation, which I think we’ve done here. Having said that, we do see extreme fragmentation in Syria as well. It’s unfolded and evolved uniquely in each of these situations—the trajectories have been vastly different—but I’m curious to know if you have drawn any parallels yourself, or what you would project for the future state of both fractured landscapes. Do you think they’ll end up with similar circumstances?

WW: I was surprised, during the revolution, by how many people I spoke to in Libya who framed the revolution in terms of a universal aspiration for human rights.

The argument you make about understanding places in isolation I think is particularly true in Libya because of Gaddafi’s rule. But I met a lot of these guys who said things that would surprise me, and it’s not a “good guy/bad guy thing.” It’s a very complex, unique phenomenon, what’s happening in Libya.

In terms of democratic development, we tend to forget, especially with interventions, about the sequencing issues and all the messy, bloody phases that it takes to get there, and Libya is dealing with that right now, like Syria. Libya lacked institutions but it also lacked the sort of sectarian component that makes Syria such a nightmare. So it was supposed to be easier in Libya. If nothing else, it shows how even relatively minor differences can establish trajectories that take on a life of their own.

Syria, I think, is something else. Although I should say that a lot of journalists in Istanbul, who are coming in and out of Syria, were telling me that Syria has experienced this radicalizing effect where you didn’t get an intervention like Libya got, and not only were the jihadists and more radical elements empowered, but the moderate guys were getting radicalized as the war went on because of that terrible state of affairs.

So I think the factors behind Libya and Syria that prompted the Arab Uprising were similar in a lot of ways, but what it’s becoming now is a more divergent trajectory. Sadly, I guess, is that another thing these countries have in common is this second, darker, more uncertain phase of this process. And the world seems less and less interested in the complexities.
 

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