Shortly after Libya was officially liberated from Colonel Gaddafi back in October 2011, the spirit of revolution was in the air. The sight of young men in mismatching military uniforms manning check points with Russian rifles slung casually over their shoulders and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths was a sight which inspired pride, confidence and solidarity from swathes of the Libyan population. The ‘thuwar’ (revolutionaries) were seen as the heroes of the hour. They were giving up their time, security and often lives in order to protect the newly liberated Libyan state. They were a tangible indicator that the revolution and its gains were being defended at all costs.
Fast forward nearly a year to the present day and the same men can be seen lounging by checkpoints, blocking roads, or increasingly, brandishing their weapons to demand their rights as ‘thuwar’, the defenders of Libya’s revolution. Over the last few months some fighters have gone back to civilian life, some have been assimilated into the fledgling National Army and Police forces and the rest have stayed within their close-knit brigades. These brigades, or militias as they are now being labelled, have either been brought nominally under the control of the Ministries of Defence and Interior, or have been left on the periphery to do as they please.
In a state fractured by war, awash with weapons and hampered by decades old suspicions about the police and army, the ‘thuwar’ were crucial in maintaining a semblance of security during the early days of new Libya. However events have moved on and as the state has attempted to exert more control over Libya, the role of these onetime rebels and revolutionaries has been called into question. These armed men think, act and make demands on the basis that they are revolutionaries, yet there is no longer a revolution to be fought.
Libya now has an elected congress who have a mandate to lead their country through the next stage in its transition. The moment they took power, the unofficial mandate of the ‘thuwar’ to protect the revolution should have been terminated. The situation may not be ideal but the outcome of the revolution was the 200 elected representatives who now make up the National Congress. They may be successful, they may not, but they should be given a fair chance to do their job and try to lead Libya to calmer waters. To do this effectively they need Libya’s armed forces to do their bidding and implement their decisions.
However, as has been made starkly obvious over the summer months, many ‘thuwar’ have no intention of submitting to the will of the elected government, nor of giving up their mantle of ‘defenders of the revolution’. Sufi shrines were destroyed with the support of the Supreme Security Council, (a Ministry-controlled brigade), members of the SSC threatened to blow up a hotel over grievances with the government and the American ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack allegedly led by Libyan brigade Ansar al-Sharia. Instead of protecting the road to Libya’s future, these brigades are now the biggest obstacle preventing the country from moving forward.
Reports of extrajudicial killings, torture and detention without trial have become all too familiar in post conflict Libya, yet it is the same ‘thuwar’ who apparently fought for freedom, human rights and an end to repressive rule who are now the ones imposing their own reign of tyranny. Some are flagrantly abusing the human rights of others while demanding their own rights at gunpoint. Once the heroes of the story, they have now become the villains.
If these thuwar-turned-militiamen need proof that they have lost their popular support, the 30,000 to 40,000 people who came on to the streets of Benghazi on Friday, September 21, to demand the end of militia rule should be enough. That night four brigades were driven out of their barracks by protesters and subsequently disbanded by the army. The following day an agreement was made between political and military figures and militia leaders to disband unruly militias and bring the rest fully under government control.
However, implementing this agreement will not prove easy. These militias have spent the last year commanding power and influence often through intimidation and persuading them to give up these privileges will be tough, especially as they are all armed. There is also a worry that while smaller rogue brigades will be disbanded, larger ones will remain relatively unaffected. The prime minister-elect Mohammed Magriaf has said army commanders will be put in charge of all brigades including the two major forces in Benghazi, 17th February and Libya Shield. These brigades, like the SSC in Tripoli, are already nominally under government control but remain largely autonomous. Many complaints in recent months have centred around the apparently separate and increasingly Islamist agendas of these brigades.
There is a danger that over the next few weeks, the weaker more volatile brigades will be disbanded while the influential brigades that represent the real threat to Libya’s future will remain untouched. As congress men and women in Benghazi pointed out on Thursday, it is the fact that separate brigades still exist that is the problem. Whilst their autonomous command structures still exist, it is unlikely that the government will be able to eliminate outside influence and ensure that orders are followed accurately. All brigades must be disbanded and their members assimilated into the army or police as individuals. If this happens, Libya can begin to build the foundations of a strong, obedient national army and police force. However it is remains to be seen whether there is any carrot attractive enough to persuade these powerful militias to relinquish their control, and if not whether the Libyan state can wield a big enough stick to force them to follow their instructions.