Ever-entrenched militias, political assassinations and massacres marked 2013 for Libya, a scene driven and compounded by interwoven ethnic, tribal and economic conflicts, writes Kamel Abdallah
December 19, 2013
'The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion ... but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do'
– Samuel P. Huntington
This past year brought a marked increase in violence throughout Libya, which does not bode well for this Arab Spring country. Violence began to escalate following the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the end of the war of liberation. By the end of 2012 it had reached a level that drove thousands of citizens to stage the "Friday to Save Benghazi" demonstration in protest against the proliferation of armed groups in that city. When protesters marched against the headquarters of the Ansar Al-Sharia militias in mid-December, the ensuing clash resulted in 11 dead and dozens wounded. That set the tone for 2013. In January, radical Islamists bristling with arms paraded through the city in a display of military strength. Another round of clashes erupted, causing three deaths and many injuries.
Targeted assassinations of military and security officers had already begun in July 2012 with the assassination of then Chief of General Staffs of the National Liberation Army Abdel-Fattah Al-Obeidi. General Al-Obeidi had been called back from Al-Bariqa front. Yet the actual source of that summons and the identity of the assassin remain unknown. In 2013, there have been more than 120 assassination attacks against former and present military and security personnel, political activists and judges. Perhaps the best-known incident was the drive-by shooting of the prominent political activist Abdel-Salam Al-Mismari in August as he was coming out of a mosque after Friday prayers.
The violence this year was at its most intense in Benghazi and Derna in the east, Tripoli, Al-Jamil and Raqdalin in the west, and in Al-Kafra and Sabha in the south. The flare-up of conflicts, for the most part tribal in nature, revealed long suppressed tensions in these areas, and the fear is that if they persist at the current rate they will jeopardise the future of the country as a whole.
During the first quarter of 2013, gun battles erupted between affiliates of the Tabu Al-Zawiya tribes in the vicinity of Al-Kafra in southeastern Libya. More than 20 were killed and over a 100 were wounded in the skirmishes. The conflict has ethnic and economic dimensions. The "Arab" Al-Zawiya tribes believe that the "African" Tabu, which have extensions in Chad, are bringing in fellow tribal members in order to create a new demographic balance with the Arabs in that area. They charge that the Tabu is forging Libyan identity papers for their relatives in Chad. The Tabu accuses the Zawiya of engaging in smuggling and human trafficking. In addition, Libyan Tabu leaders have accused the Arabs of waging a war of genocide against their tribes. Indeed, Eissa Abdel-Majid, perhaps the best-known Libyan Tabu leader, issued this charge against the Interim National Council that ruled in the first post-revolutionary phase. The council responded by ordering the arrest of Abdel-Majid in August 2012 on the charge of "disrupting the social peace", in spite of the fact that Abdel-Majid, himself, was a member of that council.
In spite of ongoing efforts to restore calm in that area, tensions between the Zawiya and Tibu still seethe and fighting between them can be sparked by the most trivial incident. The most recent flare up of violence occurred at the outset of December, following the abduction of five Libyan border guards near the Chadian border and the kidnapping of five camel herders from the Zawiya tribe.
In the northeast, the wave of political assassinations has remained unabated in Derna, now the foremost bastion of jihadist Salafis in Libya and, perhaps, the world, and in Benghazi, the bastion of the revolution against the Gaddafi regime. In addition to coming in for the lion’s share of targeted killings of army and security personnel, political activists and judges, Benghazi was also the scene of one of the worst massacres of civilians perpetrated by Libyan militias this year. On 5 July 2013, now referred to as Black Saturday, 43 civilians were killed and more than 500 were wounded when gunmen belonging to the so-called Libyan Shield 1 opened fire on demonstrators who had marched to their headquarters in the Kofiya neighbourhood of east Benghazi to demand the militia to leave the city. Citizens of Benghazi had grown suspicious of the Libyan Shield 1’s connections with Islamist extremists. Shortly before Black Saturday, they had heard reports that the Kofiya headquarters had hosted leader of Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb Mukhtar Belmukhtar, for whom Washington has posted a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Like virtually every incidence of militia violence in Libya, the Kofiya incident had a strong tribal dimension. The people of Benghazi believed that the Libyan Shield 1 regiment in their city was not working on behalf of their interests but on behalf of its suspected commanders in Misrata. In fact, they are not alone in this suspicion. That the leaders of all seven of the Libyan Shield divisions hail from Misrata has triggered considerable resentment among many Libyans who feel that that city has come to assert excessive control over developments in the country in the post-revolutionary phase.
Soon after Black Saturday in Benghazi, another battle with a tribal dimension erupted in Mazada, south of Tripoli, in July 2013, after a leader from the Qantirar tribe was killed by a gunman belonging the Mashashiya tribe. The fighting claimed 12 dead and numerous casualties on both sides. The animosity between the two tribes date back to the 1960s when the Qantirar accused the Gaddafi regime of dispossessing them of property that it then handed over to the Mashashiya tribe. Hostilities between them resurfaced during the Libyan revolution, during which the Mashashiya sided with the Gaddafi regime, especially after Mashashiya members in the Sahban Brigade, the largest of Gaddafi’s brigades at the time, attacked the Qantirar tribe.
