In the early hours of Monday morning, the streets of Benghazi witnessed heavy fighting between the units from the national army’s Special Forces units and extremists militants from the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia. The clashes left nine dead and dozens injured, including civilians.
Ansar al-Sharia is the same group suspected of killing United States Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens during an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. The latest clashes erupted when Ansar al-Sharia militants targeted one of the Libyan army’s special forces units in the city, according to Wanis Abu Khamada, the special forces commander. Ansar al-Sharia has been putting out a rather different version of events. The jihadis claim they were harassed by soldiers from the Special Forces at a checkpoint near their headquarters in Benghazi. In this version, the army was trying to provoke Ansar into fighting, thus giving the government an excuse to campaign against their presence in the city.
Residents of Benghazi took to the streets in support of the army, denouncing the actions of Ansar al-Sharia and repeating the call for all militias in the country to be disbanded. (The photo above shows participants in the demonstrations holding a poster that says "I love Benghazi.") This is not the first time that Ansar al-Sharia has been the target of public anger and mass protests. Following the killing of Ambassador Stevens, thousands marched in Benghazi against the group and managed to drive them out of their bases and out of the city altogether. Nevertheless, Ansar al-Sharia returned to the city quietly a few weeks later. Its members carried on their activities with a special focus on charitable work in a bid to win public sympathy and support. But this public relations effort was successful only up to a point.
The latest clashes in Benghazi are significant because this is the first time that government forces have confronted armed militias in the city. After hours of fighting, the army units managed to push Ansar al-Sharia out of their strongholds in Benghazi and took control of their bases. It remains unclear where the bulk of the group’s forces have gone, or if any of the militants have been arrested. On Wednesday morning, at least four special forces members were killed in a suspected Ansar al-Sharia attack on a checkpoint east of Benghazi. Over the last few days, the situation in Benghazi has been tense and fighting continues both inside the city and in towns to the East.
The Benghazi Local Council, civil society groups, and the council of elders in the city have called for a general strike until the authorities in Tripoli take serious action to shore up security. The national army and police have been sidelined for some time, while preferential treatment has been given to armed militias that have coerced the government to strengthen their position by demanding legal and political recognition (not to mention billions in financial support).
During his visit to Benghazi on Monday, Prime Minister Zeidan and other government officials supported the people’s demands to disband the militias and to extend official recognition only to the national army and police forces. Yet there are still some significant political forces within the national parliament that continue working hard to protect the interests of militias that are linked to them either politically or ideologically.
Although government forces have successfully pushed Ansar al-Sharia out of Benghazi for now, many locals fear the militia may choose to retaliate. In particular, some observers worry that the group may be changing its tactics. As the people of Benghazi and the armed forces join hands against the militants, public places could become a prime target for attacks. These fears were reaffirmed when a member of Ansar al-Sharia’s Shura Council appeared on Libyan TV and declared the government, army, and lawmakers to be infidels, while promising death to those who oppose the jihadis’ strict application of sharia law. Other figures from Ansar al-Sharia tried later to play down his comments.
For the authorities in Libya to succeed in controlling the security situation and the threat that armed militias pose to the country’s democratic transition, they need to localize their efforts. They have to empower local security agencies and commanders throughout the country by granting them appropriate authority to respond to local communities’ needs. In addition, local police and army forces must have the political and financial support of the central authorities in order to feel confident that they can take full responsibility for local security arrangements. Localization would also help to counter recruitment campaigns by armed groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, which sometimes offer an attractive alternative to the many unemployed young men in the country.
U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Schmiere came up with a fitting summary of the situation in Libya during his recent testimony to a Senate subcommittee: "Libya is not one big mess, it is a bunch of little messes that are not very related." The Libyan government and its allies in the West need to acknowledge this reality and incorporate it in their plans to bring stability. Security, political, and economic efforts must be localized to help resolve those "little messes." "One size fits all" won’t work.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.