Dr Mustafa Fetouri
This week is the eleventh anniversary of the date that Libyan rebels armed, trained and supplied by Western countries entered the capital Tripoli under NATO air cover. The fall of Tripoli was a turning point in the conflict which ended with the murder of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as he made his last stand in his hometown Sirte. NATO ended its operations in the North African country but did nothing to counter the militias that it helped to create, and left Libya hostage to the gunmen.
Back in 2011, Western propaganda projected Libya as a potential paradise in the making as soon as Gaddafi was out of the way. Today, Libya is hell for its people and a potential threat to its neighbours.
The game of guns and militias in Libya started as early as late February 2011 when armed groups started to appear on TV screens turning what started as small civilian protests against Gaddafi’s government into a NATO-assisted armed rebellion. When NATO ended its operations Libya was hostage to hundreds of armed militias, the groups that NATO backed as “liberators”.
After the fighting ended in 2011, hopes were high that the Libyans would settle their differences peacefully and come together to rebuild their country. That never happened, because the hundreds of militias who fought the government with NATO’s blessing and air cover, never gave up their weapons and never actually disbanded, except for a few lacking the resources to continue.
As the years went by the militias dominated the country and successive governments failed to fight them due to a lack of resources. While the Libyan army and security apparatus never officially disbanded, many of their cadres were killed, jailed or forced into exile as the NATO-empowered militias took over military and security buildings across Libya.
By 2014 there were hundreds of armed groups operating outside any government control, making the country not only difficult to govern, but also open to foreign terrorists who flocked to Libya as early as 2011 when the local rebels first picked up arms to fight the Gaddafi government. In fact, some Al-Qaeda elements were already in Libya fighting against the Gaddafi government by late February 2011, a claim made by Gaddafi but denied by the West, only to be confirmed later.
The West wanted badly to remove Gaddafi, but never cared about what would happen to Libya once the war ended and the militias were still there. Almost no Libyan government since 2011 has made any serious attempts to disarm and disband them. Instead, in different ways, they supported the militias to appease them and avoid their anger. By the end of the second civil war of 2014, armed groups consolidated power and resources to become not only the dominant forces in the country, but also power brokers deciding what kind of government the country should have and who would be allowed to serve in it.
For example, in May 2013, Libya’s first elected legislator was forced, at gunpoint, to pass what is called the Political Isolation Law aimed at cleansing the bureaucracy, army and security forces of any elements considered loyal to Gaddafi. In effect, that law deprived Libya of its best cadres in the civilian bureaucracy, and the military and security leadership, handing militia leaders almost full control of public order, security, intelligence and even government decision-making.
When the first comprehensive Libyan Political Agreement was signed in late 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, the Government of National Accord was created. It was a united government, but already too late to control the militias, let alone disarm them.
Instead of confronting them, the GNA tried to contain the militias and containment has become the standard policy of successive administrations. This policy was translated into the gradual integration of armed groups into the military, security and bureaucratic ranks, thus giving them wider reach and legitimacy to operate under a government label without being accountable to any public body. Most importantly, militias — loyal only to their leaders — started recruiting new people openly and even advertising jobs with government approval.
By this year, with legitimate government labels, they became so powerful that it was impossible for any government to operate freely. They became richer too, thanks to government payments made to keep them happy.
This is the situation even today. Militias are now involved in what might be called political-military vested interest networks where they are helpful to politicians just as politicians are helpful to them. Indeed there are, now, fewer kidnappings and murders in Tripoli and prevailing fragile security, but this could change at any time.
Since the government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh took office in March last year promising to end the violence, militias have clashed with each other in the capital on at least four occasions. The latest armed clashes took place on 23 July in Misrata, east of Tripoli, just days after similar fighting broke out in the capital itself. In June, fighting erupted between two rival militias, both of which are supposed to be operating under Dbeibeh’s government. Every time this happens civilians pay a heavy price, being killed or injured with their homes and businesses damaged.
Will Libya, 11 years after the so called “revolution”, get rid of the militias and collect the estimated millions of firearms circulating illegally? This is very unlikely to happen any time soon. Most importantly it will never happen without bloodshed. Major militia groups, particularly in Tripoli, are now big money-making machines for their members. By becoming nominally loyal to the government, any government, they enjoy the legitimacy they once lacked and the legal protection that comes with it. Their crimes against civilians are well documented but they are not held to account. Nowadays, whatever they do is usually justified as being for the public good, such as fighting crime, or for national security.
Over the past 11 years, Libya is a game of guns and militias that has continued unabated. Despite all of their crimes, not a single militia member, let alone militia leader, has ever been questioned or punished for anything.
The idea of eradicating militias and collecting arms by any government, even if democratically elected, is a fantasy. Areas under strongman Khalifa Haftar may be enjoying better security but the fundamental problem of the militias tied to authorities is the same.
This situation is always going to hinder any political initiatives towards stabilising and securing what was once a very secure Libya. Ending this game is a job for the people of Libya, as the past decade has shown that foreign interference only makes things worse. Unfortunately, Libyans will pay a heavy price it if ever happens. There is no end in sight to this deadly game.