Libya’s brigades

When Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in October 2011, the Libyan people dreamed of peace, freedom, an end to conflict, and a chance to put their war-torn nation back together again.

But more than two years on, the country is still bitterly divided as revolutionary militias and brigades compete with the government for power and influence.

“Libya’s Brigades” asks if the country’s rival factions can be reconciled or whether Libya is doomed to years of continuing instability?

Reporter’s notebook, October 2013:

At first glance Tripoli seems surprisingly calm. Shops do steady business, the coffee places are full and there are surprisingly few guns to be seen in the streets.

But the calm is, at best, treacherous. Over the past few months the prime minister has been kidnapped, fighting in the capital has left many dead, wounded, abductions and robberies have almost become a daily reality, and political conflict has brought the newly-elected government to a virtual standstill.

Just over two years after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, there are concerns that Libya is breaking apart. And now the revolutionary brigades who fought to liberate the country are being blamed for destroying it.

With the overthrow of Gaddafi’s security forces in August 2011, the new transitional government faced the fundamental problem of how to maintain law and order. Since the revolutionary brigades controlled the old army’s weapons and military hardware, there was little choice who to turn to.

In October 2011, the National Transitional Council ordered the creation of the Supreme Security Council (SSC) to replace the police. Revolutionary brigades could choose to enrol via their commanders, place themselves under the Ministry of the Interior and in return, they received a licence to arrest, detain and interrogate suspects in branches across the country. By May 2012, an estimated 80,000 young men had joined the SSC, with each brigade member eligible for a stipend of up to €650 ($894) a month.

The ministry of defence, too, embarked on a wholesale enrolment of brigades to replace the army. What had seemed like an opportunity to bring the former revolutionaries into the newly created state, soon became a major source of unrest: the enrolment was marred by regional and political competition and the loyalty of the former fighters remained with their revolutionary commanders whose interests are frequently at odds.

Today, Tripoli is home to several large militia bases, many of which are located in Gaddafi’s enormous old military installations. A new government plan is being put into action to reverse the enrolment of the security forces away from the commanders and towards individual brigade members.

Mtiga airport, home to three different brigades all under the SSC, is the perfect example in point. At Mtiga we set up a meeting with Hashim Bishr, the leader of Tripoli’s SSC, who insists that the fighters under his command have given up their weapons and integrated into the new government security forces. Bishr takes us on a tour to show us the success – we meet newly equipped traffic cops, undercover police preparing to mill Tripoli’s many cafes and are given access to see the special forces police in training – all at pains to point out they are now supporting the fledgling Libyan state.

But as we spend more time in Mtiga, it becomes apparent that the situation is far from clear cut. Abdulraouf Kara is a senior leader under Bishr who commands the Special Deterrence Forces. And when we enter this compound, it becomes clear that the brigades are anything but demobilised: there are a number of tanks, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and men busy maintaining the hardware.

Since the creation of the newly elected government, Kara has repeatedly gone on record saying that he is not prepared to demobilise because he does not trust the new government. His brigade, also nominally under the ministry of the interior, runs at least two prisons in Mtiga to which justice ministry officials have only limited access. Kara’s brigade members say they specialise in arresting criminals who deal in alcohol and drugs but others accuse them of having an extreme Islamist agenda.

Indeed, this is an accusation we hear repeatedly with mention of the SSC forces in Mtiga. In August last year, residents of Tripoli received a wake up call when hardline Salafists arrived in bulldozers to demolish some of the countries most sacred Sufi shrines, located right outside the city’s international business hotel. It is contrary to Islam to pray at tombs, they said, amidst popular fears that dark forces are at play in the SSC trying to turn Libya’s security forces into an Islamist brigade.

But the SSC in Tripoli is just one of several large militia organisations and many have an altogether different agenda. Towns and cities across Libya have groups of young men still heavily armed, who see themselves as guardians of peace, which they vow to defend at the barrel of the gun. Those outside the capital feel marginalised and neglected by politicians who they say are brokering deals in their own interest.

Misrata emerged from the revolution as the country’s strongest military player and its well-equipped Libyan Shield Forces have repeatedly been called into Tripoli to restore an uneasy calm. Much to the chagrin of the mountain town of Zintan, another major military force with strong anti-Islamist feelings which has created a traditional tribal-based alliance in order to attempt to balance the power base in the capital with that of the hinterland.

Meanwhile, groups in the east of the country have occupied oil installations and have brought Libya’s lucrative oil flow to a virtual halt. They too feel neglected, and threaten with secession, if politicians in the capital continue to fail to deliver development across the country.

No doubt, observers are worried and there is much to be worried about. Weapons flow out of Libya into the surrounding countries and the chaos makes it easy for groups such as al-Qaeda to find a foothold. Foreign countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabi, Britain and the US, are all supporting a myriad of politicians and religious groups who they consider to be vehicles of their interest.

But if there is one thing Libyans agree on, it is that the real revolution has only just started.

Overthrowing Gaddafi was the easy part. Now the time has come to deal with his legacy of 40 years of dictatorship. Many people were hesitant to be filmed and explained that they are only just starting to learn how to speak freely without fear of repercussion. Tribal, ethnic and religious rifts which were violently suppressed are now breaking into the open and many of the young revolutionaries remain deeply traumatised by the fighting.

Yet, there are some grounds for optimism. Before we leave Tripoli we attend the graduation of the first class of young army recruits. Their boots are new, their fatigues pressed and the celebrations are exuberant. Much hope lies with them to turn the tide.