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Libya’s Deadly Catch-22 - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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tank tank

A former Libyan army tank, now in private hands, in Misrata, Libya, February 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Misrata and Tripoli, Asharq Al-Awsat—It was Anwar, a former rebel fighter and community leader from Misrata, who summed the situation up best: “If you’re a state and you have a rifle, but the people have ten rifles, then you will have a problem.” He had cut right to the root of Libya’s most pressing issue: that two and half years after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, this is still a country where the armed militias are stronger than the state.

Libya’s fledgling democratic government isn’t just under the control of the militias that fought and won in the 2011 revolution. It is relying on them. The following day a plane left Misrata, taking a new shift of the city’s rebel veterans to Sabha, a city in the vast empty deserts of the south. These men were not part of the national army that was re-established after the revolution, but the government had asked them to go to Sabha to stem the growing tide of tribal violence there. “We don’t have one central army that is big enough to control the whole country,” admitted the Justice Minister, Salah Al-Marghani. And so it is left to the local militias—the Misratis, the Zintanis, the Tripolians, and the various factions within them—to act as the strong arm of the state.

Sometimes this delicate system works. In the capital, Tripoli, the country’s transitional government, the General National Congress (GNC), is effectively being safeguarded by the Misratis. When the militias from the town of Zintan gave the GNC a 72-hour deadline to step aside on February 18, the Misratis fired back a quick reply: if the Zintanis attacked the GNC, then they would defend it. In the end, the coup never happened. “We voted for the GNC; it was a democratic process. If we get rid of them then we do it with these fingers,” said Anwar, as he held up the ink-blackened finger that showed he had cast his vote in the latest round of polling on February 20. “If Misrata sees anyone trying to take the government, then we are going to defend it.”

prison prison

The new state prison in Misrata. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)


But more often the power of these various groups does more to damage democracy than it does to defend it. The dangerous reality is that the militias—including the Misratis—will protect their own towns and interests before they will protect the central government. Cynics claim that the reason the Misrata militias are so quick to defend the GNC is that it is dominated by politicians with whom they are ideologically aligned—and in particular with those linked with the Muslim Brotherhood. Anwar was quick to refute the claim. “Lots of people link Misrata to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “But that’s just the trick Gaddafi used when he called the protesters ‘rats.’ The Muslim Brotherhood is the new term for rat.”

Anwar is a prominent and successful businessman in Misrata—a man who commands such respect locally that that Gaddafi’s body was brought to his house for safekeeping in October 2011 while the international forensic teams made their way to the city. For three days he hosted a stream of people from across Libya who wanted to see the corpse for themselves. “They wouldn’t believe he was dead until they had seen him,” he said. But one of his close relatives is a powerful figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, and he says that cannot shake off the accusations that he is also linked to them. It is just one example of the regional factionalism that has taken hold of Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

The Zintani militias are also attracting their share of controversy and criticism. Through a stroke of luck rather than judgment, they intercepted Gaddafi’s most prominent son, Saif Al-Islam, as he tried to escape over the border into Niger. His arrest came just a month after the violent deaths of his father and brother Mutassim at the hands of rebel brigades, but Saif was to face a different fate. Two and a half years later he is still being held in custody by the Zintanis, who refuse to hand him over to either the central government or the International Criminal Court for trial. The Zintanis say they don’t believe that he will be tried and convicted properly by either, but many people outside the town claim that they are using their high-profile prisoner as a political bargaining chip. “It is causing hatred, rumors and problems,” said Anwar. “They should have just killed him when they caught him. It would have solved a lot of problems.”

The power of the big militias is problematic, but it is the presence of a multitude of smaller rogue groups—all of which have easy access to the glut of weapons that were left behind after the revolution—that is often the biggest threat to security and stability in Libya. The expansive desk and the wood-paneled walls in the Ministry of Justice in Tripoli are typical of government buildings anywhere in the world. The bullet holes are not. “They weren’t fired at me personally,” smiled the justice minister, Salah Al-Marghani. With his slight stature and gentle demeanor he seems like an unlikely person to take on the more thuggish elements in Libyan politics. “If I say something, sometimes just in a press conference, I could get another visit,” he said. “This used to be a normal administrative building, but recently we have needed heavier security. But even then, if people come in numbers the security doesn’t work. They just occupy the place, and the scanners and bodyguards are redundant.”

