Hot Issue: Libyan Militias Shape Country’s Future

Libyan Militias Shape Country’s Future (Source: The Nation)


Libya’s quasi-parliament recently approved a political isolation law prohibiting a range of Qaddafi-era officials from political office or taking government jobs. The law was passed over the objections of the government and after revolutionary militias blockaded key ministries, refusing to leave until the measure was approved. The standoff with the government demonstrated the power of the militias, who have refused to disband since the ouster of Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi.  It also exposed the links between militia leaders and Islamist parties who fared badly in last July’s elections. The failure of moderate politicians to rally ordinary Libyans behind the government suggests the country’s top militias and Islamist leaders operating in concert probably will dominate the political landscape for the foreseeable future.

A Leadership Deficit in Libya

Libya’s uprising and revolutionary militias that overthrew Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi continue to add to instability in the country, which is experiencing an erratic and at times doubtful transition to more democratic politics. That transition has now been endangered gravely by what militia leaders like to call a “correction to the revolution” but one dubbed by Western diplomats a “legal coup” (Interviews with author, February 19, Tripoli).

Militia intimidation resulted on May 5 in the approval by the General National Congress (GNC), the quasi-parliament Libyans voted for last July, of a sweeping political isolation law that will see a range of officials who worked for the regime of the late dictator being disbarred from political office or from government jobs—even if they contributed to the downfall of the late dictator.  The ban on them will last for ten years.

Their exodus from the ministries and from government is unlikely to improve bureaucratic efficiency or competence. Even before the moves against Gaddafi-era officials, some GNC members, including Muhammad Saad, worried the exclusion law was too broad and would add to a “leadership deficit” in Libya when it comes to running government and political administration. He argued that exclusion should be reserved to those who were involved in provable misdeeds during the Gaddafi era, and not based on the positions people occupied (Interview of Muhammad Saad, February 19, Tripoli). 

That leadership deficit is bound to increase: many top civil servants will be forced out when the law comes into effect next month and, so too, approximately 40 to 60 GNC members, most of whom are moderates. Key ministers will have to resign as well as GNC President Muhammad Magarief, weakening the already shaky authority of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan—a onetime Qaddafi diplomat who broke with the regime more than 20 years ago and who was crucial in gaining the support of Western powers for the uprising. In his few months in office, Zeidan has tried to move the country forward more rapidly by developing reform plans and attempting to bring more order to government, but he has clashed frequently with the GNC, especially with the Islamist parties.

Political Isolation Law Benefits Islamists

The beneficiaries of the political isolation law are not only the major militias who besieged key ministries and threatened to storm the GNC unless the law was passed, but also their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller Islamist parties. They will control an unassailable, overwhelming majority of seats in the GNC. 

Most international press coverage missed the connections between Islamist politicians and the Islamist-tinged militias behind the standoff, even though at times it was an obvious show. On May 3, two days before the GNC passed the political isolation law, Sami al Saadi, a former leader of the now defunct anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, spoke at a rally in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square urging support for the law.

The Misrata brigades, the backbone of the militia push for the political isolation law, have strong links with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, and in the weeks before the militia siege of the ministries, the party’s GNC members argued strongly for the law in meetings. Justice and Construction party members never condemned the militias for the intimidation (Several interviews with GNC members, April and May, Tripoli).

In an interview with the author Nizar Kawan, a senior Congress member from the Justice and Construction Party, likened the isolation law to a cleansing action, saying that other countries have pursued similar courses following oppression or conflict.  “The United States also had its political isolation after the Civil War and a lot of those who fought with the South were politically isolated. It was very harsh, even harsher than this. So sometimes this does happen in history,” said Kawan. He said that those banned had to be sacrificed for Libya’s good (Interview with Nizar Kawan, May 5, Tripoli.)

A European diplomat, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the following:

“Saadi and the Muslim Brotherhood on the political level coordinated with the militias. They did poorly in the July GNC elections and this was their way of tugging back some control by politically eliminating moderates. What is worrying was and is their willingness to threaten force to get their way. They have not used force yet but the threat is always there and they use it to strong arm and to appear to represent more people than they do. They don’t feel democracy paid off for them. The government has to take some of the blame for that and Ali Zeidan probably should have tried to include them more in government” (Interview with European diplomat, May 13, Tripoli).

Militias Are Now Emboldened

The hope among many politicians was that once the law was passed the militias would start to disband. Instead, they have been emboldened and their appetite for power increased; the political isolation law has not satisfied powerful Islamist-tinged militias who want to shape the new Libya and have the arms to back up their threats and entrench their power. They are demanding the removal of Zeidan, who has tried to encourage the militias to disband and opposed the political isolation law in the form that it was passed.

According to moderate GNC members interviewed by Jamestown Foundation, they are pressuring behind-the-scenes the committee charged with drafting an electoral law for the planned national elections of a 60-strong assembly to draft a new constitution. “They want the assembly to be ideologically sympathetic,” says a Libyan government official. He says unlike with the July GNC elections there will be no quota, for example, that will guarantee a minimum number of seats on the constituent assembly for women (Interview with GNC members, May 13, Tripoli).

“The correction of the revolution” required smart political staging and considerable coordination between the militias and their political allies as well as between the militias themselves. Their highly efficient coordination contrasted with the failure of Zeidan and his political allies to rally any significant popular groundswell able to see off the militia challenge.

