- 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 Libyan capital is enduring some of its worst days since its liberation in August 2011. Today, the people of Tripoli took to the streets to call for an end to rule by militia in the city — only to be shot at and, in some cases, killed by the same armed militias that helped liberate the capital from Qaddafi’s forces.
On Nov. 15, hundreds of Tripoli residents answered calls for peaceful demonstrations issued by the city’s council, the Grand Mufti, and civil society organizations to protest against the presence of armed militias in the city. The protesters carried white flags as a sign of peace. However, when the crowds marched to the Gharghour area of Tripoli — home to one of the most notorious militias in the city — the protesters were fired upon with live ammunition, including anti-aircraft guns and even rockets. At least 32 people have been killed and at least 391 injured. The casualties included women and children, according to the latest data released by the Ministry of Health.
Tensions in Tripoli have been rising since a member of a Tripoli militia murdered a commander of a rival militia a few days ago. The killing prompted retaliation by the members of the dead man’s militia last week. Tripoli’s residents were caught in the middle of two warring militias, who have effectively been holding the capital, its people, and the authorities at their mercy. Due to the presence of rival militias, Tripoli has become a place where revenge killings, robberies, forced disappearance, and illegal detention and torture take place on a daily basis.
One of the militias involved in today’s bloodletting hails from Misrata. Soon after the shooting, the Misrata militia and its sympathizers took to Libyan TV channels to claim that today’s demonstrators unfairly targeted them over other militias. They suggested that the protesters were advocating an anti-Misrata agenda in an attempt to weaken the city’s position in Tripoli, while allowing other militias to operate as usual.
At the end of the war in October 2011, a variety of militias — hailing from cities such as Misrata, Zintan, and a myriad of others — divided Tripoli into areas of influence. Instead of designing strategies to disband the militias and bring an end to their culture of impunity, successive governments have instead legitimized these militias by legalizing them and giving them significant financial support, running to the tune of billions of Libyan dinars.
Since then, Libya’s politicians have acted as the militia’s political backers and advocates. Instead of agreeing on one national security strategy, each political group has been working to safeguard the interests of their affiliated militias. This is turning the security issue into a platform for political battles and point-scoring. Though the militia commanders and their political backers claim that these semi-private armies are Libya’s only security option, the militias are proving day by day that they are not a viable alternative. In fact they have proven to be Libya’s worst nightmare. Now they are the main obstacle standing in the way of a successful democratic transition.
In light of this, politicians have been accusing each other of colluding with different militias to intimidate lawmakers and the government in order to push through their individual agendas. This has been evident in the way that the political isolation law was adopted to exclude figures linked to the Qaddafi regime. Militias besieged government ministries and made direct threats to members of the General National Congress (the interim legislature) until their demands were met and the law was passed. The prime minister has also accused political opponents within the GNC of orchestrating his kidnapping a few weeks ago, explicitly naming two GNC members who happened to belong to the Islamist bloc.
On Aug. 11, the Islamist-backed, Misrata-allied GNC president adopted a resolution to deploy the Libya Shield forces, under the name Revolutionaries’ Operations Room (a group of militias affiliated with Misrata and the Islamists) to protect Tripoli and its people. Many observers considered this decision to be an attempt by the Islamists and Misrata to consolidate their position in Tripoli against their Zintani rivals. These recent events have proven this to be the case, since these forces have done nothing to protect Tripoli or to respond to the demands of its people. Today the Revolutionaries’ Operation Room tasked with protecting Tripoli did nothing to fulfil its obligations to protect the people of Tripoli in the Gharghour area of Tripoli. The protesters were left to face heavily armed militias on their own without any form of protection.
The fact is that the militias are not a viable alternative to a national army or police system. Official security institutions have a clear chain of command and offer accountability to the governments that maintain them; this is exactly the opposite of the militias. Relying on militias has already proven to be a huge mistake on the part of Libya’s politicians — and they should learn from that experience. Militias are a ticking bomb that could go off at any time, and allowing them to continue operating with impunity will only invite further chaos and more blood. The situation in Tripoli is still very delicate, and the potential for a prolonged armed standoff is very real.
The latest events in Tripoli present a valuable opportunity for the government to make the tough decision to stand up for what its people want rather than give into the pressures of armed militias. Given the government’s historical inability to capitalize on such events by pushing through disarmament measures, however, few really expect it to seize the opening.
Libya is increasingly finding itself in a no-win scenario. The situation is too unstable for the government to achieve any meaningful progress beyond this transitional phase. Yet the situation is not bad enough to warrant attention from the international community, which might otherwise intervene to help the Libyan authorities to restore order.
The policy of appeasing the militias has failed miserably, and a steadily deteriorating security environment is the result. Rather than undercutting efforts to curtail militia influence as it has in the past, the government must now support the public’s demands, embrace their aspirations for a genuine rule of law, and face up to these militias. They should do this even if it entails radical measures — up to and including requests for international peacekeeping forces. It is becoming harder and harder to imagine an alternative.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.