- 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 Oct. 18, Benghazi experienced its latest assassination. This time the target was Libya’s Military Police chief colonel, Ahmed al-Barghathi. The city has suffered more than 100 killings in the past year, mainly targeting army and security officers, as well as activists, judges, journalists, and moderate Imams. The authorities have been unable to stop the murders, bring any of those responsible to justice, or even achieve breakthroughs in any of the investigations, which have all been linked to "unknown entities."
In a worrying but not entirely unexpected development, members of Barghathi’s eponymous tribe took revenge for his killing by attacking and torching the family home of Wesam Ben Hamid in Benghazi, one of the key commanders of the Libya Shield forces, which have close ties to the Islamists. The Barghathi tribesmen believe that Ben Hamid and other Islamist leaders — like Ismael al-Sallabi and Ahmed Abu Khatallah, who is wanted by the FBI in connection to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year — are responsible for the assassinations or that they at least have knowledge of those behind them.
A few days after the attack on Ben Hamid, a former rebel unit linked to the Islamists announced the arrest of several foreign nationals, mainly from Chad and other African countries, as suspects in the Benghazi assassination campaign. The unit that captured them claims they are mercenaries funded by the Qaddafi regime figures who fled the country with billions of dollars. As it happens, there is no proof to support the claims. Libyans were quick to mock what they deemed an attempt to divert attention from the Islamists following Barghathi’s killing.
The authorities have failed to offer the victims’ families any hope for justice, but the events of last week have shown that they are willing to take matters into their own hands to seek revenge for their relatives.
The security vacuum in eastern Libyan cities like Benghazi and Derna leaves the door open for some new group to exploit the situation and establish itself as a viable alternative to the government. The government certainly has no means to provide security to its people; the country does not even have a Minister of Interior in place. Two successive interior ministers resigned the post in the past nine months, both citing "the lack of support, political will, and unity on the issue of security" among competing political factions. This further affirms that the security issue has become nothing more than a bargaining chip in the continuing political feud.
It’s not surprising, then, that federalists in Cyrenaica (or Barqa, as it’s known in Arabic) focused on security when they announced the creation of their autonomous regional government last week. The head of the new government vowed to address the assassinations issue. The Barqa leaders are exploiting the weakness of the central authorities by attempting to champion the ordinary citizen’s concerns, according to the General National Congress spokesperson Omar Hmaidan. This is nothing more than an attempt by the new government to win a much-needed sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Barqa.
It remains unclear what resources the Barqa government can actually bring to bear to address the security situation in eastern Libya. Still, the only way that the central authorities in Tripoli can counter the move is to localize its security efforts by granting powers and funding to local security forces and national army units in the area. Most importantly, politicians in Tripoli need to put their political differences aside and focus on the issue at hand.
Given the current circumstances, however, it looks as though the Tripoli authorities’ battle for a strong centralized system has already been lost. This was highlighted beyond any doubt by the fact that the government was even unable to arrest the person who recently kidnapped the prime minister and then boasted about it on national and international TV. In fact, the government’s tendency to blame all security related incidents on "unknown entities" could be an attempt to conceal that the government is unable to enforce the law and hold criminals accountable.
The inability of the authorities to make any arrests or bring the killers to justice has severely damaged its public credibility. This has led some power-hungry groups in post-revolutionary Libya, such as the Islamists and federalists, to exploit the situation to their advantage by seeking to offer themselves as an alternative to the "incapable" central government. In post-revolutionary Libya, there are many peripheral forces that have the power and ability to hold the central government ransom until their demands are met. But because each region has different needs, it’s impossible for the central government to respond to all of their demands. It’s time to create a security framework that incorporates and governs these myriad forces instead of embarking on a losing battle with them. If Libya’s government intends to make any real progress on the security front, it has to acknowledge this reality.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.