BENGHAZI – THE BATTLEGROUND FOR DEMOCRACY IN LIBYA
Late in November 2011, just after Gaddafi’s favourite son, Saif al Islam, had been captured trying to escape Libya and imprisoned in Zintan, I was allowed a four minute TV interview with George Alagaih on the BBC GMT program. As the interview was closing I attempted to persuade Mr Alagaih that Benghazi was likely to be a centre of unrest in future. I had, by this time, taken up my allotted four minutes and the producers instructed Mr. Alagaih to move on. He politely terminated the interview and I bolted from the studio. Since that interview a number of events have shown that there was some truth in my assertion.
The main obstacles to the rule of law in the city are the militias which were first raised to dislodge the Gaddafi regime but which have never been disbanded by a government which lacks a proper army and police force.
In December 2012 I attempted to summarise the reasons in this blog for the alarm I felt for the city in which I had lived and worked for so long as follows:
‘In Benghazi, Libya’s second city, senior police and military personnel are being summarily executed by persons unknown. The British Ambassador’s motorcade was attacked in broad daylight and still unresolved is the killing of US Ambassador Stephens, an event which upset the American people and which left a blemish on the career of Secretary Hillary Clinton. The killing was probably indented to provoke an attack on Libya by the US. The US wisely restrained its more hawkish leaders and acted with commendable, though clearly pained restraint. However, someone in Benghazi is seeking to paralyse the rule of law. There is talk of a Benghazi hit list and fear of retribution has silenced the people.
At last the democratically elected government under Prime Minister Dr Ali Zeidan has commenced to get a grip on events and the new interior minister, Ashour Shuwail, has set out his priorities, at the top of which is his intention to stop the Benghazi killings and find and punish the perpetrators.
Benghazi is a fiercely independent city but its people do not deserve the dreadful events which have marred recent months. They have given much for the future of Libya. The city was cordially hated by Gaddafi who neglected it in favour of his home town of Sirte. Despite (or because of) this it was Benghazi people who first had the courage to defy the Gaddafi regime and risk all to fight for a democratic government, a free press and an end to the repression and fear. Unless the security situation is resolved the wealth which is the right of its citizens will be denied them. Diplomats will avoid the city and normal commerce will be curtailed. Eastern Libya needs investment and its infrastructure is in critical need of repair and restoration.’
On 21st December 2012 I wrote this about a heroic attempt by the ordinary people in Benghazi to rid themselves of oppressive militias:
‘Following the ‘Save Benghazi’ rally on Friday 21st September hundreds of demonstrators arrived at the Salafist ‘Ansar Al-Sharia’ Militia headquarters on Nasr Square demanding the brigade leave immediately. Members of Ansar Al-Sharia who were acting as guards at Al-Jalaa hospital were also removed by protesters.
Around 80 or so protesters also took control of the headquarters of the Rafallah Al-Sahati brigade, located at a farm in Hawari district, some 15 kilometres from Benghazi’s city centre. The Ukba bin Nafi’a Brigade stronghold was also cleared of militiamen. Reports of injuries and probable fatalities during these clashes are yet to be verified. The Libyan police moved in quickly to occupy the bases.
Later, the Libyan National Army’s First Infantry brigade’s commander, Colonel Hamid Buheir has confirmed in Benghazi that the Ansar al Sharia militia has been disbanded. There are clearly militiamen still at large. The colonel was kidnapped by masked men from outside his house on Saturday morning. The Salafist kidnappers accused him of being a Kuffer and threatened his life. His kidnappers received a phone call from someone instructing them not to kill him. He was released by being thrown from a car on to a roundabout. It would be interesting to find out who made the telephone call. Five soldiers from Colonel Buheir’s First Infantry Brigade were found dead. They had been shot through the head with their arms tied behind their backs in the Hawiya district of Benghazi.
There are other significant questions which remain unanswered. How did the group who killed the US ambassador on 11th September know his travel plans? He was on a brief visit to Benghazi and his travel plans were said to be secret as was the location of the safe house in which he was to stay.
The Benghazi militias which are to be brought under formal military control appear to be the Rafallah Al-Sahati brigade, the Sidi Hussein Martyrs brigade, and the Abu Salim brigade. The Ansar Al-Sharia brigade has apparently agreed to disband. The Rafallah Al-Sahati Brigade is to be merged with the 17 February Brigade which has for some time submitted to government control as has the Libya Shield Brigade.’