Libya has a sizeable Amazigh minority, which is primarily concentrated in the northwest of Libya and which was also an active force in the revolution. In the post-revolutionary power vacuum, this formed another facet in the political conflicts with ethnic/tribal dimensions. A notable instance occurred in May in the Raqdalin and Al-Jamil areas west of Tripoli where gun battles between Amazigh and Arab tribes competing over zones of influence and other interests resulted in numerous casualties. Around this time, fighting erupted again in the south, between the Tibu and the Suleiman tribes after a member of the latter was killed by a member of the former.
Apparently, there was even an ethnic/tribal element involved in the explosion at a large Libyan Army weapons depot in the vicinity of Sibha in the Libyan south. According to official sources, it was the Arab and African tribal members involved in thefts of weapons from this warehouse who set off the explosion that killed more than 20 people.
It was only natural that the capital would vie with Benghazi in numbers of political assassinations. It would also soon follow suit with the Tripoli version of Benghazi’s Black Saturday. In November, residents in the capital staged a demonstration to protest the continued presence of militias in their midst with rising incidents of shootouts between them and the intimidation and rights violations these militias inflicted on residents themselves. On this occasion, protesters marched into Gharghour, an upscale neighbourhood in Tripoli where one of the militias from Misrata had established their headquarters in the capital. In an exact replica of the Kofiya massacre, the militiamen opened fire randomly into the crowd of demonstrators, killing 48 and wounding more than 500.
Needless to say, all the deaths and injuries were caused by live ammunition of which the militias have abundant stores. Video footage aired on Libyan television documents the array of light and heavy weaponry in the hands of all militias and that militiamen will use as readily against civilians as against their rivals.
As horrific as this tragedy was, it did contain an element of poetic justice. The organisers of the protests had wanted certain militias in particular cleared out of the capital. They had in mind the militias from Zintan, which were vying over zones of control with the Misrata militias. But the demonstrators did not discriminate. They wanted to rid the capital of all militia tyranny and they headed to the nearest source at hand, which happened to be located in Gharghour where the Misrati militias had made themselves at home in the mansions and villas of former officials of the Gaddafi regime. In the aftermath of the massacre, much to the consternation of those that had organised the demonstrations, public anger suddenly honed in on the Misrata militias and the overbearing role of Misrata authorities in post-revolutionary Libya.
In the face of the popular outcry, Misrata announced that it would withdraw its militias from the capital. At the same time, however, it froze the membership of its representatives in the General National Council (GNC) and the interim government headed by Ali Zeidan — an action that threatened to further obstruct the transitional process. Nevertheless, following numerous attempts on the part of various officials or tribal leaders to mediate with officials in Misrata’s local municipal, military and Shura councils, Misrata yielded to this pressure as well. On 15 November, it unfroze the membership of its representatives in the GNC and the government, "so they can take part in building the new Libya," as a statement issued by the three Misrata councils put it.
Although some Libyans held that the withdrawal of the Misrata militias distorted the "balances of power and terror" in the capital, the Zeidan government seized this opportunity to push for the withdrawal of all the rest of the militias. Backed by an unprecedented level of public support, the government was able to force the GNC to issue a law requiring all militia groups to evacuate the capital and prohibiting weapons other than those in the hands of the army and police. For the first time since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, residents of the capital were able to see the deployment of the first core of a national army and police force in the streets of Tripoli.
After two years of political turmoil, violence and the proliferation of gunmen in most cities, Libyans throughout the country long for a return to peace and security, and they pray that the government will take advantage of the groundswell of popular support to eliminate the militias from the political and security scenes. The Zeidan government also received encouragement towards this end from the EU and the US, which have announced their readiness to help Libya restore security.
However, the challenge is complex and formidable. As the many incidents of violence that have punctuated this year have shown, conflicts in Libya are shaped by numerous interwoven ethnic, tribal, economic and other factors. The massacres that culminated popular demonstrations to eliminate militias from the cities of Benghazi and Tripoli not only underscored how entrenched the militias have become, but also threw into relief the diverse political, tribal and regional layers of this phenomenon. Moreover, the proliferation of Islamist extremist groups throughout the country further aggravates the situation.
With respect to EU and US offers to help, a recent development highlighted Libyan sensitivities on this score. Earlier this month, the UN Security Council announced its approval in principle to send in a security team to protect the premises and personnel of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in light of the increased threat of terrorist attacks and because of the inability of Libyan security forces to perform that function. The decision sparked concern and anger in some Libyan quarters that felt this was a prelude to foreign intervention, in spite of the fact that, as Libyan authorities pointed out, according to the agreement signed between the Libyan government and UNSMIL, the UN has the right to furnish its own security personnel to protect its premises and personnel.
In short, if Libya’s foremost problem is its deteriorating state of security, the convolutions of its political crisis are conspiring to make it an increasingly intractable one.