Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Libya: In the hands of militias | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Misratah, Asharq Al-Awsat- At night, one hears explosions as the flare of artillery fire streaks through the dark. Here, at this crossing point, you wonder before continuing on to your destination: Is this fresh fighting with destructive projectiles between adversaries or is it a wedding party or is it soccer fans celebrating Real Madrid’s victory? No one in this town wants to give up their weapons and military materiel consisting of 4-wheel drive cars, armored vehicles, and horrifying military trucks crossing the roads amidst private cars loaded with families and children. The smell of gunpowder hits your nose from one crossing point to another. You wonder: Oh my God, isn’t the war over? Hussein Bin-Abdullah, a beverage vendor on Tarablus [Tripoli] Street in Misratah, the third largest town in Libya that put the final touches on overthrowing the rule of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, says: We have become used to this. The state is no longer a state”.

Most Libyan leaders, tribes, political parties, and religious currents like the Muslim Brotherhood – are aware that the situation is serious. That is why the movements and activities are uninterrupted by those that seek solutions or those that seek to place more obstacles in front of Libya’s stability, unity, and restoration of its status and reputation as a state in the eyes of its people. The first elections to for the National Assembly will be held next month and it is assumed that the Libyan people are waiting for them impatiently. However, doubts exist on whether these elections will succeed or pass peacefully. Bin-Abdullah, who carried arms and fought in Gaddafi’s last stronghold in the town of Surt, south of Misratah, before handing over his weapons and returning to run his store, added that, “anyone passing through here can see – as we see throughout the towns and regions of Libya – that the central authority has no control”. By central authority, Bin-Abdullah means the National Transitional Council that was quickly formed when the uprising erupted against Gaddafi’s rule on 17 February 2011 and chaired by Counselor Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the former justice minister in Gaddafi’s regime, as well as the government that this council formed headed by Abdel-Rahim El Keib. The government says that it is exerting all efforts to sail the transitional stage to the shores of safety. It seems, however, that these efforts cannot be seen with the naked eye, as a taxi driver from Tripoli jokingly says. In the Al-Marabi (as the social gatherings in private homes are called in Libya), Libyans are not only worried about the future of their country but they also recognize the most serious problems and they set immediate solutions to them. But who is authorized to listen to them and do they have the resources to implement what they say? This is the situation in the Al-Marabi of Misratah and other towns as well as in the cafes and on the street. About six months after the killing of Gaddafi, the Libyans find themselves before three major forces: the National Transitional Council, the interim government, and the revolutionaries. Interspersed among these forces are other small forces that are exerting their own pressures, including external forces and perhaps the remnants of the former regime. Hasan al-Amin, an oppositionist who fled from Gaddafi’s regime to Britain 28 years ago and returned to the fighting in the middle of last year, told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “We in Libya have not yet reached the stage of the state. We have not yet reached the stage of a strong government imposing its will on all the regions of Libya and on all aspects of life in the country. This does not exist; we are still groping forward. In my opinion, the situation in Libya is still at great risk and the vision is unclear.”

The large numbers of those you come across in Libya who had fled from Gaddafi’s regime shows you that fleeing from the suppressive regime over the past 42 years was very common and widespread as an inescapable option for people who are peaceful by nature. The children of the former oppositionists also returned holding western nationalities and cultures where they were born and bred, such as love for reading, desire for knowledge, ability to co-exist amid political differences, and readiness to embark on the experiment of democracy with its positive and negative points. This culture and desire to participate in building the new state clash against many obstacles. That is why the evening social gatherings are often full of large numbers of brains that have the ability to diagnose the illnesses of the transitional stage and prescribe cures to them. At any rate, this is not the issue. The issue, as Muhammad, the son of a Libyan oppositionist who lived in Austria, points out that there should be a state first so that any Libyan would know what he can do regardless of whether he is the son of the returnees or those that suffered under Gaddafi inside the country for four decades.

The practical solutions on the ground – that are taking a lot of time and efforts by Libyans, whether tribes or political parties or activists (local activists or those returning from exile) – lie in small matters that one cannot imagine. For example, local tribal and other leaders spent three months in order to reach an agreement on whether a family can take the remains of its son who was buried in a cemetery in the outskirts of Benghazi after the revolutionaries killed him (his family insist that he was martyred) and others that belonged to the brigades of the former regime.

