On Saturday June 8, 31 people lost their lives and at least 80 were injured when protestors in Benghazi surrounded the headquarters of the government-sanctioned Libya Shield brigade. They were protesting against the continued existence of the militia and demanding that Libya Shield submit to the authority of Libya's official armed forces. Exactly how the protest escalated is not clear, but most reports claim that the militia started firing on protestors as they attempted to overrun their headquarters.
The Benghazi deaths prompted the increasingly unpopular Major-General Youssef al-Mangoush to resign as Libya's chief of staff as he was directly responsible for putting the Libya Shield brigades on the government payroll and overseeing their activities.
The scale and senselessness of this tragedy has shaken the country and a three day national mourning period was declared by the General National Congress (GNC) following the deaths. The protests were motivated by what has become a two-year-long struggle to force Libya's powerful militias to hand over the reins of military power to the state security forces, and the tragic demise of these protestors has underlined the corrosive effect that such 'official' armed groups are having on Libya's stability.
In the wake of the 2011 Revolution, Libya's transitional government was left with few means by which to impose its authority and maintain security given that its national army and police forces were still very much seen as the enemy. As a result Libya's victorious 'revolutionaries' were co-opted into filling Libya's security vacuum and a system of 'legal' militias evolved whereby armed groups nominally under the control of the government were given the authority to maintain law and order.
In the early days after the Revolution this system was widely accepted as a necessary stopgap while new recruits for the armed forces were trained and inducted, and most Libyans who had supported the revolution implicitly trusted these men as they were 'revolutionaries' and the heroes of the hour. However as time wore on, it became ever more apparent that with no revolution to fight, these largely autonomous groups of armed men were eschewing the needs and demands of the state in order to consolidate their own power, pursue their own agendas, and protect their interests.
Ali Zeidan's government has attempted to bring these militias directly under the control of the state by recruiting former 'revolutionaries' into the fledging police forces and national army. However this process has been slow and in some cases has done little to assuage the influence of powerful individuals as many new recruits are still loyal to their militia commanders. That said in recent weeks newly graduated Libyan forces have been far more visible on the streets, especially in Benghazi, and this has put more pressure on the militias to justify their continued existence when there are legitimate forces which could start to take over their role.
Libya is currently in a delicate stage of its transition. The state is weak, crippled by a deadlocked decision making process, political immaturity and a lack of institutional capacity, and there are many elements within Libya seeking to exploit this to their own advantage. While the constitution drafting process is finally moving slowly but surely forwards, there are many issues of injustice and inequality which have been swept underneath the rug in Libya's struggle for stability and progress.
Ultimately the Revolution was fought to achieve justice within Libyan society, and it was this noble cause which initially earned revolutionaries the trust and admiration of most Libyans. However, these same revolutionaries are now guilty of perpetuating that same culture of impunity and discrimination which they fought against, either directly through extra-legal interrogation, detention and punishment of suspects, or indirectly by undermining the ability of legitimate security forces to carry out their jobs.
There is now a clear and undeniable message from the Libyan people that they do not want these militias anymore. They want national security forces who are directly under the government's control and who can maintain rule and order according to the law, not according to their own interests or beliefs. Although most acknowledge that the Libyan forces are still very weak, the Benghazi tragedy has given added impetus to a desire for legitimacy over brute strength, especially when that strength is wielded against the Libyan people instead of in defence of them as was seen in Benghazi last week.