Libyans lament their missing army

Many blame politicians for funnelling money to paramilitary groups at the expense of creating an army and police force.

Libya militia
Moataz Billah has just signed a contract to become a member of Libya's fledgling army [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

Moataz Billah wears military fatigues, carries an AK-47 and lives with his comrades in what was once an army barrack. He dropped out of school in his early teens, and says playing a small part in the Libyan revolution gave him a new sense of purpose in life.

“I want to become a professional soldier,” he said.

Like tens of thousands of young Libyan men who took up arms during last year’s uprising against long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the 18-year-old has been waiting for the chance to join an army that is yet to materialise.

Many blame the National Transitional Council (NTC) – the body that stepped in to run the country after Gaddafi’s ouster – for allowing the national police and army to fall by the wayside.

In a country where leaders have historically accentuated regional divides to reinforce their own power, many Libyans believe that politicians have funnelled money to whichever militias served their private interests.

For the many Libyans frustrated by the security vacuum, their government’s inability to prevent the killing of the popular US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in the city of Benghazi last month was the last straw. 

Popular anger over the lack of government leadership on security and the rule of law, along with the ongoing impunity of the militias, prompted 30,000 people to take to the streets of Benghazi on September 21. And hundreds of ordinary Libyans have voluntarily handed in their weapons at collections organised over the weekend. 

Spurred by the protests, President Mohammed el-Megarif, head of the General National Congress (GNC) that took over from the transitional government in August, has promised Libyans that empowering the army and police force is his government’s biggest priority.

Waiting for an army

Even before the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, there were some signs that the new government has already been more proactive than the NTC had been.

In early September, Billah signed a contract with the defence ministry. He is now a state employee, and will begin receiving a monthly salary of 900 Libyan dinars ($720) a month.

Graffiti in Benghazi warns Libyans of the dangers weapons can be in the hands of the untrained [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

Billah is a member of the Libya Hourra militia, one of the many militias led by former army officers who defected to fight against Gaddafi.

Abdul Wahid Wanis, a captain in Libya Hourra who first joined the Libyan army in 1980, said that the authorities had turned their backs on the many professional army officers who defected to join the revolution, and the many unemployed young men like Billah who were eager to become soldiers.

“We have capable people who already had a lot of military experience, and we have new soldiers eager to get more training,” Wanis said.

“Most of the people who participated in the revolution were uneducated and unemployed,” he said, arguing that the military offered a rare opportunity for disenfranchised young men to contribute to the new Libya.

Nationalising the militias gives young men like Billah the opportunity to serve their nation, rather than tribal or regional interests, he said. It also delegitimises those militias, normally from a non-military background, that have attempted to define themselves as religious guardians, as well as those which have become rogue criminal gangs.

Not every militia member aspires to join the security forces. Many have little faith in the national government, and relish the power that owning weapons gives them.

Matthew Van Dyke, an American who fought with the Libyan rebels last year, said that many former fighters see their weapons as an insurance policy in case the national government veers off the path of democracy.

“Some of those weapons they paid for in money, and some of them they paid for in blood, they will not give them up,” he said.

“It’s hard for a guy who’s been working at a café his whole life to go back to working in that café again after he has been driving around with a Kalashnikov in a pickup truck. But that doesn’t mean he wants to go join the army.”

In the eyes of the protesters in Benghazi, these men risk posing a longterm threat to the government, particularly when some of them have been allowed to become more powerful than the national security forces.

History of distrust

Libya’s ex-ruler, King Idris I, was deeply wary of the armed forces he forged in the 1950s. He kept the forces weak and divided, creating paramilitary units he believed would be more loyal.

That was not enough to protect him from the 1969 coup led by a young Gaddafi. Deeply distrustful of the “treacherous” officers who had helped him come to power, Gaddafi carried out extensive purges, killing or arresting everyone above the rank of colonel.

Gaddafi made a watchdog paramilitary force of his own, the Revolutionary Guard. Viewed as the most ideologically loyal to Gaddafi and made up of men hand-picked from his birthplace of Sirte, it was charged with indoctrinating and spying on the rest of the armed forces.

Border Security

Contracting out Libyan security

The controversial British private security firm Aegis – which has made billions in Iraq – is reportedly seeking a $5 billion contract to guard Libya’s vast and porous borders.

The prospect of such a lucrative contract going to a foreign company would likely breed further anger in a country where the security forces could potentially offer career prospects for so many Libyan nationals.

A spokesperson for Aegis informed Al Jazeera by email that the firm refused to comment on the reported deal.

Few people interviewed by Al Jazeera in Benghazi- including military leaders, government officials, and even ultra-conservative armed groups like Ansar al-Sharia  dispute the need for a strong army and police force. However, they say unless each party feels they can trust whoever is in control of those forces, winning full-hearted support for the endeavour is going to be a challenge.

Mohamed Taynaz, Libya’s deputy defence minister, spoke with Al Jazeera about the many challenges of overcoming the institutionalised divisions of the past. The army’s command structure was centralised under the Gaddafi family to the extent Libya did not even have a defence ministry until last year, he said.

