Libya's Restive Revolutionaries

by Nicolas Pelham | published June 1, 2012

Beneath a golden canopy lined with frilly red tassels and vaulted with chandeliers, hundreds of militiamen from across Libya gathered at a security base in Benghazi, the launch pad of their anti-Qaddafi revolution, at the end of April and called for another uprising. After a lunch of mutton and macaroni, a nod to their former Italian masters, one belligerent revolutionary after another took to the podium to lambast Libya’s would-be governors, the National Transitional Council (NTC). “Thuwwar (revolutionaries) of Libya unite!” cried the chairman, beseeching his fellows to reclaim the country from those who had stolen the revolution. These are no idle threats. My lunch companion from Jufra, one of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s former garrison towns in central Libya, claimed to have 600 tanks under his command. If push came to shove, the militias could overpower the fledgling forces the NTC have at their disposal.

While the militiamen flaunt their might, they seem less confident of public support. No one at the swashbucklers’ Congress mentioned the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 19, as the means of being catapulted to power. Rather, for many the new assembly threatens to transfer authority away from those who “paid the price of the revolution” to elected representatives. “They are afraid that an elected government will limit their voice,” says Milad al-Hawti, a recruit to the Benghazi branch of the Supreme Security Commission. If the thuwwar are to make a bid for power, their window of opportunity is now, while the NTC -- with its less than solid legitimacy -- still holds the constitutional reins.

No Heroes’ Welcome

Friction between the civilian and military arms of the revolution has been brewing since the first days of the February 2011 uprising, when a nascent civilian leadership, the NTC, struggled to establish a semblance of governance over liberated territories. To stand up its authority in the face of a plethora of anarchic rival groups of thuwwar under its wing, and prepare for a smooth transition, the NTC reached out to defecting old regime commanders and their forces. But what the NTC viewed as a professional corps, able to stabilize a post-Qaddafi era, the thuwwar saw as a fifth column riddled with Qaddafi loyalists bent on denying them ownership of the revolution for which they had risked their lives. In July 2011, militiamen killed Maj. Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, Qaddafi’s former interior minister, whom the NTC had appointed commander-in-chief of rebel forces.

As relations spiraled downward, the thuwwar began to tar the NTC with the same brush. Spokesmen and leaders were denounced as pretenders and holdovers from jama‘at Sayf, Sayf’s gang, a reference to the coterie of apparatchiks who surrounded Sayf al-Islam, the late colonel’s favored son, and filled the ranks of the last Qaddafi-era governments. Determined to thwart the resurrection of the old order that had hobbled them, the thuwwar posed increasing challenges to the NTC’s self-appointed role as the revolution’s moral arbiters. For its part, the NTC viewed the militiamen less as liberators than as looters and hooligans, whose celebrations traumatized Tripolitanians for weeks with their firing of heavy weapons throughout the night. When the thuwwar finally conquered Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the NTC stymied their plans for a triumphal march through Tripoli with the promise of a heroes’ welcome in Benghazi. The welcome never materialized, leaving the militias aggrieved and determined to settle the score.

The tensions between those advocating for retaining a functioning authority and those bent on building a new order from scratch mirror those that coursed through Iraq after America’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. While the thuwwar champed at the bit for a Libyan version of debaathification, and the expunging of a rotten regime, the NTC focused on rapid stabilization using the preexisting machinery of government. The first NTC members to arrive in Tripoli following its August 2011 fall came armed with a stabilization plan, which in its opening paragraphs pronounced its determination to avoid the pitfalls of debaathification. Yet without the support of the militias that conquered the capital, the plan remained ink on paper. Within three months, the NTC’s then-prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, an erstwhile confidante of Sayf al-Islam, and the architect of his stabilization team, ‘Arif Nayid, had resigned and left the country.

In the absence of an NTC security apparatus, the thuwwar served as an essential stopgap and a buffer preventing pro-Qaddafi commanders from filling the vacuum. Often recognizing what was already a fait accompli, the NTC outsourced security to local military councils -- the political arms of local militias -- and carved up control of the country’s 3,700 miles of borders among allied militia commanders. In the absence of a state criminal justice system, it also devolved its penal prerogatives to the militias. In January 2012, the UN reported that the militiamen were holding more than 7,000 detainees.