Another example: many weeks of goings and comings between the town of Surt and the town of Al-Khums were spent and numerous telephone calls and meetings by officials were held to return the gold jewellery of a family from Surt that says its jewellery was impounded by armed men from Al-Khums during the fighting last fall. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of sessions are held daily in various parts of Libya in almost martial fashion to solve many issues that have been pending since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. These issues can be requests for stolen property or confiscated jewelry or deterring reckless brigades or private settlements pertaining to revenge among families and tribes.

Yes, there are no courts of law or public prosecutors or police precincts. Every morning, Libyan people debate such issues and engage claimants in endless negotiations. The government authority and the authority of the National Transitional Council do not exist on the ground except rarely. It seems they are still quite distant from treating the still bleeding wounds of the transitional stage.

Hasan al-Amin returned to Misratah last June aboard a fishing boat from Tunisia leaving behind his family in Britain. He worked with the revolutionaries and was with them when they broke into Bab al-Aziziyah [Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli] in August. However, he declined to take any political post, saying: I want to feel independent; this makes me serve my homeland better. I do not want restrictions on my opinions, movements, and stand.

Like Al-Amin, the majority of those that fled from Gaddafi’s tyranny returned from abroad but are old now. That is why most of them quickly form political parties or civic society organizations. As for their young sons – some of them returned to bear arms against Gaddafi and were welcomed by the revolutionaries – but now feel frustrated. In fact, some local Libyans spurn them as not fully Libyan, especially after the law deprived them and deprived their fathers of taking senior positions in the state because of their dual nationalities. The situation does not stop at the issues inherited from Gaddafi’s days and the days of the war. These days, a problem crops up every day. Driving on the long desert roads in this vast and far-flung country (about 1.8 million kilometers square), you may come upon a checkpoint set up by highwaymen who may steal your car and property.

A young man may make improper advances to a girl from a neighboring district and as a result, two regiments may clash for several days with heavy artillery killing or wounding innocents. You ask Hasan al-Amin passing time in the evening in his artist brother Muhammad al-Amin’s studio in the center of Misratah about what is happening in the country and he says, “If we want to talk about the government and the National Transitional Council they do not operate in accordance with a system with clear features to run matters clearly and transparently.” He adds that many decisions are postponed arbitrarily and may take into account private affairs or tribal settlements. Even some of the solutions that we see every now and then to deal with some issues are made-up solutions. They are sedative solutions and not decisive solutions. Why? This is due to the simple reason that a powerful central authority does not exist that has the courage to deal with problems firmly and to make decisions that apply on everybody.

Inside a Mercedes car that sped among the armored vehicles and artillery pieces of the brigades that guard the perimeter of Tripoli International Airport, as we arrive at Ayt Bin-al-Kafi’s private social gathering north of Misratah, and as we pass through many towns and villages, the question on the lips of Libyans from various currents and affiliations is what to do about the situation and the daily urgent demands in the provinces and towns that require central authority’s urgent and immediate attention. Here there is the problem of the federal status of the Barqah district, there is the problem of building roads, and water shortages and so on. Who is dealing with these national problems that require the attention of the central authority? And where is the representative of the central authority in the local districts? The truth is that solutions differ from one district to another.

Thanks to initiatives taken by their residents and leaders, some districts are much better off than others. But, in general, when talking about the government or the National Transitional Council, the prevailing view is that they are not operating based on specific priorities. On the political level, for instance, there are priorities like the issue of the assets abroad, the issue of monitoring the funds, the issue of bringing in the members of the former regime that have fled abroad and that are taking actions hostile to the revolution, perhaps from areas close to Libya. Then there is the issue of signing agreements with foreign sides to implement huge projects in the country. Although the Libyans view these files as “very vital”, they have other urgent priorities such as the file of the revolution’s wounded that number in the thousands. This is an important file and some believe that it is being tampered with until it has turned into a thorny and painful issue. There is also the problem of lack of services from which the Libyans suffered for 42 years under Gaddafi’s regime. We are talking about “services, the collapsed infrastructure, and the issue of reconstruction”.