“During the last 42 years, Gaddafi ruled in a way that deliberately accentuated regional rivalries,” Taynaz said, responding to a question about some of the armed groups’ reluctance to cede their autonomy. “People still think in these terms, and it will take some time to overcome their distrust.”

His ministry has made steps to sign contracts with former rebels and have begun paying military personnel regular salaries, a carrot that the government is offering to encourage militias to accept government oversight, he said.

The government has also begun sending promising rebels abroad for training in the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US. France is offering support to the Libyan navy, and Italy and Turkey have also offered assistance.

“When they return, they’ll be given good jobs, under the control of the defence ministry,” he said.

Avoiding purges

Analysts say Libya’s international partners, especially the US and the UK, have encouraged the interim authorities to avoid any purges of top officials associated with Gaddafi.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the West backed the extensive purging of the state security forces to rid the bureaucracy of anyone and everyone who had been loyal to Saddam Hussein.

The devastating chaos that followed was, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently described it, “one of the biggest foreign policy bungles in American history”.

Consequently, the Gaddafi-era bureaucracy has been left largely in place, undermining the national institutions’ credibility in the eyes of many former rebels.

“After we won the revolution, we realised that the government was still controlled by people who had been loyal to Gaddafi, especially in the interior ministry and defence ministry.

– Abdul Jawad al-Barri, a rebel leader from Benghazi

“After we won the revolution, we realised that the government was still controlled by people who had been loyal to Gaddafi, especially in the interior ministry and defence ministry,” Abdul Jawad al-Barri, a prominent former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who had been imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim Prison until he was freed during the revolution, said.

“The people who control the security forces are weak and are not qualified for their roles. They do not have Libya’s best interests at heart,” he said.

Brian McQuinn, an Oxford University researcher who has conducted the first detailed studies of Libya’s revolutionary armed groups, said that finding a balance between avoiding the errors of Iraq, and establishing trust in the national institutions, was a major challenge.

“My understanding is that one of the lessons from Iraq is that de-Baathification was a mistake,” he said. “The question is, then what’s the alternative?”

Shadow forces

The NTC’s preferred solution was to simply sidestep those forces they did not trust, creating entirely new ones.

When the US diplomatic post was attacked in Benghazi, for instance, the army and police were not called upon to intervene. Instead, US staff relied on defence from two controversial, pro-Islamist, armed groups that have supplanted existing state security forces: the Libya Supreme Security Committee (SSC), which is under the control of the interior ministry and the Libyan Shield Brigade, an elite paramilitary force built out of the revolutionary brigades.

The February 17 Brigade, a militia linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, also sent men to defend the consulate.

While Ansar al-Sharia, the group suspected of being behind the US consulate attack, came in for criticism, many people in Benghazi were equally upset about the groups that were supposed to be protecting the Americans.

Abdul Salam al-Asmari, a member of the February 17 Coalition, a group of legal professionals that helped organise the weapons collection day, said that the NTC had built forces that served its own political interests.

“The NTC should have worked with the defence ministry and the interior ministry, but instead they gave all their support to the SSC and other ideological militias,” he said.

“People are coming to see the SSC for what it really is. It’s a militia force that resembles Hamas’ Executive Force [Tanfithia] or Hezbullah’s military wing,” he said, arguing that the SCC’s real loyalties lie with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Secularist activists are far from alone in this criticism of the paramilitary groups.

Al-Barri, who in his many years with the LIFG had fought for a more Islamic form of government, also argued that ideologues were undermining national unity.

“The SSC was a great idea during the revolution, to protect Benghazi and the rest of the country,” he said. “But since then, the Brotherhood has taken control of the SSC and it has been given the best equipment and facilities. They took control of the election administration too.”

“We want only two forces; police and the army. We reject the SSC and Shield Brigade, we don’t want to turn into Lebanon,” he said.

However, Mohamed Ramadan al-Shater, a highly-ranked member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood from Benghazi, denied that the movement controlled the SSC or any other armed groups.

He said the Brotherhood, whose Justice and Construction Party won a disappointing 17 out of 80 seats in the July election, was a civilian movement.

“There are no special ties between the SSC and the Brotherhood you can find Brotherhood members in the army, in the defence ministry too,” he said.

He agreed the SSC had outlived its usefulness and that it was time for it to be disbanded, noting that it was only supposed to be temporary.

“The people running the SSC aren’t qualified and can’t replace the security forces, most of them only received a week’s training,” he said.

In response to the criticisms of the alleged political ties, the government replaced the February 17 Brigade’s former Muslim Brotherhood-linked leader Fawzi Bukatef with an army officer on September 25. 

And the new president has reportedly promised east Libyan tribal leaders to disband the SSC several sources told Al Jazeera.


Click here to see the previous article, “Libyans rise up against militias’ dominance”.

You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan

Source: Al Jazeera