|Libya’s untamed militias protect the shaky state but terrorise those seen as enemies [GALLO/GETTY]|
History may overlook them, but the protests that led to Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall began before February 17.
Two days earlier, ahead of a planned “Day of Rage” that was meant to echo protests in Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of people in the eastern city of Benghazi flowed into its narrow streets after dark when word spread that the regime had arrested Fathi Terbil, a lawyer representing relatives of those who died in a notorious 1996 prison massacre in Tripoli.
The spontaneous protest culminated when a young boy climbed a lamp post and tore down a poster of Gaddafi, the king-like 42-year ruler, and police swarmed in with water cannons. But five days later, Benghazi’s military base fell to the opposition, and eight months after that, Gaddafi was pulled from a drainage pipe in his home town, beaten, paraded and shot in the head.
As many as 15,000 people may have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations, though the National Transitional Council that overthrew Gaddafi has said the toll is twice as high.
On Friday, one year after the “Day of Rage,” Libyans gathered to remember their dead and celebrate their victory. But for many, the victory is hollow, and the anniversary of the revolution’s opening act anything but a celebration.
The country remains, as some Libyans put it, in chaos. Banks, shops and airports are open, but Libya’s interim leaders, most of them officials who defected from Gaddafi’s regime, have failed to create a new authority.
The same amateur militias who defeated Gaddafi’s forces and were lauded as revolutionaries now patrol city streets with impunity in armoured pick-up trucks and refuse to give up their weapons. Some brigades, as they are called, stand accused of torture and murder.
The court system and judiciary are in shambles. A rare trial of 47 alleged Gaddafi fighters could not convene its first hearing on Wednesday because the militia holding the men refused to bring them to court. No one accused of committing misdeeds before or during the revolution has been tried, from Gaddafi’s son and alleged war criminal Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to the men who assassinated NTC commanding general Abdel Fattah Younes.
Benghazi residents, who feel ignored by the Tripoli-based authorities, have staged sit-in protests, and the spectre of an east-west division is rising. When Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil visited Benghazi in late January, protesters stormed the council’s headquarters, torched Jalil’s Land Cruiser and berated him to his face after breaking into his office.
Unchecked militias run rampant
The brigades, formed by untrained civilians in the spring of 2011 to confront Gaddafi’s onslaught, have become the most visible sign of the new government’s weakness.
To some, they are protectors of the shaky new state and a necessary counterweight to the inept and corrupt council. To the militia’s targets, mostly black Libyans, migrant labourers and alleged Gaddafi loyalists, they are a terror.
Reports of abuses began emerging over the summer, as rebel fighters moved west from Benghazi and north from the Nafusa Mountains, taking towns that were less sympathetic to the uprising. Human Rights Watch reported extensively on the issue, including the execution of 53 alleged Gaddafi supporters in Sirte in October.
According to Amnesty International, which on Thursday released an extensive report about the militias, they continue to conduct wanton abductions and torture that includes beatings, whippings and electrocutions. In at least 12 cases, militias have captured and tortured victims who then died in custody or in hospitals.
A former prime minister and head of foreign intelligence under Gaddafi injured himself leaping from a second-floor window after being threatened by a militia while in custody and has yet to receive a lawyer, while a Gaddafi-era diplomat who once served as ambassador to France apparently died from torture in the custody of another brigade.
These extrajudicial arrests and abuses come in spite of a November 29 directive from the interior ministry prohibiting arrests and interrogations by revolutionaries.
Militias have also forced people out of their homes, destroyed property, and driven out entire communities, according to Amnesty. Black Libyans and migrants from other African nations are particularly at risk, just as they were during the revolution.
The town of Tawargha, east of Tripoli, has essentially ceased to exist. Gaddafi’s forces used the town as a staging ground for their horrific siege of Misrata, and fighters from the city singled out its predominantly black population once they broke through the regime’s lines. Homes have been looted and burned down, and many Misrata residents have vowed never to let Tawargha’s 30,000 inhabitants return, according to the report.
“Like armed tribes, political tribes”
Awad El Feituri, a longtime activist whose Manchester home was bombed by suspected Gaddafi agents in 1984, has advised NTC members that the government must offer the militia fighters jobs and deal with them forcefully.
“We have to have strong people in the government. Everybody seems to be soft,” said Feituri, who lives in Doha and manages finances for a hotel chain. “They cannot confront these people, so they try to be soft with them to gain their support for future elections.”
Militia fighters are widely considered the revolution’s heroes, and their arms and clout means they are the most powerful force outside the council, whose reputation is at a low ebb. They have proven willing to confront government ministers over unpaid wages and health care for injured fighters.
Gelal Gelali, a former spokesman for the media affairs committee, said he hoped the militias maintain their pressure.
His former boss, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, was the committee’s chief and Jalil’s deputy until he resigned after being mobbed and attacked by angry protesters at Benghazi University during the same visit that saw Jalil cornered by protesters.