Hasan al-Amin says, “Unfortunately, this government and council do not operate based on urgent priorities. They thus squander their efforts here and there. Naturally, this reflects on the general situation in Libya that we are seeing today. Al-Amin adds: There are several reasons for this. First of all, we have to recognize and admit that at first, we strongly supported this National Transitional Council as a stage that required unanimity regarding its structure and regarding the person of Mustafa Abdel Jalil. However, the fact is that the majority of the members of this council were chosen wrongly. For instance, some council members were not in Libya when the council was formed. They were selected in an unknown way to represent their towns and regions that had not yet been liberated. This poses a big problem for us for now we have a council that lacks qualifications in all aspects. It consists of inhomogeneous or inefficient elements and that lack political experience. Recently, deep underground differences surfaced between the transitional council and the government, raising many questions in public circles, such as does the transitional council consider itself as complementing El Keib’s government or does it view itself as a bloc against the government? It seems that the lines separating the council from the government are no longer clear and Libyans who follow these affairs closely can see that they intersect. Al-Amin goes on to say: There is a trend in the transitional council and some of its members to involve themselves in everything. A defect exists in the nature of the relationship between the government and the National Transitional Council. This relationship is not specified and is vague. Al-Amin adds: “We know that last week, a vote took place inside the national council during which two-thirds of its members voted for El Keib’s dismissal. When this matter reached the media, El Keib’s reaction was against the wishes of the national council. They retracted this and possible amendments in three sovereign ministries are likely. This will perhaps become clear in the coming period. So there is a defect in the nature of the relationship between the two sides. The national council is also exceeding its powers and this necessarily reflects on the performance of the government”.

In view of the preoccupation of the council and the government in their intersecting relations, the fait accompli has imposed another relationship; this is the problem of the brigades of the revolutionaries. This is a multi-faceted problem. After the war ended, the Libyans found themselves before armed brigades of revolutionaries that control even important organs and locations in the Libyan state. Also, large numbers of revolutionaries returned to their original work after the war ended. For these, the phase of bearing arms ended. Moreover, some brigades were formed after the liberation. This, according to Hasan al-Amin, is a big mistake that should not have been permitted. At the end of the war, especially in Tripoli, the Libyans discovered that there were brigades that did not participate in the revolution and did not fight in it. These were formed after the revolution. Al-Amin says, “This definitely was not their patriotic motive but to protect themselves or protect other quarters. There is a different kind of revolutionaries; these could be labeled pseudo revolutionaries. These are the ones that were affected by the glory of the victory. They perhaps entered the war at first not with a patriotic motive but with the mentality of Rambo. They were marginalized and lost youths that were victimized by the former regime. These youths have many psychological and social problems; they are unemployed and so on”.

These armed youths are young and come to Tripoli with their artillery to congratulate newlyweds or following soccer matches (the European Cup). Their leaders are in euphoria and seek respect and importance. As soon as they arrive, they open fire to greet the newlyweds as if they are in a war so much so that the walls shake with the sound of the artillery pieces. As the sound of projectiles is heard from the Sea of Misratah to rejoice in yet another wedding, Al-Amin says: When the revolution erupted a certain kind of youths joined the war. The revolution gave them a new status that made them feel important. Of course, when the war ended they all wanted to preserve these gains.

They do not wish to go back to what they were in the past and unemployed. They thus constituted a heavy burden and a big problem. In fact, many of these are now obstructing the stage of transformation to democracy through their actions.

Security sources in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, say that some businessmen, political currents, and some elements of the former regime want to benefit from this crisis-ridden situation: “The pseudo revolutionaries are being exploited in perhaps unacceptable matters; some of them have turned into hired gangs”.

Hasan al-Amin says that the government does not have clear power or control over the state organs and the revolutionaries constitute a military burden that should not be taken lightly: “In other words, some brigades have the power to obstruct a decision or to make decisions on their own to carry out a certain matter. We saw the graves being vandalized as well as the issue of human rights violations and the issue of arbitrary detentions. Much of what these are doing is wrong under all standards from the human rights perspective as well as the criminal perspective”. So where is the solution to correct this situation? During the debates and discussions that take place in the social gatherings, many Libyans believe it is necessary to restructure the local councils through free and direct elections in which the cities send their representatives to replace their unelected representatives in the National Transitional Council. The elected national council will then form a new government and review all the decisions that it had made. Hasan al-Amin agrees with this approach and expounds on the obstacles that may abort the national assembly elections scheduled for next month. He says: “In light of the current conditions, I do not expect the national assembly elections in June will be held on time. This is due to the current security situation that is impeding foreign investments or the aspired stability. Libya needs a powerful and elected central authority. This appears to be out of reach in light of the current atmosphere”.