IS A MILITARY STRONGMAN NECESSARY IN LIBYA?
On the 17th February 2012 Libyans will celebrate the first anniversary of the Benghazi uprising which triggered the fall of Gaddafi. As they do so they may feel that their new leaders have been too slow to control the numerous revolutionary militias (known as thwars) formed during the civil war and have yet to disband. The militiamen argue that they fought to topple Gaddafi and are entitled to say who runs their country. Since they are heavily armed, some with artillery and tanks, they easily assert their authority because the regular army is weakened and there is no real police force. What is more, the Gaddafi regime destroyed civic society and outlawed political parties. Ordinary Libyans lack the democratic machinery to fill the power vacuum.
The capital, Tripoli, is a case in point. There are at least seven armed militias controlling the city, one of which is led by the sometime Islamist fighter, Abdul Hakim Belhadj. He fought the Russians in Afghanistan and now heads the Tripoli Military Council. He is loudly proclaiming that the British MI6 was complicit in torture. The leader of another group, Abdullah Ahmed Naker, recently claimed to have 22,000 armed men at his disposal and that his forces already controlled of 75 per cent of the capital, whereas Belhadj could only call on 2,000 armed supporters.
More significantly thwars from other regions of Libya control parts of the capital. One of them is from Misurata and has recently been in a gunfight with Belhaj’s militia. A further thwar is from the town of Zintan and it controls Tripoli airport. It is this Zintan militia which captured Gaddafi’s favourite son, Saif el Islam. He is still incarcerated in Zintan, apparently without access to a lawyer. The Berbers from the Gebel Nefusa also maintain a militia in Tripoli. Clearly they intend to see that the Berbers, long suppressed by Gaddafi, are not marginalised in the new Libya.
The provisional Libyan government seems to have abandoned Misurata to its militias of which there are thought to be 170 or so. The strongest is probably the Hablus Brigade which still has 500 militiamen at its disposal. The Misuratans appear to control a region stretching from the east of Tripoli to Sirte, Gaddafi’s old home town. We may yet find that a Misuratan militia executed Gaddafi.
Some of the militias have been accused of mistreating suspected Gaddafi loyalist. According to the UN Commission for Human Rights, there has been torture, extrajudicial executions and rape of both men and women. The medical charity, Doctors Without Frontiers, has refused to treat prisoners in Misurata jails where its volunteers have been asked to revive torture victims. According to the U.N., armed militias are holding as many as 8,000 prisoners suspected of being Gaddafi loyalists in 60 detention centres around the country.
The appearance of a Coalition of Libyan Thwars (revolutionaries) and a Cyrenaica Military Council to represent militias from several parts of Libya is disconcerting. Is it likely that a military strongman will soon emerge in Libya or will the country disintegrate into civil war again as Gaddafi predicted? Neither would be desirable.