On Feb. 20, citizens of Derna, a port city in eastern Libya, hoped to cast their votes for the Constituent Assembly (the body that will write the country’s new constitution) along with the rest of the country. Unfortunately, the area’s extremist groups had other ideas. Ahead of the election, they bombed many polling stations and shut down the rest, preventing people from casting their votes. When the central government set up an election rerun in the city on Feb. 26, Derna’s voters boycotted the election, because the government had done nothing to ensure that this run would be any safer than the last. As a result, the city has no representatives in the Constituent Assembly, thanks to a few powerful militants who insist that democracy contradicts Islam.
Yet Derna’s citizens are faced with much more pressing issues than underrepresentation: They are fighting for their safety as extremist groups grow increasingly influential. Extremists continue their assassinations campaign against the city’s judges, activists, and security personnel uninterrupted. On Feb. 28, frustrated protesters took to Derna’s streets to protest the killing of a security officer’s widow the previous day by a group of armed men whose exact identities have not been confirmed. The security officer, Abdulraof Belhola, was assassinated in Derna on Feb. 3, one of the many policemen and soldiers gunned down by the city’s extremists in the last few months.
Derna has a history with extremist groups. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Derna sent more jihadists to fight Americans than any other city in the Arab world. Things took a turn for the worst after Libya’s revolutionaries captured and killed Muammar al-Qaddafi in Sirte in October 2011. Islamist groups that had left to join the fight against Qaddafi returned to Derna for a fight of a different kind, ushering in a new reality for the port city and its people. (In the photo above, Derna’s citizens demonstrate in support of Quaddafi’s ouster in 2011.) When these groups attempted to consolidate forces in the 1990s, Qaddafi’s Air Force bombed them into submission. Post-Qaddafi Libya, however, offered these extremist groups the freedom and space to establish a safe haven for their activities and for believers of their radical ideology. Now, Derna is the stronghold of homegrown extremism in post-Qaddafi Libya, and continues to export jihadists to places like Syria.
Islamist groups like Ansar al-Sharia insist on imposing their strict version of Sharia law on the people of Derna, and want the rest of Libya to follow the same path. In 2012, security officials requested that Derna’s armed Islamist groups join the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense as part of an ambitious, ill-considered project to reintegrate ex-revolutionaries. They agreed to join, but only on the condition that the city, and Libya as a whole, implement a strict Sharia code. And, indeed, Fathi Ajeeb (appointed head of the Supreme Security Committee in Derna by the then-ruling National Transitional Council) promised to fulfill their request in May 2012, just before the country voted to elect the General National Congress (GNC), the country’s legislative body. Because they were promised a Sharia code, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia) helped secure the elections. When the authorities in Tripoli reneged on the promise, however, the brigade lost trust in the central government, left their bases, and stopped providing security for the city. Subsequently, Derna has fallen into extremists’ hands.
Residents of Derna tell me that members of the extremist groups are rarely seen out and about in daylight, because they fear the mounting public anger. But their presence is felt across the city. Now, Derna has no official police or security presence. Because army and police personnel are targeted on daily basis, the central government’s security forces have either relocated or confined themselves to their homes, limiting their movement in public. The city’s courts complex was bombed multiple times and is currently out of use. Members of the judicial system are frequent targets: The city’s leading judge, Mohammed Houidi, was assassinated on June 16, 2013, and Libya’s former attorney general, Abdulaziz al-Hassadi, was murdered in Derna on February 8, 2014.
The city’s local council is totally paralyzed and has nothing to offer its people. One of the city’s GNC representatives hasn’t visited Derna once since Islamists issued death threats against him and his family eight months ago. In the summer of 2012, extremist groups in Derna attempted to establish their own Islamic Sharia Court, but the idea was quickly quashed by the city’s angry and frustrated citizens, who protested the move. Ansar al-Sharia still takes the public’s anger seriously. That is why they are not attempting a full and direct confrontation with the people of Derna. Instead, they simply ensure that crucial government institutions — such as the police and the court system — cannot function.
Meanwhile, all media and journalistic activities have shuttered to a halt. The local radio station was torched and shut down on December 3, 2013. Print media are still operating in the city, but there are only a limited number of journalists and activists working there, and they constantly receive death threats. Despite having some of its buildings ransacked and torched by extremist groups, Derna’s university is still operating, as are schools across the city. But it is clear that the extremist groups are attempting to silence the city and its people.
Daily life in Derna seems to go on. There are even indications that construction and retail activities have increased in the absence of state regulations; some entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the situation. Citizens report that some armed groups have started collecting taxes from businesses in exchange for a promise not to target them. All of this is happening while the authorities in Tripoli ignore the serious threat that the situation in Derna poses to the country as a whole.
The Libyan authorities seem to have given up on Derna for now. It seems that what goes on there does not interest them and will not get their attention any time soon. However, the people of Derna are not ready to give up on their city — a city once known for its culture, education, and tolerance — quite that easily. In December 2013, despite threats of retaliation, the people of Derna protested against the extremist groups and the central government’s lack of action. However, it is clear that the groups have the upper hand, and will continue to consolidate their influence in Libya, using Derna as their base. Ansar al-Sharia is using Derna as its capital as it builds presence in other cities like Ejdabyia and Sirte. They are exploiting the vacuum. The only force slowing them down is the fear of public backlash.
If Libya wants to build a successful, legitimate democracy, it cannot ignore this threat. Derna’s security situation prevented it from taking part in the Constituent Assembly elections, and now the central government will have to decide on a different mechanism to choose the city’s representatives. They might choose to appoint them rather than attempting another round of direct elections — but that won’t solve all of Derna’s problems. As two more innocent people are shot dead in Benghazi and as protesters storm the GNC headquarters in Tripoli, it’s clear that the government needs to pay more attention the needs of its people. Tripoli must stop the political bickering and adopt a national security initiative to safeguard Libya’s new democracy.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.