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Opinion: Libya’s Swimming Militiamen | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A screengrab taken from a YouTube video shows a member of the Libya Dawn militia diving into a swimming pool from the roof of a building in Tripoli, Libya. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

There is a video doing the rounds at the moment of armed militiamen inside a residential compound belonging to the US embassy in Tripoli. The video shows the militiamen jumping into a swimming pool from a balcony while other armed fighters cheer them on. The circumstances surrounding this video are illogical, as is the joy of these armed fighters as they dive into the pool. Is this an expression of the state of chaos in Libya today, or is this group seeking to send a political message to a specific party that is currently not present on the ground?

The US embassy was evacuated recently, along with its entire staff, following the eruption of clashes between militias who are fighting over the Libyan capital. As for the US ambassador to Libya, she is monitoring the situation from a distance in Malta. These militiamen—who call themselves revolutionaries—are terrorizing Tripoli’s civilian population. However, they would never have even existed were it not for US and NATO assistance to topple Muammar Gaddafi. This came after four decades of Gaddafi rule that are, ultimately, largely to blame for the current situation in Libya. The country is quickly sliding into the category of a failed state; and if the problem is one of swimming pools, Libya has the natural resources and capabilities to build a swimming pool for every citizen.

Away from the video’s “novelty factor,” and the evident skills of the young fighters who are jumping into the swimming pool from the balcony, the video also carries a political message. This message is one that we have previously heard from the Libyan Dawn militia group (an alliance of Islamist militias from Misrata seeking to take control of the capital, and claiming to “protect” international embassies from other militias). This is a message that is clearly aiming to reassure Washington and seeking to secure legitimacy from the outside regarding the situation on the ground in Libya, as well as seeking to secure the political situation.

There does not seem to be a clear strategy or international view on how to help Libya and stop it from sliding into total chaos. The most that we are witnessing are statements regarding concerns over security and attempts to contain this chaos internally as much as possible, ensuring it does not expand to affect Europe or beyond. However, evidence suggests proxy wars are currently taking place on Libyan territory, involving these very same militias. It is the ordinary Libyan people who are paying the price for this crisis, which has practically divided the country on the ground.

What is strange is that what happened in Libya following Gaddafi’s ouster shares similarities with post-Saddam Iraq. There was no plan for the post-war scene. Everybody withdrew and left the scene open for militias to gather arms and secure control of the ground. Some extremist groups exploited the political vacuum and this resulted in the destruction and street battles that we see today. This is not to mention airports being outside of state control, with foreign states refusing to receive flights from them.

A sense of hope emerged in Libya following the election of the current parliament, which is leading the battle from Tobruk to impose control over the General National Congress (GNC) and the Islamist militias. However, in light of the absence of a strong police force or military, they lost control of Tripoli’s ministries and government infrastructure. Civil servants were unable to enter their ministries while western media reports from Tripoli affirmed that a state of fear has taken hold among the general population. Tripoli’s residents find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: if they stay, they fear being viewed solely on the basis of their tribal identity, which could link them to rival militias in other regions; if they leave, their homes could be sacked and looted.

The reality is that the people of Tripoli have confronted these armed militias on more than one occasion with demonstrations and protests. However, as usual, those who have the weapons are able to impose their will on others. There can be no solution in Libya without disarming and dissolving these militias, supporting the official police and military, and isolating the figures who are supporting these militias that have now infiltrated Libya’s state institutions. However, the most important step is to put an end to the salaries currently being paid to these militiamen out of Libya’s own state treasury.