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Battle for Tripoli: hope or despair?

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These attacks have been both violent and destructive. But they are being interpreted by many as the death throes of militias who have suddenly realised that they are no longer wanted in Libya.

Rhiannon Smith
1 July 2013

Just a couple of days ago, I was determined not to focus on Libya's security problems for my next column. For a start, the battle for monopoly over force in Libya is not a new subject and the difficulties facing the government as they strive to enforce the rule of law have been covered in some detail.

Furthermore, although fights between fractious militias, embryonic national forces and an increasingly infuriated public have come to a head in recent weeks, there are many positive developments happening within the country which unfortunately do not receive the coverage they deserve. Indeed my original plan this week was to write about the impressive Hederza Mensia art exhibition which just took place in Tripoli, as well as a number of other notable cultural revivals which are happening across Libya.

Unfortunately however, Libya's security problems came knocking on my door, clamouring to be heard. On June 25 a unit from Zintan, who were responsible for guarding oil fields in the south of Libya, attacked the headquarters of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in Tripoli's Salahadin district, firing indiscriminately and killing and wounding a number of people, including some bystanders. Tripoli forces arrived to defend the PFG, driving the attackers away. However this was far from the end of the matter.

The following day, the fight shifted to the Bu Saleem district and from early evening the sound of gunfire and heavy weaponry started ringing out across my neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Roads were blocked off and residents stayed inside as rumours flew about who was fighting whom and why. Reports say that at least two people were killed and dozens injured in this latest bout of fighting. A number of prisoners were also freed from the Bu Salim prison.

Both the Prime Minister and the interim head of Libya's army condemned the violence, while the General National Congress agreed to implement decision number 27, restricting the movement of armed groups within Tripoli.

However, exactly who will be charged with imposing such a restriction and bringing the perpetrators of these attacks to justice remains unclear, especially given that as I write this two days after the violence took place, the details of who was actively engaged in the fighting, and on whose authority, remain extremely sketchy. In Libya, rumours travel as fast as bullets and can be just as dangerous. By the end of the second day of violence, I had heard so many different theories in answer to these questions that just listing them here would take hours.

However, there are three main points which need mentioning. The first is that all of the militias involved claim to be under the authority of either the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior, yet none of them appear to be taking orders from the government or army. Indeed, both attacks targeted state institutions and in both cases shooting was indiscriminate, killing and wounding bystanders and causing a great deal of damage to surrounding buildings. This highlights all too well the dangers of empowering autonomous militias to act in the name of the state, when in reality the state has no control over their actions.

The second is the speed at which the conflict became defined in geographical terms. From the very outset the fighting was framed as Zintan attacking Tripoli, leading powerful militias from Tripoli to join the fray apparently to defend their city. Rumours were also flying about militias from Misrata being involved. In the later stages I heard many people refer to this as a battle between Zintan and Misrata, both cities renowned for their role fighting against Gaddafi forces the revolution. Wherever the truth lies, this tendency to line up along geo-tribal lines does not bode well for the formation of a coherent national security force, or even the building of a united national identity.

Thirdly, the reaction of most Libyans I spoke to was one of anger and frustration, but also hope. Many were banging their heads against the wall, asking themselves how allegedly government-sanctioned militias could be allowed to attack the state and the people they were meant to be defending. How can the Libyan government protect the country from external threats when it can't even protect itself from those it has charged with defending Libya? How will these criminals be brought to justice? Indeed, the most common reaction I encountered came be summed up by: 'let them kill each other, then we will be rid of these militias and Libya can move on'.  

Whilst more killing is definitely not the solution, this anti-militia feeling is where the grain of hope lies. These attacks have been both violent and destructive. But they are being interpreted by many as the death throes of militias who have suddenly realised that they are no longer wanted in Libya. There is a long way to go before Libya's elusive army is powerful enough to truly enforce the government's will, yet there is hope that these attacks mark the end of the reign of the militias, rather than the start of a more destructive period for Libya.  

 

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