The Lesson of Bani Walid

In post-Gaddafi Libya, the dream of a stable central government is fading. Militias are filling the gap.


In the hilly desert scrub north of the town of Bani Walid, Libya’s revolutionaries have been fighting again. Militia units who thought the war ended last year with the death of Gaddafi are back in uniform. Their battered pickup trucks mounting anti-aircraft guns are parked again astride the highway north of the town, 90 miles south of Tripoli.

Many of these men participated in the rebel assault on the town, one of Gaddafi’s last redoubts, when it fell in October. Now they are back again, this time as pro-government forces. Sort of. "We are not part of the National Army," says Hatir Said Suleiman, a bearded fighter from Tobruk, hunched deep into his green combat jacket against the freezing wind that rolls in off the desert. "We are the National Guard."

The distinction is important: "National Guard" is a rather grand name for what is actually a hodgepodge of volunteers from militias across the country, sporting as many styles of camouflage jackets as home towns. The National Guard is an alliance with no certain leader, an amalgamation of elements from hundreds of militias, held together because they share a common goal: the eradication of the people who terrorized them for forty-two years, then bombed, rocketed, tortured, and raped for another eight months. Think Paris Commune, or Cromwell’s New Model Army.

By contrast, the government-appointed National Army is small. In the eyes of the militiamen, its reputation is tainted by its officers, many of whom served under Gaddafi. In Bani Walid it has been conspicuous by its absence.

Contrary to many of the headlines, the battle in Bani Walid, which the pro-revolutionary forces now seem to have decided in their favor, was not part of a pro-Gaddafi uprising. Green flags did not, as was first reported, sprout from the rooftops. The issue was the arrest of war crimes suspects. Since the end of last year’s fighting, Bani Walid has become a refuge for the waifs and strays of the former Gaddafi administration who are on the war crimes lists of other cities. A pro-government unit in the town had begun to arrest them when on Monday their base was attacked by a local clan. Four soldiers were killed, the rest fled, and the suspects were set free.

Now the National Guard wants them back. "We want to go home, we all want to go home," says National Guard fighter Osman El Hadi, himself from Beni Walid. "But first we need to finish this."

This minor uprising, in short, is less significant in itself than for what it says about the disarray of the post-revolutionary administration in Tripoli. Right now, power on the national level is exercised by the National Transitional Council (NTC). But this latest crisis has revealed once again that the NTC is, at best, a bit player.

The real power in Libya remains dispersed among the country’s bewildering array of grassroots military formations. Most are grouped around town or city military councils; Tripoli is divided into 11 district militias. The last time anyone counted, Misrata had 172, ranging from ten-man outfits to the 500-strong Halbus Brigade, with a wartime strength of 17,000. That figure has since plummeted, with thousands returning to their jobs.

Of these, the strongest groups are from the cities of Zintan and Misrata. Both have dispatched key officials to Tripoli to take part in the new government. The defense minister, Usama al-Juwali, is a career military officer in the former army from Zintan. Fawzi Abdul Aal, a bespectacled Misratan lawyer, is interior minister. It was their militias that did the most to win the war against Gaddafi, and the appointments were recognition of the fact. (On Wednesday, al-Juwali showed up in Bani Walid, where he tried to negotiate an end to the fighting.)

Encouragingly, neither man is a warlord in the traditional sense: Both are answerable to their city councils, and to parallel military councils. It’s not quite democracy, to be sure. But they still enjoy a legitimacy beyond that of the ruling National Transitional Council, which is self-appointed.

The NTC has been doing little to help itself. Formed in the eastern city of Benghazi in the heat of battle, it has morphed into an organization both secretive and inefficient. It refuses to make public its membership list, or its meetings, or its voting records. Nor will it open the books on what is being done with the country’s swelling oil revenues. On top of everything else, earlier this month it bungled the drafting of legislation for a planned June national election, thus feeding the paranoia of Libyans who believe that many of its members are Gaddafi loyalists trying to manipulate the revolution to their own ends.

It has no press office. Or rather, it does, but as one of its former press officers recently explained to an online journalism forum, a decision was taken that the NTC would have no press officers, so the office is unmanned and the door locked. There is no phone.

Instead, what the Libyan people get are occasional edicts delivered from upon high, such as the bewildering pronouncement, in reaction to anti-NTC protests across the country, that the economy and oil ministries would be moved to Benghazi and the finance ministry to Misrata, a recipe for bureaucratic confusion. "Don’t think that the NTC is a single cohesive body," said a Libyan who spent years in exile in the UK. "It is chaos. Chaos. It is everybody against everybody else."

Meanwhile protests continue across the country accusing the NTC of a lack of transparency, and of ineptitude. Earlier this month the NTC’s headquarters in Bengahzi was stormed by demonstrators. The NTC’s deputy leader, roughed up the day before by a crowd of protesting students, resigned.

