x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Libya struggles to renounce violence

As a new government tries to establish a basic hegemony over Libya's disparate factions, those who accept democracy as a concept still face heavily armed militias who are prone to using force.

Libyan men inspect a destroyed building in Bani Walid, almost 200 kilometres southeast of Tripoli.
Libyan men inspect a destroyed building in Bani Walid, almost 200 kilometres southeast of Tripoli.

MISURATA // On a sofa in a simple sitting room, Abdulqader Shaaban holds a picture of his dead brother so that visitors can see why he, among the thousands who died in this Libyan city last year, was special.

The large colour photograph shows Omran Shaaban, 22, as a slight man with a cool gaze, dressed in a black leather jacket, arms crossed with his pistol in one hand and, in the other, the infamous gold-plated handgun that Muammar Qaddafi was carrying on the day he was found, tormented and killed.

Omran was widely credited as being one of the rebels who found the autocrat in his final hiding place - a drainage pipe - near Sirte, on October 20 last year.

The young man died in September from injuries he received after being kidnapped, beaten and allegedly tortured by Qaddafi supporters in Bani Walid, a town historically loyal to the Libyan leader.

Outraged, Omran's seven brothers, with the support of local militias and politicians, staged demonstrations and helped to pressure the General National Congress in Tripoli to launch a military operation into the town to erase the last major pockets of support for the former regime and disarm the militias.

In the days of fighting that followed in October, dozens of people died and tens of thousands fled. Politicians and fighters in general say that the operation was both necessary and successful - although people in Bani Walid allege significant rights abuses - but many see the incident as highlighting the difficulty facing the new government.

Almost two years after the start of the armed uprising that felled the regime, the militias that formed to fight Qaddafi show little sign of real integration into national security forces, and some are using their considerable clout to influence political and security decisions as a wobbly government takes its first steps.

In early November, a few days before the Shaabans told their story, the Rixos Hotel in the capital was buzzing with late-night meetings between two groups jostling to shape the future: elected members of the General National Congress; and dozens of militia leaders from all over the country.

The militiamen - some bearded and dressed in fatigues, others wearing traditional robes and a few in suits with briefcases full of copies of their demands - met downstairs. The politicians were upstairs at gilded cafe tables, deep in earnest-looking discussions.

"These [militias] are young people who are passionate and found themselves holding weapons, and they feel that they were victorious," said Ahmed Langhi, a Congress member for the eastern city of Benghazi. "They feel they have the right to decide how the nation goes forward."

Protesters, including rebel fighters, gathered in October at a neighbouring conference centre to where the Congress was meeting, to demonstrate against the new government's appointment of several ministers who had served as officials under Qaddafi.

As the demonstration became heated, both fighters and the government guards rattled off rounds of anti-aircraft fire into the air. No one was seriously injured but it revealed the difficulty of making a political decision that might displease the militias. Politicians were shaken enough to discuss moving the entire government to the small and more inaccessible town of Al Bayda, east of Benghazi.

The government was sworn in on November 16, and all but one of the controversial ministers have now been cleared by an Integrity Commission.

Mr Langhi estimates that 70 per cent of the weapons in the country remain in the hands of militias, and he was dismissive of the efforts of a transitional government to absorb the groups into the security services of the interior and defence ministries by paying them a salary. He said that paying the men, rather than negotiating with them, had weakened the power of central authorities.

"We have nothing against the government, but when they go wrong, we must stop them," said Bashir Ragiab, an eccentric, wild-eyed man dressed in a suit at the meeting of the fighters. He said he was a consultant with a brigade that is now officially under the defence ministry, and called for a council of revolutionaries with veto power over the government.

His demand went farther than most, but the fighters are by no means a unified group. Their requests are prone to change week by week and politicians seem unable, or afraid, to stand up to them.

Hassan Al Amin, a Congress member from Misurata, said that the brigades in his city were divided. "The real revolutionaries want to accept the democratic system," he said. "But there are those who, I suppose, went too far with the idea of freedom, putting pressure on the government with violence."

A four-month period between elections in July and the formation of government may have exacerbated security problems and allowed militia groups to grow in strength and influence. One western security expert said that many independent militia groups continue to guard buildings and patrol neighbourhoods in various towns and cities.

"They are occupying a space the government is not able to fill but, at the same time, they are providing a service, so people will put up with it for a bit," he said.

The government is seeking "carrots and sticks to deal with the military brigades, but at the moment they have neither", he added.

In Benghazi, where four Americans died in an attack on the US consulate in September, the security chief looked like a defeated man.

Fawzi Wanis, of the interior ministry's Supreme Security Council, has 16,000 men under his command - many of them untrained. He described the situation in the city as "a mess" and said it was continuing to deteriorate.

"I think the government needs to sort itself out ... the interior ministry is not really settled, it doesn't pay wages and give equipment."

His hope was that the new government would build a more efficient police force. When that happened, he said, he would go back to his pre-revolutionary job as a telecommunications manager.

Some fighters say they also have alternate career plans, but that they often find it difficult to give up violence as a solution.

Early in November, Zawyia Street in central Tripoli was rocked by 24 hours of clashes between two rival factions of the council, as personal vendettas were worked out with heavy weapons, a chase through the narrow alleys and, finally, the burning of a house.

The following day, young men from one side of the fighting gathered at the post office, which it is their job to guard. Clustered excitedly together, displaying bandages from their wounds, they said they had not wanted to killed anyone (they did not) and that they did not plan to remain in their security jobs.

But their eyes lit up when they discussed the night's combat - firing weapons and looting their opponent's compound for Qaddafi memorabilia.

"It felt like the revolution," said one of them. "We were fighting for our rights."

afordham@thenational.ae