- 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.
The people of Benghazi have a clear message to armed militias: "You are no longer welcome in this city."
This weekend, over 31 people died and more than 100 were wounded during clashes in Benghazi between protesters and the militias paid by the government to act as a reserve security force. The militias have assumed a self-appointed role as the country’s peacekeepers while wreaking havoc in their own quest for power. This incident will only further incense Libyans who have been forced to endure rule by militias for more than two years while the country’s military is being rebuilt.
The unique arrangement came from the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, which led to a security vacuum. In the environment of extreme instability, armed militias were able to operate outside the law and even run their own parallel justice system where citizens could be detained in illegal prisons, tortured, and sometimes even killed. Some members were part of the revolutionary forces fighting Qaddafi, but enlistment surged as unemployed and uneducated young people and ex-criminals started joining ranks.
The government has done little to quell the growing influence of armed groups. Many Libyans have criticized it for providing financial and legal backing while marginalizing the professional standing army and police forces. For reasons many don’t pretend to understand, militias are afforded better equipment and higher salaries despite the fact that they don’t obey orders, break the law on a daily basis, and are generally considered a prime cause of the lawlessness pervading the country.
After months of growing frustration, hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday outside the headquarters of the Libya Shield militia brigade (one of the most powerful government-sanctioned groups), demanding that it be disbanded and removed from the residential area. As the violence started to intensify and the militias pushed back, Defence Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi ordered the army Special Forces unit to intervene and stabilize the situation. Army chief of staff, Youssef al-Mangoush, who is a frequent target of public ire, resigned the following day.
This is not the first time that militias have fired on anti-militia protesters. In September 2012, protesters stormed a militia compound in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate. In response, militias fired back, killing 11 and injuring more than 70. Despite claims by Libya Shield and their backers that these militias are actually a legitimate force sanctioned by the government, the reality is that rarely obey the authorities’ orders. Their main loyalty is to their commanders and their political backers, above all the Islamist movements and the Islamist bloc within the General National Congress (GNC).
During a GNC session convened to discuss the killings the day before, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the army chief both stressed that Libya Shield does not always follow the government’s instructions. Members of Libya Shield and other affiliated militiamen besieged government ministries in Tripoli for more than two weeks last month to force their will on the national assembly and pressure them to pass the controversial isolation law.
The message from the militias is clear: "We’re the only army and police that Libyan government can rely on. Support us or else." But the reality on the ground shows something completely different. The deployment of members of the Special Forces Unit (a 16,000-strong professional army unit) in Benghazi to improve security has been welcomed by the people of the city. As expected, militia leaders aren’t happy with the apparent success of the Special Forces Unit.
Any decision on disbanding these pseudo-armies can only be taken by the General National Congress (GNC). Unfortunately, the political commitment of GNC members is increasingly questionable amid the ongoing political infighting among various narrow-minded interests. This infighting is causing rising frustration among political parties that are accused of working for their own interests and not for those of nation. Many believe that some factions have benefitted from militia violence in order to secure political gains.
Urged on by the growing outcry, the GNC passed a resolution on Sunday urging the government to take "all necessary measures to stop the presence of unauthorized armed groups." It also called for Prime Minister Zeidan and his government to come up with a plan for integrating former rebel fighters into the army.
However, the families of the recent victims in Benghazi criticized the GNC statement. The families called the resolution weak, and demanded that the government and GNC openly name the groups that are hindering efforts to rebuild the national army and police forces. In addition, the families urged the government to stop issuing payments to "legitimate militias" that have, for the second time, killed large numbers of Benghazi residents.
The security situation in Libya and the rebuilding of the army and police have become a political circus between the different political forces in Libya and the national interest has become secondary in this political infighting over control.
Many Libyans like me are frustrated at the fact that the militia card is being used as a political bargaining chip with complete disregard for the national interests of the nation. The lack of a united political will towards the existence of militias by our politicians is the main obstacle in the way of disbanding militias and the rebuilding of proper army and police force. Tension is growing by the day, and frustration is building. Politicians need to pay more attention to the people’s demands and stop backing armed groups pursuing narrow-minded political interests.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.