The militias, meanwhile, are gaining in strength. And the Zintanis and the Misratans have formed a de facto alliance to bolster their position against the NTC. Their rising power was marked by the recent appoint of a Misratan, Yussef al-Manguish, as army chief of staff.

But it is the two militia leaders who remain the men to watch in Libya. Al-Juwali, the Zintani, is a soft-spoken man whose calm demeanor belies his resolve. It was Zintanis who captured Saif al Islam, Gaddafi’s son, last fall, thus prompting al-Juwaili’s appointment to the NTC. (Saif remains in the custody of the militia to this day). Al-Juwali’s men also control the international airport in Tripoli, an important potential source of funds.

In November, the Zintanis made headlines when they prevented Abdulhakim Belhaj, the former Al Qaeda-sympathizer who now heads the Tripoli Military Council, from entering the airport, accusing him of trying to travel on a fake passport. (He was allowed to travel only after NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil personally intervened to smooth out the dispute.) The month after that, the Zintanis at the airport became embroiled in a firefight with the bodyguard of yet another leading light of the NTC.

Both Zintan and Misrata have transformed themselves into virtual statelets, with heavy security forces that control all movements in and out. Misrata’s "gate" boasts thirty white poles flying the flags of the world, giving you the feeling of entering another country. The city’s bewildering array of local militias operate on a duty roster that allows their members to keep up with their day jobs when they’re not carrying guns. The city and its operational zone, which includes East Tripoli and stretches as far as the coastal city of Sirte (a distance of about 300 miles), is to all intents and purposes outside NTC control. Abdul Aal, the Misratan now serving in the government, is regarded as urbane and smart, and enjoys the unreserved loyalty of the cityfolk.

Yet there are reasons to doubt the durability of the Zintan-Misrata alliance as a basis for national stability. In both Zintan and Misrata there are problems with rogue units; the flip side of this citizens’ army is that each element is free to do its own thing. A few weeks ago a Misratan unit attacked a Tripoli militia when they refused to hand over a wanted man. Elders in Misrata bemoan the attack, saying that it has fractured relations between the groups involved and that the militia should have awaited some judicial mechanism for the arrest of the individual.

The situation is not hopeless. These militias could potentially serve as useful building blocks for the new Libyan state. The easiest way would be to give each group wide-ranging responsibility for its own turf. But so far that is not happening. The appointment of the two militia leaders to their posts in the NTC were concessions to reality, not part of any wider process of coalition-building.

And there is still considerable sympathy for the idea of a unitary Libyan state — especially among the revolutionaries who hail from the relatively sophisticated towns of the coast.

Hitching a lift back from the Beni Walid front line to Tripoli in a car full of National Guard is instructive. Two of the young men are from Bani Walid itself, the third from Benghazi. None of them takes the NTC particularly seriously. They dismiss current NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil as neither charismatic nor decisive, though they do regard him as personally trustworthy.

Going down the list of other leaders, they agree that the shedding by the NTC of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and former Finance and Oil Minister Ali Tarhuni, men who did so much to muster international support in the war, was a mistake. Libyans did not much warm to them when in office, but the NTC seems a faceless beast without them.

We pass a National Army road block at Tarhuna, and there are polite hellos to the soldiers in newly pressed beige uniforms from my companions. They tell me that that the National Army specializes in keeping out of the real action, in case their uniforms are spoiled. While the militias don’t like the army or the NTC, they follow orders from Manguish, trusting him because the former army colonel spent most of the war in a Gaddafi jail.

The man they mistrust most of all, however, is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, figurehead of the Islamists.

Contrary to much feverish reporting, jihadism is not really the threat in Libya. Despite backing from Qatar, the intelligent, charismatic Belhaj, often cited for his past sympathies with al Qaeda, remains a minor player. This is not to say that Libya is a bastion of liberal thought. Talk to the many flourishing women’s groups, who are making impressive inroads into politics, and they will tell you how Libya’s male-dominated pro-democracy political outlook contrasts with a deep social conservatism.

"We are Islam," a young fighter in Misrata once told me. "Why do we need an Islamic Party? It would be like America having an America Party."

Meanwhile, Washington, its fingers badly burned in Afghanistan and Iraq, is taking a back seat in postwar Libya, leaving the British and, more discreetly, the French and Qataris, as the leading international players.

Many of the American diplomats are veterans of a decade of blunders and misguided theories in Baghdad and Kabul, and are now more chastened. Their challenge, as they try to push and prod the NTC in the right direction, is to figure out what this direction should be.

But the problems, like the one at Bani Walid, are the NTC’s to solve. Thus far, it is too befuddled and besieged to indulge in such forward planning. It will be an achievement if it survives until the promised summer elections. If it delays those elections, or is seen as tweaking the voting process, its days may be numbered. As one Benghazi militiaman told me: "With this government we will wait and see. If it is no good, well, we know how to do revolution."

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola