- 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 international community is rightly worried about the spread of the Islamic State and its ideology. The fact that IS forces have even managed to take hold in Libya, so far afield from the group’s original strongholds in Syria and Iraq, has been a source of considerable anxiety.
Yet over the past two weeks IS forces in Libya have suffered a shattering defeat — and the outside world has barely paid attention. The lack of coverage undoubtedly reflects the lack of reliable news media on the ground. But it could also have something to do with the fact that the news isn’t entirely good. As it turns out, an IS defeat doesn’t necessarily mean that the good guys are winning.
On June 9, fighting broke out in the eastern city of Derna between IS fighters and the forces of the Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), a militia linked to Al Qaeda. The clashes broke out after IS militants killed one of DMSC’s leaders. In one day, the DMSC fighters rose up and expelled IS from the city, forcing them to retreat to their hideouts in the remote Green Mountains.
These developments are important for several reasons. First, the city witnessed something of a popular uprising against the Islamic State. Unarmed people, angered by the alien and repressive practices IS has implemented in the city since it seized power last year, took to the streets in protest. As was perhaps to be expected, given the group’s zero tolerance for peaceful opposition, IS fighters opened fire on the crowd, killing at least seven and wounding more than 30. According to my own conversations with sources in Derna, the ensuing confrontations lasted for several days. In the end the DMSC effectively joined forces with the Libyan National Army, which is loyal to the internationally recognized Libyan government. The Army targeted Islamic State positions with air strikes. The tacit alliance between these two sides, otherwise mutually hostile, would have been unthinkable if it wasn’t for IS.
For now, the clear winners in this tragic episode are the people of Derna. Some of the policies imposed by IS throughout the last year have been revoked and a sense of normalcy is returning to the city. Banks are reopening, local radio stations are back on air, cigarettes shops are opening doors again, and young people are blasting loud music as they drive around the city. Over the last few days in Tobruk, I spoke with a number of displaced families from Derna, and they all told me that they’re eagerly planning to go home. All these are positive and welcome developments.
Even so, the picture is not quite as rosy as it might seem. Derna still faces serious obstacles on the way to a sustainable peace. The first problem is that it remains under the control of yet another Islamist militia. Despite enjoying support from the local population in its fight against the Islamic State, the DMSC also has an extremist agenda that includes gender segregation in schools and public places and the establishment of sharia courts. The people of Derna have regained some of their old freedoms as a result of the Islamic State’s expulsion, but even those who supported the DMSC in its fight against IS worry that the city’s new rulers might implement restrictive policies of their own.
It’s worth noting that the DMSC allowed IS to flourish in the city under their watch, and only decided to confront them when the other militants attacked their leaders. Nor did the DMSC do anything to stop the Islamic State’s terror tactics, which included public executions, the beheading of activists, and even the crucifixion of a local family. The DMSC have already started taking steps to consolidate their rule by announcing their intention to form a local authority that will run the city’s affairs.
The people of Derna seem to have chosen to back the lesser of two evils for the time being. The big question now is whether local people are prepared to defy the DMSC the same way they did the Islamic State — particularly if the forces of the Libyan Army, which sides with the internationally recognized government based in Tobruk, make a move to capture the city. Ben Hmaida, a 30-year-old activist in Derna, told me over the phone that “people will side with the army if the DMSC seeks to impose its own agenda and ideology on the people of Derna like ISIS did.” The city is currently surrounded by National Army troops, who have taken advantage of the clashes between the two Islamist groups to advance on the city.
Despite the recent cooperation between the National Army and the DMSC, as well as local peace initiatives currently being pushed led by tribal leaders, the possibility of a fresh armed confrontation is highly likely. Yet another wave of fighting would be devastating for the people of the city. The DMSC have said publicly that they do not oppose the creation of an army or police force inside Derna, but they do insist on the application of strict sharia rules, including gender segregation, extremely restrictive policies on women’s rights and family law, and a ban on interest-based bank loans.
And then there’s the looming possibility of IS retaliation. In February, Islamic State forces carried out suicide bombings in the town of Qubba, not far from Derna, that killed more than 45 people in response to joint Egyptian-Libyan airstrikes against IS positions in Derna. It’s above all the fear of a new wave of IS reprisals that is leading people in the city to tolerate the presence of DMSC. Yet during our conversation, Ben Hmaida noted that Derna citizens don’t want to repeat their past mistakes: “If we allow the extremists to remain in control, we could see a repeat of the vicious circle of violence and instability that has engulfed the city for the last four years.”
Truly sustainable peace and stability require the creation of a state-sanctioned force to protect the city from any threats from groups such as IS. After that, the internationally recognized government in Tobruk or a future Government of National Accord (as recently proposed by United Nations mediators) would help to set up a local administration to run the affairs of the city and bring it back under state control. Most importantly, the Libyan authorities and international organizations should work to create an environment in which civil society organizations can flourish, a key precondition for countering extremist ideology. Defeating the extremists and establishing conditions conducive to stability in Derna would send a welcome signal for positive change to the rest of Libya.
In the photo, pro-government forces are deployed near Derna on June 16, 2015.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer