The aftermath of the revolution has proved to be a harrowing time for Libyans across the country as serious deficits in the rule of law and security persist. Government officials, journalists, and other civilians have been assassinated by nameless villains; embassies have been attacked; violent crime have become a part of daily conversation. While working on a piece of my dissertation in and around Tripoli in September 2013, my Libyan friends and colleagues lamented these facts with despair. I asked one of my most well-informed friends, a life-long resident of Tripoli, if he would ever consider calling the police when, say, experiencing a burglary. Oh no, he replied with surprise. Absolutely not. We handle this problem ourselves. And if you yourself have a problem, or just scream. Yes, scream! Don’t bother with the police. A thousand men will come pouring out of their houses to rescue you. At this last point, I laughed. He chuckled, but halfheartedly.
But really, the situation is no laughing matter, and Libyans are certainly not amused. A week after I left Libya, a militia kidnapped the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, for several hours before voluntarily releasing him. Kidnapped the Prime Minister. The situation was so ridiculous as to be absurd, but again, completely unfunny. The presence and capacity of countless militias is a major source of Libya’s instability. As a recent article succinctly summarized, the militias represent “a tangle of rival semi-official security forces.” Some militias are former rebel units from the 2011 revolution; others seem to be opportunists taking advantage of the fractured and sometimes lucrative situation. Many brigades have been actively courted, paid, and relied on by the national government to enforce security, which is not an uncommon phenomenon in weak states. These armed groups range on a continuum from being tightly allied with the government, to loosely allied with stronger local loyalties, to being anti-state, such as the infamous Ansar al-Shariah.
It is hard to imagine—especially to those of us who study state repression—that formerly anti-dictatorship activists and citizens who spent decades being terrorized by a central security apparatus would very soon afterwards demand that the government and its security apparatus extend their authority. Especially considering that trust in the central government appears (anecdotally at least) to be at an all-time low since 2011. But that is exactly what protest movements in Libya have been calling for, and in some cases, getting. An anti-militia movement is underway, and it really is worth noticing.
On November 15, 2013, at the behest of the Tripoli Local Council, protesters instigated a peaceful anti-militia demonstration. They marched to the headquarters of militias from Misrata (sometimes spelled Misurata), which had attracted the people’s ire by entrenching themselves in a Tripoli neighborhood known as Gharghour and refusing to disarm or leave. As demonstrators approached the headquarters, militiamen open-fired using heavy artillery, killing 47 and injuring hundreds. This violence prompted the police, army, and other militias to confront the offenders in a pitched battle that lasted several days. During this time, further protests surged in the capital. Organizers initiated a city-wide strike, and demonstrators in the thousands amassed around Tripoli to mourn the dead and demand the removal of all militias.
Within a matter of days, the militias from Misrata had left the city, the formerly-occupied military complex was formally handed over to the military, and other militias decided to voluntarily acquiesce to the government’s orders to stand down.
This incident is part of a larger movement against armed militias in Libya, with tangible results. Protests have routinely taken place against organizations such as Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi since 2012, leading to brutal retaliation. And yet, protesters have kicked them out of the city—twice. In addition, Reuters reported that two militias in the city of Derna withdrew from five bases peacefully in response to local, peaceful citizen sit-ins in November, 2012. Members of these militias with familial ties to Derna itself reported that they would rather disband than come into confrontation with their own people. And the government has now frozen militiamens’ salaries and increased the individual re-enrollment of militiamen into the national army.
The importance of these events cannot be underappreciated for several reasons, in my view.
While the government is still too weak and often unwilling to confront the more problematic militias head on—especially considering that it risks exacerbating regional tensions and exposing its weaknesses by doing so—confrontations between protesters and militias have forced the government to send in reinforcements to back demonstrators. In at least some places, this is creating a renewed sense of unity between national security forces and the citizenry, even though these forces need to do more to protect protesters. By recapturing militia-held installations and setting up permanent positions, the government is making major inroads into its own country. (An important distinction: these police and army units are operating in the service of the government, not as the government, as they are wont to do in Egypt or Thailand.)
Second, rather than simply chasing militias away to fight another day, many of these militias are actually stepping down in response to pressure from the street. Because many militias are of the people, rather than a thing apart, many of them have voluntarily given up their authority in order to avoid confrontations with protesters, who may be their neighbors or relatives. In freely handing over the mantle of security to the security, the government has been bestowed with badly-needed (albeit tenuous) legitimacy by the forces most well-positioned to challenge that legitimacy.
Lastly, we also see that ordinary people, despite seriously mistrusting individuals and parties within the government, are demanding a functioning, centralized authority that supersedes local/regional/familial ones. They are showing—again—that unarmed protesters are willing to confront illegitimate forces of repression and instability to defend the spirit of the revolution. This has, however temporarily, reinvigorated a sense of nationalistic patriotism that many Libyans feel had been lost after Gaddafi’s demise.
It is more than understandable why my Libyan friends and colleagues, as well as many outside observers, find cause for pessimism about post-revolutionary Libya, and in no way do I mean to undermine the seriousness of such challenges and dangers. But although some say that the revolutionary spirit is dead, I find all evidence to the contrary. The phase we see now is a multi-front battle with revised goals and targets. It is often violent and tragic. But through pressure on the street, we see the Libyan people forcing authorities to act like a governing central authority, even before it is ready to do so, and tackle the messy work of institution-building.
And maybe in the coming years, Libyans will be calling 2525, which is their 911, rather than taking their chances with a scream.