Libya’s Anti-Militia Movement


How can Libya be fixed? Since Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown two years ago, violent competition between different regional militias and the weak central government has frustrated the hopes of the nationalist revolution that brought him down. But that could be about to change.

It turns out that a massacre of peaceful protestors may have been the game-changer Libya needed. On November 15th, the Nosoor Battalion, a militia unit from Misrata, opened fire on a column of unarmed protesters marching on the unit’s base in the Souq al-Jumaa neighborhood of Tripoli.  The protestors were demanding the militia’s withdrawal from this working-class neighborhood and 47 of them were killed in cold blood in what has become known as the Gharghour massacre.

The massacre provided much-needed fuel for a movement demanding the withdrawal of independent militias from the streets that has emerged in response to the chaos of Libya’s menagerie of militia. Militia units from Misrata are some of the most powerful in the country, thanks to their central role in the defeat of Qaddafi and their largely autonomous command structure. After the Gharghour massacre, the threat of violence between Tripoli’s native militias and those from Misrata hung over the two cities for a few days, but in the end officials from both cities agreed to the repatriation of prisoners and the withdrawal of all Misratan militias from Tripoli. Several of the perpetrators of the massacre were arrested. This was followed by the withdrawal of militias from other cities, mostly the Nafusa Mountain city of Zintan, and the deployment of the national army on the streets of the capital.

The Gharghour massacre marks a real change in Libyan internal politics. Previously, efforts to clear the capital of militia units from other cities like Misrata, Zintan, or Gheryan were only pursued half-heartedly by the prime minister and the General National Congress because they could precipitate a crisis that would upset Libya’s delicate political balance. There are important reasons that the outlying cities and their local governments maintained their militia presence in the capital. Controlling a section of the capital ensured them a seat at the table of power when distributing patronage and oil revenues. It offered them a hedge against the re-consolidation of power by unreformed former supporters of Qaddafi who ostensibly defected, but whom many in Libya fear have no intention of supporting the sort of institutional change that the revolution demanded.

Basically, maintaining an armed presence in the capital was a way of ensuring that the sacrifices of the revolution bore fruit for the outlying cities whose residents did most of the fighting. Any moves to remove any non-Tripoli militia and empower the central government ran the risk of being perceived as a plot to rob another city of its power and share of the spoils, which could provoke an escalating conflict. So, the citizens of Tripoli and the government preferred to deal with the militias rather than face that dire alternative.

That all changed after the Souq al-Jumaa clashes in early November. With one stroke, the militias of the most powerful single city had been checked, and had backed down without further violence-so far. Libyans who were fed up with lawlessness were outraged and emboldened. Regional militias that wanted to resist the growing protests against their presence in the big cities were put in the awkward position of seeming to side with perpetrators of a massacre.  On the street and on social media, talk of a “second revolution” began to circulate. Protests and marches against militia bases quickly spread. Even Derna, the stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, Libya’s strongest armed jihadi group, witnessed huge protests that forced the militia out of its own headquarters.

This popular groundswell of anger against militias has bolstered the timid central government with the popular support it needs to deploy the newly trained national army against militias. The week of November 25th saw heavy fighting between the forces of Ansar al-Sharia and the Army’s As-Saiqa Special Forces Battalion and other units of the national army, with dozens wounded and killed. Ansar al-Sharia has mostly disappeared from the streets of Benghazi and is reeling from the blows it received in Benghazi and Derna.

But, still there are troubling questions about these developments: where was the army just months ago when, for example, the prime minister was kidnapped? Is Prime Minister Zeidan actually in firm command of the national army? And if not, who is?

Furthermore, militias are “withdrawing” from the big cities, but where are they withdrawing to? A close reading of this story from the Libya Herald exposes a few loopholes in the narrative of an army victory. The article discusses the withdrawal of men from the Qaa Qaa Brigade, a Zintani militia and the disbanding of the brigade. This is good news, but the writer notes that at least 30 armed pickup trucks left the base to an unknown destination and a Qaa Qaa Brigade commander says that he has no intention of handing over any weapons. Similarly, when Misratan militias left the capital, they kept their weapons and did not disband. They may have lost the battle, but were allowed to do so rather comfortably. The central government is not pressing this issue, probably as a concession to allay the fears that the outlying cities have about a loyalist resurgence or being left out of power sharing.

And as if all this weren’t enough for Libya to deal with, negotiations to bring an end to the blockade of Libya’s main oil export terminal have failed. Armed men loyal to Ibrahim Jadhran, a former Petroleum Facility Guards commander and leader of a self-proclaimed autonomous government for eastern Libya, have been blockading the Tobruk export terminal to force the central government to agree to a new oil-revenue sharing plan between Libya’s three regions. Tribal sheikhs in Eastern Libya subtly distanced themselves from Jadran’s blockade last week, which could open the way for action by the security forces.

The militia question is far from settled. Murders and bombings still happen weekly. The protests have forced militias to take a step back and have brought Libyans from different cities together in solidarity. But mass action in the streets cannot be a substitute for the rule of law. Ultimately, the problem will only end when each regional faction feels secure enough in the new order that they no longer need to keep arms as a hedge. For now though, Libyans are happy that some progress has been made. They have proven that the spirit of the revolution is still very much alive.


Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he helped lead a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units. 


Photo credit: Surian Soosay