Now detached from the council, Gelali said he finds it corrupt and incompetent and that if Jalil had the nation’s interests at heart, he would resign.
“They cannot figure out a way to disarm the population. There’s an easy way: Be accountable, be transparent, have justice, have a mechanism,” Gelali said. “We’ll see where [the militias] are going, if they will galvanize around somebody and put pressure on Abdel Jalil.”
But Feituri said he feared that Libyans risk resorting to weapons instead of dialogue and coalescing into factions, a scenario that reminded him unfavourably of Lebanon.
“We don’t have law and order, especially in the west. That’s why we’re hearing voices for federalism in the east of the country,” he said. “The situation is just like armed tribes, political tribes.”
“A dictatorship without an army”
The problem, the two men said, lies with the NTC, which they view as self-serving, weak and populated with Gaddafi loyalists, including officers from the regime’s security apparatus and ambassadors who have remained in their posts. Even the man who once ran the office of Hannibal Gaddafi, one of the ousted leaders sons, is now an NTC member, Gelali said.
He said the NTC is using Gaddafi-style politics: increasing wages to keep the population happy while preventing any of its members from amassing personal authority.
By failing to restart the judicial system and notably stalling the trial of Saif al-Islam, he said, the council’s leaders avoid the risk of Gaddafi’s son or others implicating them in criminal service to the previous regime.
“If you have not activated the judicial branch, then basically we have a dictatorship, a dictatorship that does not have an army,” Gelali said.
Feituri said he told Jalil that it would be a mistake to allow anyone from the upper echelons of Gaddafi’s regime to serve in high office. Even if they acted with good intentions, he said, the public would always hold them in suspicion.
Now, Libyans see an unelected and unaccountable body acting with and somtimes abusing executive power. On Facebook, rumours circulate about high-spending ministers, with photos of enormous hotel bills attached.
“The government is doing nothing, they are paralysed,” Feituri said.
A “paralysed” government
In a conference call with American businessmen earlier this month, the transcript of which was posted on Facebook by the State Department, US Ambassador Gene Cretz spoke of a government “fairly reluctant to make any decisions, especially with respect to money”.
Eric Nordstrom, a regional security officer, said the Interior Ministry planned to rely on militias for short term security. The fighters would be given “not so much even police officer training,” but rather told how to make simple shows of force.
There were unclear plans for a 10,000-strong police force, and Cretz said the council leaders “understand that they’ve got to do something with these people who’ve been holding hostages for the last eight months”.
Nordstrom told the eager businessmen that making long-term deals with the Libyans would be difficult. While there were “a few decent people” in government, he said, the leadership kept changing, “so, somebody that’s the head of one directorate this week may no longer have the position a couple of weeks later.”
Cretz praised Jalil, new Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib – chosen by the council in November – and their cabinet of “technocrats” for trying to sort through the rubble of 42 years of manic and autocratic rule, including hundreds of billions of dollars in business deals left in limbo by the revolt, but he portrayed the government in a state of serious disorganisation.
“I think the problem that we really get down to here is that I don’t think that we can overestimate the extent to which they really do not have any institutional capability to organize effectively,” he said.
“Nothing has changed”
The new leadership’s inability to restart business has left young men like Abdallah al-Huni behind. Huni, a Benghazi resident, helped foreign journalists cover the first weeks of the revolution before donning camouflage and joining a brigade.
When the fighting ended, so did his prospects of a job. A friend who worked for an Arabic television channel helped Huni take a media course in Italy, but that was all. He and one of his brothers have spent months unemployed, while a third has found steady work repairing tanks for his old unit.
“If you look at it in a general way, it’s pretty much the same. Nothing has changed,” Huni said.
For a while, he made daily visits to Midan al-Shajara, Benghazi’s central Tree Square, where the anti-NTC protesters had gathered. He would like to return to his studies at Benghazi University, switch his major to political science and eventually work for a Libyan embassy. But he’s disappointed in the current leadership and the way they ignored the Shajara demands.
“[Jalil] go on TV, didn’t talk to them at all, I was like, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? It’s like he’s in a coma or something,” Huni said. “Mr. Abdel Jalil to go out to the street and hear from people what’s going on inside the country.”
The country’s first major step forward after Gaddafi, the election of a 200-member assembly that will draft a new constitution, is set to take place by June 23. It could solve anger over the unelected NTC, but doubts remain over whether the people are prepared for such a vote.
There have been no political parties for four decades, and the only organised force is the Muslim Brotherhood. Libyans also say that the electoral law allocates a majority of 102 seats for the west, including Tripoli, which rankles Benghazi. Throw in well-armed militias, and it makes for a combustible mix.
“The scene is so surreal there in Tripoli, I don’t know how to describe it,” Feituri said. “There is no government, at the same time the government is there; there’s no security, while there’s arms all around there; everybody claims they’re in charge, but nobody’s in charge.”
Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill