Libya: Rule of the gun

Member of the Libyan Army special forces who took military action against a militia group that took over public land, holds his weapon, in BenghaziHold fire: a member of the Libyan Army on guard in Benghazi. Libya is facing a security crisis that threatens its economy and national unity

The four-wheel-drive vehicle lacked registration plates and the driver sat behind tinted windows, both violations of the law. The men at the eastern Tripoli checkpoint, operated by former militiamen now calling themselves the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, asked for his papers. He claimed he was a fighter of the Nusour, the Eagles brigade, a tough group of Tripoli-based militiamen with roots in the city of Misurata, and demanded deference. Harsh words were exchanged. The driver screeched off in a huff, vowing to return with his comrades.

Two weeks and hundreds of rounds of ammunition later, the routine night-time traffic stop had developed into a full-scale national crisis with at least 46 dead and hundreds injured, mostly civilians. The story illustrates the fragility of Libya’s security and raises anew longstanding worries about the oil-rich north African nation’s future.

Libyan oil production

“In Libya it has become fully acceptable to use force as a means to achieve certain objectives,” says Hanan Salah, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Tripoli. “It has become an everyday thing. You don’t like something? Kidnap the prime minister for a few hours. Kidnap the son of the defence minister. Whether willingly or unwillingly, the government has put itself in this position.”

Libyans and the international community are scrambling to solve the security crisis and halt the country’s drift toward the abyss – and quickly. The aim is no longer simply to revive the oil industry that could turn Libya into a regional powerhouse. It is also to save the vestiges of national spirit generated by the 2011 uprising against Muammer Gaddafi’s regime.

Not only do the militias run Libya, but different configurations of militias oversee towns and cities across the country, raising the spectre of fragmentation. A splintered nation would make it almost impossible to protect borders, shipping lanes and national infrastructure – including oil installations that are increasingly being seized by local political figures.

Outside the big cities, the already volatile mix has another element: deep tribal and ethnic animosity. In parts of southern Libya, for example, ethnic Tebu militias largely oversee Tuareg districts. These two ethnic minorities sometimes run into conflict with militias of Arab tribes that have long viewed them with suspicion.

Disillusioned by the post-Gaddafi state’s dysfunction and emboldened by its weaknesses, movements for autonomy have sprung up in the country’s oil and gas-rich east and south. The collapse in security has reduced oil production from 1.4m barrels a day at the beginning of the year to as little as 200,000.

“There is a vision for one military and national security force, but so far there is no national army and no national police,” says a western diplomat in Tripoli. “Another input is that we don’t have border protection to stem the flow of people, fuel, goods, guns and drugs, so there’s a very real threat inside and outside the country. Until such time as we have structured security institutions, we are in for a rough ride.”

The Nato-backed armed groups that overthrew Gaddafi’s regime were supposed to dissolve after the dictator’s ousting. Many predicted the militias’ members would join the ranks of Libya’s new army and police forces, or simply return to their old lives.

But the opposite happened. The young men liked their guns, which became wedded to their identities – they were a source of respect denied to them under the regime. “Thuwar”, or revolutionaries, is a word now used only to describe young men carrying AK-47s, not poets or politicians.

The militias grew in size and power, aided by looted troves of Gaddafi’s weaponry and shipments of guns from abroad they seized at ports they controlled. Rather than melt away, many “katayeb”, or brigades, remained intact and received official recognition under either the interior or the defence ministry. To keep them from turning their guns on the government, the government granted them licences to brandish weapons.

As for the allure of their old lives as welders or civil servants, holding a gun proved more lucrative. A twenty-something “revolutionary” manning a checkpoint three days a week earns about 1,500 dinars ($1,200) a month; a schoolteacher with 30 years experience makes about 800 dinars a month.

The militias, which number in the hundreds, also often pursue hardline social or regional agendas at odds with both the will of the Libyan people, who overwhelmingly supported a relatively liberal list of candidates in last years’s elections, and the interests of the central government.

On the same day as its initial confrontation with the Nusour brigades early this month, the Joint Rapid Reaction Force militia said the country’s security situation was heading in the right direction. Adel Ruhoma, the JRRF’s spokesman, identified a different issue as Libya’s main problem: drug use by young people.

“Drugs are our biggest worry, especially Tramadol,” a powerful opioid, he said in an interview in the unit’s headquarters at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport. “We are slowly getting things under control. But if what Libyans want is an entity that can provide security, that’s us.”

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Hours later, anti-aircraft guns fired by the JRRF and the rival Misurata militia thundered over the capital, terrifying the city’s 2m residents as tracer fire filled the night sky until just before dawn. Residents huddled inside their homes, unsure of what was happening. At least two badly injured militiamen were flown abroad at the government’s expense in an attempt to soothe tempers.

“You expect anything,” says Abdulla El Yazgi, 38, who lives in Tripoli and is an employee of an international company. “You see a lot of presence of police. But where you see the friction is between the militias, and the police can do nothing to stop that.”

Solving Libya’s security puzzle means unlocking a series of paradoxes. There can be no security without a thriving economy, but no economic growth without security. Police cannot impose security without dismantling the militias, but militias refuse to be dismantled because they do not trust the uniformed security forces. The rise of tribal and local powers is about the only thing keeping Libya from descending into chaos, but it is also undermining the authority of the state.

