The sight of pickup trucks loaded with armed men wearing military fatigues is not an uncommon sight in the area where I live in Tripoli as my house is a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the General National Congress. I often see their vehicles screeching along the main roads towards the parliament, although it is often difficult to know whether they are racing to defend their MPs from protesters or whether they themselves are the protesters.
However a few days ago I saw something new; there were the same standard pickup trucks followed by a car with flashing sirens, but the men hanging out of the windows had their faces covered by black balaclavas and were turning not towards the GNC building, but towards a down-at-heel residential area full of dirt roads and tightly packed houses. To me the sight was slightly unnerving, but the gaggle of young boys on the road opposite me clearly felt differently as they were cheering and pumping their fists in the air as the cars passed.
I made further enquiries about these masked men and discovered they were part of a brigade which is attempting to crack down on Tripoli’s growing drug trade. It is nearly two years since the Libyan Revolution ended and the lack of any real police force or national army has allowed crime and drug dealing to flourish. Indeed the Ministry of Interior recently announced that the murder rate has increased by 500% since 2010[i], a figure which many feel reflects an increasing number of armed drug and gang related crimes in the capital. Another claim is that the increase in crime and murder is partly due to the number of criminals released by Gaddafi in the early stages of the revolution, criminals who are still at large.
Drugs and alcohol are illegal in Libya but with porous southern borders and lax policing there has definitely been increased visibility of the substances on the streets. As a result, some brigades are taking the law into their own hands and targeting known drug dealers and their associates in an attempt to bring the problem under control.
Such activities seem to have been on the rise in recent weeks. There have been various raids on alcohol and drugs suppliers across the city, and on New Year’s Eve there was a clear warning to revellers that loud, alcohol-fuelled parties would not be tolerated. The brigades running these drug raids are covering their faces in order to protect their identities and are taking those they catch prisoner.
Needless to say opinion within Tripoli over these self –proclaimed protectors of the peace is divided. As of the New Year, autonomous brigades are no longer meant to exist, whether affiliated to the Supreme Security Council (SSC), the umbrella organisation for government-approved brigades, or not. The SSC was officially disbanded at the end of 2012 and former revolutionaries are being encouraged to join the army or police forces as individuals. However the process has been far from smooth and there are still many brigades acting independently, without accountability to the government.
On the one hand there are some that see these brigades as dangerous vigilantes whose activities are detrimental to Libya’s stability. This last week in Tripoli has seen gun fights between brigades targeting drug dealers and the alleged drug dealers themselves. As with any such fight in Libya, rumours often cloud the truth of who did what and why, but there are those that see the actions of these brigades is seen as unacceptable. The brigadesmen do not identify themselves, they do not provide evidence as to why they are arresting people and once arrested prisoners have no official recourse to justice. Whether their aims are noble or not, many take the views that any armed group working to their own agenda is a militia and their actions can only result in harm.
On the other hand, there are a significant number of Libyans who wholeheartedly support the anti-drugs tirade of these brigades. Libyans are proud of their country and many are saddened and angered to see it being corrupted by drugs and alcohol. For them these brigades are doing the brave, honourable thing by taking on the job that the police and army are currently too weak to do. I have spoken to many Libyans who have this point of view, and they argue that although it is not ideal to have militias taking the law into their own hands, something must be done to curb the growing drugs problem in Tripoli. They lament the fact that the state is still so weak, but they don’t think criminals should be left to act with impunity until such time that the government can effectively enforce law and order.
Libyans want stability. They want to live in a clean, safe, free society where rule of law and justice is paramount. However given the turmoil of the past few years and the weakness of the government, opinion is clearly divided over the best way to ensure such a society can blossom. Is it by handing over all power to the state and hoping they are strong enough to carry Libya forward even though current evidence seems to suggest otherwise, or is it by citizens themselves seeking to apprehend criminals until such time that the state proves it is capable of doing the job?