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Libya Militias Flex Power With Force

Tasbeeh Herwees |
January 14, 2012 | 8:33 p.m. PST

Senior Staff Reporter

Two people were killed and 16 others injured when rival militias near the Libyan capital of Tripoli exchanged machine gunfire and rockets. The confrontation was provoked when members of the Al-Asabia city militia refused to hand over suspects accused of having ties to the Gaddafi regime to a militia from the town of Gheryan. One of those killed was a civilian.


Not two weeks earlier, a similar altercation claimed the lives of four people when members of a militia from Misrata engaged in combat with soldiers in Tripoli. No clear explanation for the clashes was given, but it was certainly symptomatic of the increasingly intolerant attitude of local Tripoli soldiers and citizens toward the presence of militia brigades from outside cities, particularly from Misrata and Zintan.

Undoubtedly, these recent events are disconcerting, but in no way are they unexpected, especially so soon after the violent fall of a 40-year-old regime. For a country emerging from civil war, Libya’s road to recovery, though not smooth, has been quite remarkable to watch. Libya’s economy is expected to be the fastest-growing in 2012. An election draft law has been posted online for review in anticipation for Libya’s first national elections in June. Women’s organizations are thriving. And while the journalistic institutions have yet to demonstrate a real grasp on the full concept of “journalism” there are now hundreds of them, independently-owned, where the only media outlets allowed to exist post-Gaddafi were regime-controlled.

On a civic level, these fatal militia skirmishes, largely isolated, have been disruptive of an otherwise thriving society. But they are indicative of the diminishing power of the National Transitional Council, headed by Mustafa Abduljalil, and the passivity of the executive transitional cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Abdurrahim Al-Keib. And they do suggest a burgeoning regionalism that is also steeped in a one-upmanship of who “suffered most” under the Gaddafi regime and during the revolution. 

University of New England professor and Libya researcher Ali Abdullatif Ahmida recently observed some of these dynamics in play on a trip to Libya. In an interview with Jadaliyya, Ahmida described the way these clashes are violent demonstrations of power for power.

“These cities -- they emerge as powerful, powerful cities -- are now flexing their revolutionary forces there,” Ahmida told Jadaliyya, “They are trying to flex their muscles and dictate or demand a major role in the new transitional government.”

Despite promises by the transitional government to rein in the rogue militias under a homogeneous national army, many cities still claim the right to brandish the full might of these revolutionary forces under independent command. In the absence of a functioning police force or national military, many see these militias -- full of young, armed men, former students and otherwise unemployed -- as a security apparatus. And the militias themselves are hesitant to relinquish a power they believe will secure them active roles in Libya’s future. 

The transitional government, in response, has given several powerful ministry posts to these cities. They’ve also recently made promises to allocate $8 billion towards the “reintegration” of militias into civic society. The question, however, remains as to whether the these militias will allow themselves to be “integrated” -- and whether the transitional government is powerful enough to do it.


Reach reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here. Follow her on Twitter.

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