The government led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a former human rights activist and diplomat, finds itself crippled, reliant on the same armed groups that are the primary source of its weakness. After Mr Zeidan’s abduction last month by militiamen nominally under the authority of the interior ministry, it was not the police but a rival force of militiamen under the same ministry that freed him a few hours later.

Authorities often turn to trusted intermediaries such as Hashem Bishar to stanch the violence. Himself a former militia leader, he spent the night of the initial fighting between Misurata and Tripoli fighters calling political, militia and tribal leaders around the country to plead for calm. “Now is not the time for seeking revenge,” he told one hotheaded Tripoli militia commander vowing revenge against Misurata. “Now is the time to reconcile.”

He says the patchwork solution of drawing militia units into ministries – the plan of the past two years – is failing miserably. “The danger comes when you don’t build security through state institutions,” he says. “We need to prop up the institutions already in place. We have police and army; they need to be given legitimacy.”

Last month 1,000 new police cadets graduated from the academy, many of them former militiamen. That is perhaps the best solution to resolve the militia problem: use Libya’s oil revenues to lure young men away from the militia, either by coaxing them into the regular security forces, getting them into other jobs or sending them abroad to study.

But many of the militiamen, especially those who adhere to a hardline Islamist ideology, consider the police, army and judiciary corrupted instruments of the Gaddafi regime; they simply do not trust them. Many of the obstacles to building a force are erected by the militias because they do not want to be replaced.

“The Islamists see in the former army and police the creeping hand of the former regime,” says Claudia Gazzini, Libya researcher for the International Crisis Group. “What is striking about the Islamist attitude is the total defiance of public sentiment. To them, the people are all counter-revolutionaries because they’re brainwashed by 40 years of Gaddafi.”

Experts say the most powerful force on the ground throughout the country remains the Libya Shield, a branch of the defence ministry made up of former militiamen who have the weapons and combat experience that the army lacks. But even within the Shield there are dangerous rivalries, especially between heavily armed branches from Misurata and the western mountain town of Zintan.

The US, UK, Italy, France and Turkey have committed to train a general-purpose force under the direct authority of the prime minister. But some experts worry it will turn into the executive branch’s praetorian guard, yet another militia ravaging the land. “This is their big master plan for stabilising Libya,” says Ms Salah of Human Rights Watch. “But it’s very unclear what mandate it will have and when it will expire and what will be the future of the force. Who is going to screen the force and where will it come from? How are you going to ensure loyalty?”

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Mr Bishar’s mediation efforts held for only three days. The fighting between the Misurata brigade and Tripoli militias reignited on Thursday night in Tripoli amid reports that the Nusour brigade leader had died from his injuries in Malta. The fighting that night was even more ferocious. Bands of militiamen began hauling out truck-mounted large-calibre guns, causing outrage among residents of the capital seeking a return to normality.

Since the killing of US ambassador Christopher Stevens last year in Benghazi, Libyans have spoken out against the militias, and politicians have scrambled to respond. Lawmakers in the General National Congress, the legislature elected in July 2012, warned this month that any militia refusing to join the regular armed forces would stop receiving funds at the start of next year. They have passed a law calling for the removal of all militias from the capital. But critics warn that the state does not seem strong enough to enforce the legislation. And what would become of the militias? Would they just disappear, or leave to destabilise other towns?

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There needs to be a plan, a holistic solution,” says Anas el Gomati, an analyst at the Sadeq Institute, a Tripoli think-tank, as well as a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “You can’t substitute a slogan for a policy. For example, if you’re asking a Misurata brigade to go back to Misurata you also have to think about the effect on Misurata.”

Frustrated by the lack of progress and egged on by political leaders, hundreds of Libyans began streaming toward the Nusour brigade headquarters after prayers on Friday.

When protesters approached, the Nusour brigade fighters allegedly pointed their weapons into the crowd, according to photographs and footage posted on the internet. Essam Ezzobair, a Libyan journalist who suffered a broken leg while covering the melee, counted 11 dead within the first three minutes of the confrontation.

“As soon as they came close to the militia they started shooting at the protesters,” he says. “They didn’t shoot in the air to scare people away. They shot directly at them with live ammunition and machine guns.”

The fighting spread to other parts of the city and rival militias joined the fray. Again came the frantic calls to informal tribal and local leaders, who once again pulled Libya back from the brink – and thereby made the government appear even weaker.

Politicians made speeches and called for investigations, but many Libyans hold them responsible for the violence. It was Mr Zeidan’s allies who called for the protest march in the first place. And it was Nouri Abusahmain, president of the GNC, who pushed to release hundreds of millions of dollars for the militias, including the one that seized Mr Zeidan from his bedroom last month.

Attend a session of the GNC and you hear wild accusations and talk about procedures, but little on substantive issues such as security, health, education, minority rights and the economy. It is not that the government has done nothing. Roads have been repaved, the power grid has been upgraded, and contracts awarded to smaller Libyan companies. But on the greater issue of security, elected officials focus on putting out fires or gaining power for themselves and their allies – perhaps in anticipation of even darker days.

“The problem is those who have the power, whose hands are on the guns, are not thoughtful enough to be concerned about the country,” says Guma Gumati, leader of a small political party. “All they care about is power and money. The politicians are actually powerless to influence the debate.”