- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
On Sunday, March 31, armed gunmen stormed Libya’s Ministry of Justice. The gunmen (reportedly militia members under the Supreme Security Committee) threw Justice Minister Salah Marghani and his staff out of the building in protest over recent televised remarks the minister made during an interview with Libya AhrarTV.
Marghani (second from left) had spoken out against unlawful detentions and the practices of prisons being run by armed militias. He promised that all prisons will be brought under the control of the ministry’s judicial police and the attorney general. Marghani, like Prime Minister Zeidan (pictured at the podium), is making an effort to act as an honest communicator with the Libyan people. Marghani is handling the issue in the same responsible manner as he did in his response to the Human Rights Watch report on Libya: in that case, he publicly admitted the country’s failure to prevent human rights abuses and promised to take urgent action on the issue.
His honesty and transparency did not, however, prove popular with the armed militias and groups running their own secret prisons and detention facilities. The gunmen demanded that Marghani be sacked from his post and accused him of trying to help former regime officials escape (laughable allegations even by militias’ standards).
Marghani and Prime Minister Zeidan held a joint press conference just a few hours after the storming of the ministry in which they condemned the incident. They both refused to give into pressure to allow militias to control prisons or hold prisoners. Standing firm, they stressed that the decision to prevent militias from holding prisoners would not be changed.
Since it took charge a few months ago, the government has successfully maintained its media presence by holding at least one press conference a week.
Most Libyans welcome the government’s tough line. The responses on social media and television show that public support for Zeidan and his government appears to be getting stronger by the day. This is what Zeidan and his team have been working hard to achieve, but the tough talk needs to be translated into action on the ground. This is ultimately what matters to Libyans.
A battle is under way between two forces in Libya. The government is striving to establish the rule of law, while the militias, clinging to revolutionary legitimacy, want things done their own way, with general disregard for the law. This is the core issue. Everything else is secondary.
The government cannot win without the support of the Libyan people. Zeidan and his cabinet ministers echo this sentiment whenever they get the chance. Moreover, in a clear contrast to the position of the previous government led by Prime Minister el-Keib (which allowed the growing influence of militias), the minister of justice has commended the people of Benghazi for the mass demonstrations, famously known as the "Benghazi Rescue Friday" on September 21, 2012 — and the "Benghazi Won’t Die Friday" on December 28, 2012, that were held against militias and armed groups in the city. He has urged all cities, especially Tripoli, to follow this path.
The government has already set up a joint task force to clear Tripoli of all armed militias and groups, and has so far cleared 36 locations out of 500 possible locations including private residential villas that belonged to former regime figures in the capital. A similar effort will follow in Benghazi. The government is clearly determined to establish control throughout Libya, and it seems to be making progress. In addition, public tolerance of militias is diminishing as ordinary Libyans’ support for the state (and, implicitly, for its monopoly on violence to maintain order) increases. This provides a real opportunity for the government to act decisively.
Minister Marghani put it perfectly during his press conference with Prime Minister Zeidan following the storming of the Ministry of Justice: "The building may be stormed and the justice minister may get killed, but justice won’t die, for justice is God and justice is truth, and falsehood and intolerance won’t prevail over truth and justice."
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.