The Ministry of Justice has been repeatedly occupied by armed groups over the past year. The perpetrators often hold no grievance against the Ministry or Marghani specifically; on one occasion they wanted to pressure the GNC to speed up the passing of a law that would exclude members of the former regime from playing any part in the new Libyan government. But in numerous incidents, both groups and individuals have brought weapons into the Ministry to enforce their own private demands, often related to complaints about detentions that they see as illegitimate. In the aftermath of the revolution, thousands of people who were accused of fighting with Gaddafi’s forces were detained in militia-run prisons. Many of them are still languishing there, often unsure of when they will be taken to trial or even what they stand accused of.

Marghani says that this is a legacy of the Gaddafi era that is proving difficult to change. “In this country we have a very poor administration that we inherited from the previous regime, and we have made it worse,” he admitted. But efforts are being made to reform the justice system. In Misrata, the Ministry has invested 9 million dinars (7.2 million US dollars) in a huge new prison to replace the six smaller detention centers—some of them set up by the rebels during the revolution—scattered around the city. The city’s militias have agreed to hand over their prisoners, and 840 have already been transferred.

[inset_left]You need stability to create the government. And to create stability you need the government.”
—Salah Al-Marghani[/inset_left]

“It is much better here,” said one inmate at the new prison. “It is more comfortable, we are treated better, and we’re allowed more visits from our family.” The prisoners certainly seemed to be better treated than those who were still being held at one of the old prisons. “The guards on this shift worked in the judicial system before the revolution, so they know how to treat people. That’s probably why you’ve been allowed to visit at this time,” one young man told us. “The other shifts are horrible, they shave our heads every day and treat us like animals.” He, like the majority of detainees in Misrata, had been accused of being a Gaddafi loyalist. None of the prisoners we spoke to in either the old or the new prison had a date set for their trial.

Marghani readily admits that Libya’s congested justice system needs to start moving, and quickly. He told us that all the prisoners in Misrata were having their cases reviewed before being transferred, and that many had already been released. But Misrata is an exception: the militias here are powerful and largely loyal to the central government, and have the capacity to maintain security in the city. “Here’s the proof that it’s not too bad in Misrata,” said Anwar. “There are five banks in the city, and a couple of million dinars in each one. Everyone has weapons, but none of those banks have been raided.”

Weapons are indeed everywhere in Libya: in Misrata we visited a lock-up where six functioning tanks, all owned by one private individual, were parked up in the dusty earth. It is estimated that there are 22 million pieces of small and medium arms scattered around the country. People are unwilling to give them up, even in the more stable areas of the country, because many fear that there could be another revolution or civil conflict. In places like Misrata and Tripoli the weapons seem to be holding the country in an uneasy state of peace: nobody wants to fire on someone who is as heavily armed as they are. But in the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna, those weapons have fallen into the hands of extremist groups that directly oppose the new state—organized criminals and Islamists. So while the streets of Tripoli and Misrata are relatively safe and calm, the central government seems to have little power to control the fractious east.

On the day we met Marghani, he was preparing to fly to Benghazi to offer his condolences to the family of an assassinated judicial official. This was not an isolated incident; in recent months, the shootings and car bombings in Benghazi and Derna have escalated. The assassination of the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, on September 11, 2012, was just the tip of a huge and increasingly worrying iceberg of violence that seems to be aimed at undermining Libya’s new justice system.

“It is obvious that this is the work of terrorists, and that the reason behind it is to prevent the creation of proper statehood,” said Marghani. “They are terrorizing the justice system [and] judges and attacking prisons. And, of course, if you don’t have a justice system that is functioning, many other things will not function properly, including security. We will have arrests and people just piled in detention centers and creating other problems.”

It is, he said, an enormous Catch-22, and one that seems difficult to find a way out of. “You need stability to create the government. And to create stability you need the government.”

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist who has worked on a number of high-profile investigations for Channel 4 and the BBC. Her recent work has seen her gain access to inner city gangs, sex workers and the British far right. She has traveled to Kosovo, Syria and Brazil to report on human rights issues. She lives in London.

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