A second attempt by citizens to rid Benghazi of overweening militias took place recently with disastrous results.This report dated 9th June 2013 appeared in the Libya Herald:
‘The Chief of Staff, Major-General Yousef Mangoush, has quit. He submitted in his resignation to Congress this afternoon (Sunday 9th June 2013) following yesterday’s bloody incident in Benghazi in which 31 people died in clashes between members of the First Brigade of the Libya Shield Forces (Deraa 1) and protestors who were demonstrating outside the brigade’s headquarters, demanding the force be disbanded……….Before resigning Mangoush put out a statement condemning what had happened and announced that the four Shield brigades in Benghazi would become army units.’
Following the dreadful killings the Libyan army’s Special Forces (the Saiqua Brigade) took control of the head quarters of the
First Battalion of the Libya Shield (Deraa 1). This seems to have been followed by armed attacks on military bases by assailants not yet identified. There are indications that a sabotage unit of Gaddfists may have been involved in the attacks. The situation is still confused.
In mid May 2013 Colonel Wanis Abu-Khamadah’s Thunderbolt Brigade shut down the Benghazi arms bazaar operating in the ‘Jinihin’ second hand market in Sidi Hussain. Not before time. Small arms were readily available and costing less and less as the market glutted.
Gaddafi’s appetite for arms was extraordinary and his arms depots have been systematically looted since his downfall. Libyan has become a major source of illegal arms exported eastwards into Egypt and Syria and south-westwards into the Sahel countries and Nigeria.
On 24th May Libyan Special Forces captured a truck attempting to leave Benghazi carrying of SAM – 7 heat seeking ground to air missiles. Gaddafi purchased some 20,000 SAM-7 of which it is estimated 14,000 were used. This leaves an estimated 6,000 still unaccounted for and causing some consternation as they are capable of bringing down civil airliners. There are plenty of customers for these lethal weapons in the Levant and the Sahel.
Update 18th June 2013
The government has to overcome this dreadful security problem. This may signal a start but time will tell
Update 21st June 2013
This balanced and well written piece on Benghazi and Eastern Libya and the discussions which follow it are definitely worth reading.
Update 26th June 2013
Another senior officer killed in Benghazi – and the emergence of a new threat. More later…
Update 3rd July 2013
More violence in Benghazi
Update 5th July 2013
A prominent Federalist military leader shot and wounded in Benghazi:
Update 6th July 2013
A bomb blast in a shopping street and an attempt on the French Honorary Consuls life:
Update 9th July 2013
Yet another ex Gaddafi colonel killed in Benghazi, this time with a car bomb.
Update 22nd July 2013
The killings go on. This time there appears to be a link with Derna:
Update 24th July 2013
A number of police stations in Benghazi have suffered bomb attacks. Some are suggesting the bombings are connected to the difficult question of land ownership. Gaddafi summarily took land from rightful owners and gave it to his supporters. This land ownership problem will bedevil Libya for some time to come.
Update 27th July 2013
Even more killings. Some are blaming the Moslem Brotherhood and Gaddafi Loyalists.
Update 29th July 2013
Two bombs detonated in Benghazi. This is turning very nasty and there does not seem to be a single reason for all the mayhem and carnage.
Update 31st July 2013
Another senior army officer killed in Benghazi
Update 2nd August 2013
This piece in the libya Herald records the serious disagreement which has broken out between the Interior Minister and the security services in Benghazi. The latter have accused the former of being clinically dead or otherwise controlled by some force bent on taking over Libya!
Further to all the above there is stunning news that the CIA may have been smuggling arms from Libya to Syrian rebels before Ambassador Stevens was killed. If this is true it is explosive news and may cause a great deal of discord in the US. See this piece in the British Daily Telegraph for further details:
Update 3rd August 2013
Yet another senior army officer killed in Benghazi with a car bomb.
……..and 900 Special Forces have been sent to Benghazi to try to restore order:
Update 4th August 2013
Libya’s Second Deputy Prime Minister Awad Barasi resigns, ostensibly because of the government’s failure to quell the violence i Benghazi. There is some speculation that he is playing the long game and intends to challenge Dr. Zedan for ge post of Prime Minister soon. He has connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Perhaps the formation of an inner cabinet (see below) will speed up the government response to the awful killings in Benghazi and elsewhere. We will see.
Update 7th August 2013
A very interesting development. The US has filed a murder charge against Ahmed Abu Khatala the leader of the Ansar Sharia militia – and believed to lead the Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah militia – for the murder of Ambassador Stevens. Mr. Khatala admits that he was in the US Consulate compound on the night Ambassador Stevens was killed but denies murder.
Update 10th August 2013
This is the best study (by the Human Rights Watch) of the situation in Benghazi to date
Update 13th August 2013
Yet another attempted assassination. This time a special forces colonel survives a car bomb attack.
Update 26th August 2013
This suggests that arrests have been made and suspects are being sent to Tripoli:
Update 27th August 2013
News of more arrests and of hospital A & E departments closing because of violence.