Tripoli, Libya – Bloodshed and chaos in Libya continues two years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi with the government struggling to rein in the many militias with their own leaders and agendas.
Deadly clashes erupted again on Monday as Libyan soldiers battled with Ansar al-Sharia gunmen in the eastern city of Benghazi, leaving at least five dead and more than a dozen wounded.
The fighting comes a week after at least 47 people were killed and hundreds wounded when demonstrators marched to the headquarters of a Tripoli-based militia to protest its activities and demand that it withdraw from the capital. The demonstrators were then fired on with live rounds, including anti-aircraft weapons, in Gharghour district.
Another example of the militias’ brazenness was the brief abduction of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan earlier this month by an armed group. He was released hours after his capture.
Fighters who helped oust Gaddafi in 2011 were hired by the new government to provide security, but their loyalty has always remained with powerful tribal chiefs and militia leaders, often leading to outbursts of violence between rival groups on the streets.
We remember the blood of our martyrs and won't back down now. The civil disobedience movement that we announced last week will continue until the last armed formation leaves the capital.
Shortly after Gaddafi’s downfall, Libya’s interim interior minister Fawzi Abdelali announced that 50,000 fighters would be integrated into the security forces.
The government last week announced the dissolution of the armed groups in the capital after the Tripoli killings, but it remains to be seen how effective and long-lasting the move will be.
Uncertainty remains after the withdrawal from Tripoli of several militias from other cities in accordance with “Law 27” passed by the interim General National Congress (GNC). The law was passed in June after militia clashes held the city hostage for two days.
Law 27 ordered the removal of all armed formations from the capital, with no exceptions – which would affect nearly 1,000 groups, according to Tripoli Local Council (TLC) estimates.
Public ceremonies in the capital last week saw armed groups handing over the largely empty bases to the military. Libyan army units have been ordered to take up positions across Tripoli – the first deployment of troops in the capital since Gaddafi fell.
Tensions have grown since November 7 when Nouri Freiwan – a commander of a brigade from Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city – was wounded after an argument turned into a gunfight at a checkpoint set up by another brigade from Tripoli. Freiwan died two days later.
The head of the Tripoli Local Council, Sadat ElBadri, came out strongly against the militias after the recent bloodshed, and called for mass protests to force the central government to implement Law 27. ElBadri’s strong stance on the militias has won him public support. “We remember the blood of our martyrs and won’t back down now. The civil disobedience movement that we announced last week will continue until the last armed formation leaves the capital,” said ElBadri.
The TLC chairman said the heightened presence of the army and police on the streets would convince militiamen to holster their weapons. “We are closely observing the militias that have withdrawn,” he said. “This [effort] is not only for Tripoli but for all other cities too. If this militia problem is solved, we can start working on building and strengthening all state institutions.”
The Gharghour killings appear to be a turning point for the government and residents of Tripoli against militias.
Groups that once provided security to the city quickly lost standing after becoming involved in politics. Analysts say it was a mistake by Libya’s interim leaders, who co-opted armed fighters into the government’s security apparatus while leaving the groups’ original command structure intact.
Ahmed Majdub, an engineering student, supported the militias until the first major clash earlier this year between rival groups brought life in the capital to a halt for two straight days.
“We want to move on as a country, but these militias are only trying to keep themselves relevant. I realised this when they started to fight each other on petty issues, and I told myself they are only here for personal interests,” Majdub said, sitting with his friends in a cafe in Algeria Square that has become a gathering point for anti-militia protesters.
The increased presence of police and soldiers on the streets of Tripoli has surprised many, including militiamen who had to withdraw from the city. But residents expressed suspicion about the security forces’ capabilities, and questioned whether their newly imported vehicles and old guns can actually secure the city.
“Standing at the roundabouts and establishing checkpoints is one thing, but can they go in and take out a criminal gang or break up a gunfight and maintain law and order?” asked Fawzi Eldekkam, sub-commander of a unit that was recently disbanded.
The indecisiveness of interim leaders on issues such as reconciliation and transitional justice has been part of the problem, observers say.
“The interim leaders failed to rein in the militias despite international support, as transitional issues like electing the interim government or the political isolation law were prioritised before the security sector,” said Peter Cole, a former analyst for International Crisis Group and co-editor of an upcoming book on the Libyan revolution.
“Libyan and international efforts to strengthen the legitimate government are therefore likely to see incremental progress, but must still be careful not to politicise the security sector further.”
Eldekkam agreed initial misteps led to the problems. “The security forces were not free from Gaddafi loyalists, and it was impossible for any revolutionary to join them. The interim government took too long to address this issue and some elements in these militias became involved in criminal activities,” he said.
also know we are around and we will hold onto our weapons until we are certain that the army can secure the country completely.”]
Meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in London on Sunday, Prime Minister Zeidan said Libyans have had enough of the chaos brought on by armed groups.
“The Libyan people have had a long struggle, and lately they have done a lot to get rid of the militias, and that there are markers that fell in this process to end the armed militias,” Zeidan said.
Zeidan warned earlier this month that foreign forces could be deployed to protect civilians unless the militias were reined in by Libyan security. “The international community cannot tolerate a state in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a source of violence, terrorism and murder,” he said.
Back in the cafe, Majdub scrolled through photos of those wounded at the Gharghour protest. “They [militias] crossed the limit when they opened fire on civilians carrying white flags … This brought everybody together, overpowering those trying to protect the militias. This can be the moment Libya actually gets a real army and police,” he said.
Officials have tried to convince people that the handing over of militia bases is real action. But some in Tripoli say they’ve heard rumours that armed groups were using farmhouses just outside of the city to keep their heavy weapons.
And despite relinquishing some strongholds – several empty already – some militiamen say they are not prepared to move on for good just yet.
“Officially we don’t exist, but they [the government] also know we are around and we will hold onto our weapons until we are certain that the army can secure the country completely,” said Eldekkam.
Follow Umar Khan on Twitter: @umarnkhan