BEIRUT

Middle East

Libya’s failure to disband all militias may backfire

The coffin of Omran Ben Shabaan is carried as thousands of Misrata residents pay their respects during his funeral.

BENGHAZI, Libya: Libya’s new leadership, under huge pressure from the street, has taken steps to tackle militias, but critics warn its decision to only disband some armed groups is dangerous and may backfire. In the wake of massive anti-militia protests and violence in the eastern city of Benghazi, the authorities ordered “illegitimate” brigades be broken up but also warned demonstrators against targeting “legitimate” ones.

That distinction has ruffled feathers in Benghazi where tens of thousands of people marched Friday for the dissolution of all armed groups and the establishment of a professional army and police force.

“Since Mohammad al-Megaryef divided them into legitimate and illegitimate brigades, everyone has been able to claim they are legitimate,” warns analyst Fathi al-Baaja, referring to the head of the General National Congress.

Baaja, a political science professor, says the danger of making such a distinction and not banning all brigades is that major armed groups might become the “military wings of political factions.”

“We will have many armies inside the army and that will be very dangerous,” Baaja adds, stressing that what the oil-rich country needs is a national army where people join as individuals, rather than as groups.

Many in Benghazi fault the authorities for keeping intact the brigades that emerged in the 2011 revolt that toppled Moammar Gadhafi, and for standing by Islamist brigades such as Libya Shield, February 17 and Raf Allah al-Sahati.

“These groups are not legitimate,” says Baaja. “They are not part of the army. They didn’t enroll. They have no ranks. Who gave them the legitimacy?”

Miftah Buzeid, editor of Benghazi’s Barniq newspaper, agrees.

“We don’t want to repeat the Lebanese scenario where the army is weak; where Hezbollah is stronger than the army,” he says.

Buzeid says Benghazi rose up against all armed groups, which cover the spectrum of Islamist ideology, because they see them as the “military wings of political factions in the GNC,” a legislative assembly elected in July.

The GNC this month voted for Mustafa Abu Shagur as prime minister but he has yet to form his government. Both analysts predict top posts will go to Islamists who gave him a narrow victory over liberal candidate Mahmud Jibril.

The most pressing challenge for the new authorities is to disband brigades that are well-armed and who believe their legitimacy, forged on the front line, predates and supersedes that of a government elected by the people.

“They have weapons and power to pressure the government,” says Buzeid.

The second challenge, he adds, is dealing with an empowered and impatient population: “The street will take the initiative and not wait for the GNC.”

A case in point is the crowd that drove out two Salafist brigades, Martyrs of Abu Slim and Ansar al-Shariah, before clashing with a third, Raf Allah al-Sahati, the only one the government claims as its own.

Megaryef decided to disband rogue militias and put army officers at the head of state-sanctioned brigades in response to Friday’s revolt and the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S.consulate in Benghazi.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long warned that militias have become a law unto themselves, detaining people and carrying out torture with impunity.

Such practices coupled with rising extremism – evident in anti-Western attacks, the desecration of Sufi mausoleums and Christian graves, and assassinations – turned the population against them, says Buzeid.

Mustafa Sagizli, head of the veterans affairs committee, believes this backlash against former rebels also marks the government’s failure to “provide the means for peaceful and positive demobilization.”

He warns that pushing small but radical groups into hiding, such as Ansar al-Shariah which was kicked out of Benghazi by protesters but held on to its weapons, is a huge mistake because it will “only make them more extreme.”

Brigade leaders and fighters, meanwhile, argue that if they step out of the picture there will be a security vacuum and insist it was they who fought Gadhafi, secured the elections, and are deployed when crises arise.

Many say they are unwilling to disband and join the police or army before these institutions are revamped and purged of elements who were loyal to slain leader Gadhafi.

“It is like asking the guard to work together with the prisoner,” points out activist Jalal al-Gallal, adding that a proposal to form a body akin to the American national guard to absorb former fighters is gaining traction.

Part of the problem is that the previous transitional government, lacking ballot-box legitimacy, shied away from confronting brigades and sought to appease them through reward schemes that were later halted due to corruption.

They also entrenched their power, analysts say.

Libya Shield is now the nascent army’s main striking force and the Interior Ministry’s Supreme Security Committee has taken on the role of police on the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli, Buzeid notes.

Ahmad Majbari, deputy of the revolutionary forces union, sums up a common view among ex-rebels who refuse to go home: “The army fought us on the front line and the police killed us on the streets. How can we come under them?”

“The revolution is on until its goals are achieved, then we will go home.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 27, 2012, on page 9.

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