With no operational judicial service, thousands continue to languish in their cells. Commanders wield the powers of policeman, judge and, in several documented cases, executioner. “You do not have a government press card,” said Faraj Suwayhili, a Misrata militia leader after interrupting an interview on the reasons why he had arrested two British journalists to explain he was doing the same to me. (He claimed they had been Iranian agents, based on their video log sheet, which he insisted was a secret code.) To mark their allegiance, his fighters had pinned a Libyan dinar to the door of the dean’s office of the Tripoli Army College he had requisitioned and reverentially stuck a cutout of one of his Misratan forefathers in place of Qaddafi’s portrait. “He’s not supposed to be in the city,” a security official later told me of Suwayhili. “We have asked the rogue to leave.”

Teething Problems

The NTC’s efforts to claw back central control have been fraught. Jibril’s replacement, ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Kib, is a self-effacing professor with an oversized sense of his own lack of legitimacy. “Not before the elections” has become a mantra for all requests to revamp the old bureaucratic procedures for everything from tendering contracts for public housing to issuing visas to foreign journalists. As a result, what government exists is for the most part a relic of the old. Ministers admit their lack of control over a recalcitrant middle management steeped in decades of Qaddafism. Though the government has nominally hiked salaries, tens of thousands of new employees have gone without payment for months, puncturing popular good will.

Moreover, the NTC’s lack of transparency has undermined public trust in its dispersal of estimated monthly oil revenues of $5 billion and a further $200 billion of Libyan investments. Originally comprised of nine members, it now numbers 86, spawning new members without any clear process for appointments. Even its employees find it opaque. “I have no idea who the NTC is,” says a security official. “We don’t know their names. We don’t have their CVs. Many think that the bulk are remnants of the old regime.”

On paper, the Defense Ministry can claim to have made significant strides toward reestablishing the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Defense Minister Usama Juwayli speaks of plans for a 100,000-man army, of whom, he says, 70 percent will come from the former armed forces and 25 percent from demobilized thuwwar. The Supreme Security Council, the Interior Ministry agency tasked with recruiting Libya’s security forces, says 32,000 of Qaddafi’s 88,000-strong police force have returned to work, providing the bulk of some 50,000 men it claims it can field. A further 28,000, says a Council official, are in training, including some 13,000 in Jordan.

While reviving its own institutions, the government has dealt with continued thuwwar activity as a threat to stability. The government has also made visible efforts to clear cities of the thuwwars’ checkpoints and reclaim their most lucrative holdings, particularly the ports, border terminals and airports. In mid-April, after months of painstaking negotiation and several false starts, it recovered control of Tripoli’s international airport from Zintan’s militia, and its inner-city airport, Benita, from Souq al-Juma‘, the militia of a central Tripoli suburb. As evidence of the restoration of normality, the Council official claims that on average police respond to emergency calls to their 1515 number within ten minutes.

In an attempt to project their reach beyond the capital, senior army commanders have intensified tours of outlying areas, sweet-talking tribes and enjoining their support. In the Saharan town of Sabha, I lunched with silver-haired Khalifa Haftar, the former commander of Qaddafi’s brutal war against Chad who subsequently fled into US exile, and hundreds of tribesmen sitting on foam mattresses on the floor of a local chief from the Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe. After the requisite mutton, he gave a terse address appealing for the support “to stop the fitna,” or rebellion, before speeding away at the helm of a 30-car military convoy.

But teething problems abound. Tensions run high between old regime forces and thuwwar recruits, admit Supreme Security Council officials. “The thuwwar refuse to accept the old police because they worked with Qaddafi and are corrupt,” says one. The former suspect the latter of residual loyalties to, if not open collaboration with, former regime stalwarts, many of whom, including the colonel’s children -- Saadi in Niger and Aisha in Algeria -- remain active abroad. Conversely, a pall of suspicion hangs over the thuwwar. Officials fear many have been integrated into the state security structures not as individuals but as units. Despite the fanfare that accompanied the Zintan militia’s handover of the airport to state control, Libyan officials say many donned the new uniforms, painted their cars an official red and white, and kept their positions. At other ports and airports, even the appearance of a handover was a step too far. As I boarded a plane at Benghazi airport, a car bearing the insignia of the Free Libya Martyrs Brigade taxied alongside.

A salafi acolyte hired by the Supreme Security Council in Benghazi to soothe animosities appeals to prophetic precedent. If Khalid bin Walid, commander of Mecca’s army of unbelievers who fought the Prophet Muhammad before his Muslim conversion, was later good enough to be Muhammad’s lieutenant, and subsequently conquered Syria for Islam, how can the thuwwar reject their own countrymen, he asks. “Libya does not have enough native experts to throw them away,” he pleads.