But then the militias had the guns on their side, and Zeidan has not been popular because of the slow pace of change.  Politician and journalist Abdulrahman Shater worries that the militias are now firmly in the driving seat. He explained:

“They have more power than the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Defense because they have guns and heavy armament and they have more power than the official bodies of the state.  Some of them want to be in the government, some of them want to be in the embassies, some of them want to be rich.  I wrote several times warning that the revolution will be stolen” (Interview with Abdulrahman Shater, May 4, Tripoli).

The militias blockading the ministries were the ones the government has had to rely on for general law and order and security on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi for the last 18 months. They were not the irregular militias that have formed since Gaddafi’s ouster but were the hardcore revolutionary brigades from Misrata and Benghazi who see the revolution as their property and envisage an Islamist future for the country.

Standoff Led by Militia Leaders Who the Government Relies on for Security

Who are Libya’s most powerful militia leaders, the commanders able to act with impunity and defy the government?

Western diplomats monitoring militia leadership say Wissam Ben Hamid should be considered primus inter pares (the first among equals). He commanded a Benghazi brigade called Free Libya Martyrs during the uprising against Gaddafi and subsequently became a top commander of Libyan Shield, an umbrella grouping of revolutionary militias ostensibly under the control of the Defense Ministry.

In fact, Wissam Ben Hamid has never been shy of making clear that he and fellow top militia commanders from Benghazi wield more power than the Chief of Staff, Major-General Yusuf Mangushwho they now want sacked. He did not disguise the power he wields from the late U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, the U.S. envoy who died in last September’s assault on the consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.

According to a cable approved by Stevens and sent to the State Department two days before his death, the ambassador met with Wissam Ben Hamid and militia ally Muhammad al-Gharabi, then-head of the Rafallah al-Sahati brigade. They told him they exercise “control” over General Mangush, who “depends on them to secure eastern Libya.” The cable continues “In times of crisis, Mangush has no other choice than to turn to their brigades for help, they said, as he did recently with unrest in Kufra. As part of this arrangement, Mangush often provides the brigades direct stocks of weapons and ammunition” (Benghazi Weekly Report, September 11, 2012; cable from the U.S. embassy to State Department, supplied to author).

Not only weapons have been directed by Mangush to Libyan Shield-aligned brigades, including the Martyrs of 17 February Brigade, which is considered one of the best armed militias in eastern Libya, and the Martyr Rafallah Shahati Battalions. According to members of the GNC, Mangush also diverted operational funds from the fledgling armed forces to the militias in a bid to buy their loyalty (Interviews with two members of the security committee of the GNC and with a member of the budget committee of the GNC, February 19, 20 and 21, Tripoli).

Among the militiamen blockading the Foreign and Justice ministries were men wearing crisp new uniforms with Libyan Shield insignias. Some of those men said they were from Benghazi and members of Libyan Shield Force 1, the brigade commanded by Wissam Ben Hamid. Another Benghazi militia leader eagerly supportive of the ministry sieges was Ismail Sallabi, the current leader of Rafallah Sahati, one of the main Islamist militias in Benghazi. “There should be strict standards to exclude members of the former regime from the military—those who were not involved in the revolution,” he said recently  (Interview with Ismail Sallabi, April 24, Tripoli).

Another militia leader who proved important in the standoff with the government over the isolation law was Muhammad Hatroush, the head of the Tripoli Military Council, an umbrella grouping of several militias in the Libyan capital. His role, however, was more of inaction; his brigades stayed out of the confrontation and did not seek to lift the sieges of the ministries.

Fathi al-Ubaidi and Muhammad al-Taib are another two Libyan Shield commanders viewed by diplomats as among the most influential militia leaders in the country and supportive of the “correction of the revolution.”  Taib led Shield forces involved in last October’s over-running of the pro-Gaddafi town of Bani Walid, coordinating that assault with militia commanders from Misrata. The attack’s goal was to rid the town of any lingering pro-Gaddafi influence.

Misrata’s militias are run by agreement and consensus by the commanders and the town’s politicians and they have seethed with anger at the course of politics since Gaddafi’s overthrow. They maintain that liberals, former political exiles and former regime officials, are betraying the Islamist roots of the rebellion partly to please the Western powers. There are 236 registered brigades with the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries (MUR), which can call upon 40,000 fighters. Some defense experts estimate that Misrata controls nearly half of the experienced fighters and weapons caches in Libya.

Abd al-Rahman al-Sewehli, a GNC member from Misrata, was a major champion of the isolation law from the start. During the sieges, he dismissed claims that the militias were forcing the law’s adoption under the threat of violence. “The youths went out with their weapons, not with the intention to attack, but to defend themselves if they were to face aggression,” he said.  Sewehli comes from a prominent Misrata family and is related to Faraj al-Swehli, the great-grandson of Ramadan al-Swehli, a legendary figure in the armed resistance to Italian colonial rule. The family controls the al-Sewehli brigade, a powerful brigade within the MUR.

From Abdel Rahman al-Sewehli’s perspective, the militias should not be disbanding until the country has broken completely with the past. In an interview with the Financial Times on May 9, he said that the isolation law was a “necessary step.” That begs the question of what further steps may be taken.

The outlook for Libya is one of continuing militia power combining with Islamist parties to become the dominant political influence in the country. The electoral law governing the elections planned for later in the year for a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution is likely to be shaped to favor Islamists. 

Jamie Dettmer is an expert on North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe.  He writes for Newsweek/Daily Beast, Voice of America and Maclean’s. He is also a Senior Media Fellow at the Democracy Institute.