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Influential militias

Nils Naumann / smsJune 13, 2013

Libya's militias are fighting attempts to curb their influence even as the security situation in the country deteriorates. But doubts remain over whether official security forces have the power to replace them.

Libyan armed guards stand outside a coutroom Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Image: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

In 2011, Benghazi was a stronghold for the opposition to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and hosted politicians from around the world who wanted to show their support for the Libyan rebels.

Today, however, many regard the security situation in the city on the Mediterranean to be very dangerous and worse than in the capital, Tripoli. Ever since a 2012 attack on the US consulate in the city claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, few foreigners have traveled to the city.

Militias largely control the city and have set up checkpoints to regulate people's movement. Official police and military forces retain little power in Benghazi and often fall victim to militia attacks.

Protesters run for cover during an attack on a Libyan militia, the Libya Shield brigade, headquarters in Benghazi, June 8, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori
The gunfight between Libya Shield and protesters killed 31 peopleImage: Reuters

Many people in Benghazi say they have had enough of militias determining their lives. Hundreds of people, some armed, took their anger to the streets on Saturday (08.06.2013) and stormed a barracks of the Libya Shield militia. The incident ended in a shootout between militia members and protesters which claimed 31 people's lives.

Enlist in army or join civilian life

The confrontation in Benghazi has also had political consequences and led to the resignation of Army Chief of Staff Major-General Youssef al-Mangoush. Colonel Salem Qineydi, the interim head of the armed forces, said the militias would be disarmed by the end of the year. Members would have to choose, Qineydi added, either to enlist in official security forces or lay down their weapons.

Exactly how the government would enforce its demand remains unclear, particularly as many Libyans see having a weapon as a statement of power, influence and privilege, accompanied by economic advantages such as being able to demand bribes and protection money.

Those are advantages militia members will not willing part with, according to Mustafa Fetouri, a political scientist originally from Bani Walid in northwestern Libya.

"Those people are against any type of organization of the security forces or a national army because that means they are losing," he told Deutsche Welle. "They are benefitting from the current situation."

Militias on government payroll

While the majority of militia members fought as rebels against Gadhafi's forces, there are also radical Islamist groups such as the Ansar al-Sharia, as well as militants loyal to regional power brokers and ethnic groups. Such fighters were crucial to overthrowing the Gadhafi regime and after its fall they maintained security across much of the country - with the government's authorization. Militia members were also responsible for security at Tripoli's international airport and patrolled the country's borders. Many militias, including the Libya Shield, are still paid by the government.

But since the rebellion, the militias have become part of Libya's security problem, with mounting accusations of corruption, smuggling and blackmail, according to Fetouri. Militias, he believes, should never have been made responsible for security in Libya.

Mustafa Fetouri at a computer Photo: Mustafa Fetouri
Fetouri said the government isn't prepared to confront militiasImage: Mustafa Fetouri

"Publicly they are being marketed as part of the security forces or the army, but to the normal people in Bengasi now they are not part of the army at all: the government does not exercise actual control over them," Fetouri said, adding that the militia members' loyalty was generally to their own leaders - not the government.

He also said he doubted that the government, split by a variety of interest groups, had the power and will to take action against the militias. Militias had the support of the Interior and Defense ministries, Fetouri said, and many politicians believe it could be helpful to have the militias to call on if needed in the future.

Militias push through controversial law

The militias showed their influence in Libyan politics in May when they gathered at several ministries in Tripoli to pressure the parliament and government into enacting a law that would prohibit officials who served under Gadhafi from holding influential public positions for 10 years.

Members of armed revolutionaries stage a protest in front of the Libyan Justice Ministry in Tripoli April 30, 2013. Gunmen in pick-up trucks surrounded Libya's justice ministry Tuesday to step up demands for former aides to deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi to be barred from senior government posts, Reuters witnesses said. Tension between the government and armed militias has been rising since authorities began a campaign to dislodge the gunmen from strongholds in the capital Tripoli to help curb lawlessness afflicting the oil-producing state since Gaddafi's demise. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Militia members surrounded ministries to support a law barring Gadhafi functionaries from high officeImage: REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

As a result, interim President Mohammed al-Megarif resigned in late May. He had been the Libyan ambassador to India before joining the opposition 1989. The government, however, has delayed implementation of the law due to the large number of people affected - including Prime Minister Ali Zidan, several ministers and mid-level bureaucrats.

Fetouri criticized the law: "It was passed under the threats by gunmen, and it will create more problems then it solves," he said. "It creates a vacuum. You are purging the majority of qualified people who know the country and how to run a government and you don't have enough qualified people to replace them."

Many Libyans, however, see the situation differently, Mohamed Krekshi's son was shot by Gadhafi troops while peacefully demonstrating against the regime during the revolution.

"I do not want to see the faces of those Gadhafi people in the government," Krekshi said. "It is unfair and is insensitive to us."