Ruling the Roost

Tense inside the corps, the thuwwar seethe with anger outside it. Restrictions on access to jobs, due to the NTC’s preference for the fulul, or dregs, of the old regime, are compounded by a government order disbanding the militias, aimed at stripping them of the employment they already have. Others fume at the arrival of foreign private security companies jostling for contracts and the outsourcing of Libya’s national defense, a task they believe should rightfully be theirs. (Aegis, a London-based security company showered with contracts by the US-led coalition in Iraq, says it is bidding for a contract to establish a border force, worth over $5 billion.) Demands for a Libyan version of debaathification abound. As he rolls a cigarette, Husayn Qarish, a garage mechanic who joined Misrata’s militia, wistfully eyes a post in the diplomatic corps, tracking Qaddafi’s former cohorts in Libya’s embassies. “We want to enter the ministries and cleanse them from the regime,” he says.

Compounding the threat to livelihoods is the challenge to identities. While government forces interviewed in Kufra appeared sensitive to ethnic differences, thuwwar from the periphery detect the return of centralization tendencies aimed at replacing the lid on the ethnic identity politics that has exploded since the dictator’s overthrow. A delegation of Berbers, or Imazighen as they prefer to be known, complains that the government only appointed an Amazigh minister after a month of protests. “They promised to give us our rights when we were the first to rise up in the Nafusa Mountains, and they needed us,” says a delegate from Ifren, an Amazigh stronghold nestled in the mountains. “They lied.” In a worrying sign of provincial aversion to the NTC, feuding tribes opt less for NTC intervention than for tribal mediation to resolve their differences. To the NTC’s consternation, two feuding towns near the Tunisian border -- Riqdalin and Zuwara -- summoned a tribal lajnat sulh, or reconciliation committee, consisting of 70 elders drawn from 20 tribes across Libya, to negotiate a truce. In the Saharan city of Sabha, community leaders intervened to curb ethnic violence, long before government arrived on the scene.

The anger is at its most visceral in Benghazi, the crucible of the uprising against Qaddafi. As soon as Tripoli fell, Libya’s new leaders rushed to the plusher capital, abandoning Benghazi much as under Qaddafi. “Almost everyone has moved to Tripoli,” says one of the few remaining foreign consuls. One year on, exuberance has turned to despair. The city droops, without signs of renewal. As I left Benghazi, guards at the Central Bank were seeking to appropriate a shipment of cash bound for Tobruk, a port to the east. The cranes are motionless, testimony to the flight of all but half a million of an estimated 3.5 million foreign workers. Even so, Libyans protest that employers prefer the trickle of Asian migrants to local hires. Bangladeshis weed the roadsides and clean the oil company’s offices. While Libyans groan at unemployment, the radio broadcasts news of the labor minister’s deal to import Sudanese workers. A fighter from Shahat, a Green Mountain town where black prisoners were incarcerated on suspicion of fighting for Qaddafi, vents his fury at sub-Saharans. “We don’t want Africans in our country spreading diseases. Get out. Allahu akbar.”

Government attempts to buy the thuwwars’ loyalty have similarly fallen awry. At the revolutionaries’ Congress, the bulk of the demands are material -- the restoration of handouts and coverage for medical treatment abroad -- and driven as much by the NTC’s refusal to share Libya’s spoils as its errant ideology. A doctor documents how Health Ministry clerks and Libyan diplomats bill the government for $30,000 for a visit to a Viennese dentist and pocket the difference. The only female speaker -- a businesswoman turned Boadicea who claims to have fired the first shots at Sirte in a bid to revive the flagging front -- hounds the government for going on holiday with the stipends allocated for treating the war wounded abroad. A one-off handout of 4,000 dinars for married fighters, and 2,800 for bachelors, was seen as derisory compensation for risking their lives. But even that was suspended after the scheme attracted hundreds of thousands of applicants, far in excess of the estimated 10,000 who actually took up arms against Qaddafi. Again, she blamed the corrupt order the NTC had established, after news broke that 66 government officials had been dismissed on suspicion of awarding themselves much of the 1.8 billion dinars in payouts.

For many, the NTC’s decision to suspend thuwwar payments in response to the fraud was the final straw. Protests escalated into active resistance. In Darna, in eastern Libya, the newly NTC-appointed military commander was shot dead at a petrol station the day before he was due to take charge. The armored car of the UN representative, Ian Martin, came under attack as it drew up outside Benghazi’s Supreme Security Council offices for talks on security sector reform. Militiamen rushed the state prison cell where the authorities were holding Younis’ suspected assassins, and when that attempted incursion failed, hurled a bomb at its gates. The prime minister’s office came under repeated attack, most recently on May 8 when 200 armed men attempted to storm it as al-Kib was meeting his defense minister. One of al-Kib’s bodyguards was killed. Fearing for their lives, ministers and NTC members toy with resignation. Gunfire cuts through the late evening chatter at the Rixos, Tripoli’s luxury hotel where the NTC have taken up residence. “Drunkards,” apologizes a minister.

Meanwhile, decrees such as the order to disband militias, effective as of April 2, remain largely ink on paper. Government predictions that the term militia would disappear from Libya’s lexicon within two months are proving fanciful. Even in Tripoli, where the government’s grasp on security is most advanced, rogue militias continue to occupy key military installations in defiance of NTC demands that they leave. Bereft of government incomes, militiamen seek alternative sources of revenue, targeting real estate. The term “holy property” peppers the capital’s prime properties. When asked, militiamen cite a Qur’anic verse, insisting that the Prophet licensed spoils of war. The religious affairs minister grouses that he is powerless to prevent fanatics from capturing the country’s mosques, because he lacks a militia of his own.

In the provinces, the thuwwar largely rule the roost. Many a militia can outgun the army, if only because they looted the arms depots first, and their composite forces can reach trouble spots faster and in larger numbers than their army counterparts. Orders to the Zintan militia to hand over the country’s prime captive, Sayf al-Islam, go unanswered, despite the government’s much publicized construction of a high-security cell. And at a celebratory parade, the militia of the Awlad Sulayman, an Arab tribe in the southwestern town of Sabha, fielded 50 tanks and scores of Grad rockets. Government efforts to assert order by dispatching their forces following eruptions of violence near the Tunisian and Sahel borders have been challenged by militias who converge on the flashpoints faster and in larger numbers. At Kufra, a trading post near the Chadian border, the Libyan Shield, a composite force of seven militias, defied army efforts to separate the warring parties, intervening alongside the Zuwayy, the local Arab tribe, against the black Toubou. Although the army ordered a ceasefire, the Libyan Shield sped through the streets flying the Prophet Muhammad’s black flag of jihad from its antennae.

“Everyone Is Buying Arms”

How genuine the thuwwar themselves are remains a moot question. Allegations of infiltration by former regime personnel seeking to disguise their real identities are widespread. While militias elsewhere have rushed to whitewash the obsessive green of Qaddafi’s cult, no one at the Congress griped at the auditorium’s pea-green seats or bothered to repaint the podium’s green backdrop. Many participants hailed from parts of Libya that were the last to fall to the rebels. Alongside the Jufra commander with 600 tanks was a delegation from Sirte. Plumped on the sofa of the Rixos hotel, Labor Minister Mustafa Rujbani says the list of thuwwar he received seeking government posts was riddled with duplicates and fictional names. A member of the NTC’s military committee, who claims that no more than 7,000 fought Qaddafi’s forces, says anyone who cried “Allahu akbar” added their name.

Given their diversity, it is hard to detect clear lines of leadership. Even at the Congress, rival militias who had traveled from Kufra drew guns in the lobby. My former taxi driver, Mustafa Ruba‘a, an oil technician from Brega who used to drive me there in his slacks in the early months of the civil war, when the port refinery was constantly switching hands, resurfaced as the Congress organizer. I had known him as a gentle family man, but he had many guises, not least, according to NTC officials, orchestrating Maj. Gen. Younis’ killing. He now wears a dapper corduroy suit.

It might be that, as frustration mounts and the dash for assets intensifies, the militias will turn on each other. A month after the Awlad Sulayman’s military pageant they put their tanks to use by shelling the shanties and shacks of Toubou. In the southeast, Arab militias battle against the black Toubou for control of the smuggling routes to Sudan and Chad, lobbing mortars into each other’s residential quarters in fighting that has left hundreds dead. (Few figures are available for the size of the contraband, but if Libya consumed all the fuel and flour it produces its lean population would be among the world’s most obese: According to government figures, each week Libyans fill their tanks twice and consume 37 loaves of bread. Sub-Saharan demand for weapons from Qaddafi’s looted armories boosts the earning potential of the smugglers.) In the West, border skirmishes for control of the trafficking to Tunisia have kindled a blaze of ethnic clashes between Arabs and Imazighen. “Everyone is afraid and everyone is buying arms. The NTC and the government are too weak to protect us,” says ‘Isa al-Hamisi, a filmmaker from the Amazigh coastal town of Zuwara.

That said, the prospect cannot be discounted that the thuwwar could yet marshal their forces into an overt challenge to central authority. In the Congress’ final session, the thuwwar articulate their anger as political demands: a united militia -- or Revolutionary Coalition -- to protect the revolution; a refusal to hand over weapons “to those who try to kill us,” that is, the armed forces dominated by former regime commanders; and a rejection of the government’s plan to dismantle militias, insisting it be delayed until the constitutional process is complete, sometime in 2013 at the earliest. “The thuwwar are afraid that if they abandon their weapons, Qaddafi’s henchmen will strike back,” says Suwayhili, the Misrata militia leader. Paralleling the Libyan Shield in the east, militias in the west have formed a composite 1,750-man force drawn from 20 militias. “Is the trend toward the breakdown into warring parties or the steady assertion of state authority?” asks a veteran foreign official, trying to remain positive.

Election Day Approaches

The government is clearly alive to the dangers that isolated attacks could mushroom into a broader insurgency, possibly uniting two sets of discontents -- thuwwar and former regime loyalists -- in a marriage of convenience against the new order. Libya’s vacuum provides ample space for fresh alliances. Unable to overcome the thuwwar, the NTC have recently sought to coopt them. Jettisoning such designations as outlaws, NTC chairman Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil has reportedly blamed the government for “not absorbing the revolutionaries.” The NTC has offered the thuwwar blanket amnesties for misconduct during the war, restored the handouts, sanctioned the intervention of composite militia forces in such trouble spots as Bani Walid, a former regime garrison town, and backed the creation of a Patriotism and Integrity Commission, Libya’s version of Iraq’s debaathification commission, designed to vet electoral candidates and government officials.

Wooing the thuwwar carries risks. By empowering them, the government may be simply buying time in the short term but stoking more serious problems in the long run. More constructively, it should accelerate plans to stimulate provincial economies, in an effort to integrate the thuwwar not only in the security sector, but also back in the economic sectors from which they say they came. Officials protest that they can hardly solicit investment when the security situation is so unstable, but the government has copious funds of its own to kick-start the economy. The revival of a credible criminal justice system, too, could do much to restore confidence in central authority. With some notable exceptions, Libya has mercifully sidestepped a surfeit of revenge killings, but without some form of truth and reconciliation commission, instances of people taking justice into their hands (given the partial government control, at best) are likely to mount.

As critical to filling the security, economic and judicial vacuum is the realization of the constitutional agenda. If central authority is to take root and Libya transit from revolution to reconstruction, it will need a government with sufficient legitimacy to withstand the centrifugal forces of the militias. An elected government will enjoy a popular mandate to overhaul Qaddafi’s inheritance that the NTC has largely shunned for over a year.

In a country with no history of a secret ballot, skeptics abound. “In Egypt and Tunisia, elections were forged, but at least we knew what they were,” says an Egyptian training enthusiastic election monitors. “Libyans have no idea.” Moreover, as election day approaches, some thuwwar, too, fearing that time is running out for their hope of reclaiming the country’s mantle, might consider a direct bid for power, or at least an outbreak of havoc that temporarily derails the election. Thuwwar spokesmen claim to have mustered support from 50 NTC members to overturn the election law. More locally, some could consider force to prevent a loss of power. An Arab candidate in Murzuq, near Sabha, was shot dead. Heightening communal tensions in Kufra, a Toubou member of the electoral commission resigned, in protest at lack of registration forms for his community. “Who will respect the results, when everyone has a gun?” asks an Amazigh activist from Zuwara.

Yet so far the electoral process has proceeded remarkably smoothly. The Electoral Commission has registered over 70 percent of an estimated 3.4 million eligible voters in three weeks, exceeding UN and government targets. In contrast to Iraq, which was ruled by America in the aftermath of dictatorship, Libyans -- thuwwar included -- have one great advantage: a sense of ownership of their country’s destiny and the responsibility that comes with it. Amid no small amount of xenophobia -- befitting a country with vast wealth, a small population and oversized fear of predatory scavengers -- external players have sensibly stayed out of sight. For all the hand wringing and post-civil war bloodletting, Libya might just pull through.

Filed under: