After Gaddafi, Libya splits into disparate militia zones
The rebel strongholds of Benghazi, Misrata and Zintan have become increasingly independent of Tripoli’s new regime
National flags from around the world flutter in the bright sunshine by a city gate made of shipping containers painted in the Libyan national colours. A uniformed militiaman examines my passport, then waves me through with a smile. Welcome to the Republic of Misrata.
Libya's third largest city, recipient of a six-month pummelling during last year's revolution against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, has transformed itself into what is an independent state in all but name. Libya is due to hold national elections in 10 days, but these look like they may be delayed as any sense of post-Gaddafi national unity dissipated long ago.
Misrata is divorced from the new government, which it views as secretive, dictatorial and heavy-handed, and, as a city with a long tradition of trading, is going its own way. Shops and restaurants are being fixed up, business is brisk, and there is enough traffic on the pockmarked streets to create honking traffic jams.
Qasr Ahmed, Libya’s biggest container port, is the jewel in the city’s crown. The harbour that once spouted the geysers of incoming rockets is now jammed with shipping, and I get a tour in the only tug in Libya that can do something complicated with its engines that allows it to move sideways. The port authority has decided to run the place without reference to central government, which means that the port is open 24 hours a day, and also means that Misrata gets to keep the tugboat.
And that is the problem. The price of this success has been a divorce from a central government. “We don’t want to be independent, we want Libya to be like us,” says Farouk Ben Amin, a former rebel fighter now working in the family import business, who has shaved off his rebel beard and looks 10 years younger.
It’s not just Misrata. From all points of the compass, revolt, even revolution, is in the air as Libya’s former rebel towns go their own way.
To the south, meanwhile, battles between the Tibu, a people who inhabit a large stretch of the Sahara, and Arab tribes have left 200 dead and the towns divided into war zones.
The most serious challenge to central authority is Benghazi, where the revolution began in February last year. Like Misrata, Benghazi held its own elections earlier this year, and like Misrata the city council is busy assuming powers for itself at the expense of central government.
Some in the city want to go further. Benghazi is the capital of Cyrenaica, which with the regions of Tripolitania and Fezzan make up Libya, and many citizens are unhappy that the province gets only 60 of the 200 seats in the national elections. A self-proclaimed Council of Barqa – the Arab name for Cyrenaica – is urging a boycott of the national elections unless it gets a bigger slice of seats.
Benghazi is a good place to feel the continuing heartbeat of the revolution: teams of teenage volunteers collect the rubbish, fix up the streets and paint white lines on the highways. Those white lines zigzag alarmingly, but the citizens appreciate the effort; a vivid contrast to the potholed roads of Tripoli.
It’s not independence but democracy that the people want, says Hanna El Gallal, a human rights activist. “We got rid of Gaddafi, but not the regime,” she tells me. She points to the secrecy of the NTC, which, despite promising democracy, keeps its meetings secret and refuses even to disclose its full membership. “We didn’t do a revolution and our people did not die to bring a new dictatorship.”
When the NTC does issue decrees, Libyans are aghast; last month it issued law number 37, making it a criminal offence to criticise the “17 February revolution”.
Human Rights Watch pointed out in a scathing report that the law is, word for word, almost the same as Gaddafi’s rule banning criticism.
There is wild talk of a second uprising on the streets of former rebel towns, but the weapon of choice is not the gun but the ballot box. City elections have been rushed through while the central authorities dither with the national election, and the municipalities adopt their own powers. El Gallal explained that, if the elections nationally go well, all will be fine. If not, Benghazi will fall back on its own city administration. “If it (the national election) goes wrong, we don’t need the national congress,” she said.
And then there are the militias. Nowhere has the government’s failure to convince Libyans of its good intentions been more visible than with the security forces. The decision to staff the grandly named National Army with Gaddafi-era generals has, unsurprisingly, seen no recruitment from the former rebels.
Instead, security is being entrusted to a national gendarmerie, the 60,000-strong Special Security Committee (SSC). The pay is good and rebels and former Gaddafi units have joined en masse, but the force is distrusted by the armies of Misrata and Zintan.
SSC units last month kidnapped and tortured a prominent health ministry official and, despite pleas from the minister, the government has not called them to account.
Nor has the SSC dared to move against Islamist units in eastern Libya who have vandalised Commonwealth war graves, launched bomb attacks on a UN convoy and a Red Cross office, and last week bombed the US consulate in Benghazi.
Much hangs on the elections. If the NTC botches them, or tries to use its proxies to hang on to power, Libya will be in trouble. At best, the former rebel cities will go their own way, creating administrative gridlock for the country and an economic nightmare. At worst, as a rebel militiaman told me last year on the frontline at Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi: “If we don’t like the new government, well, now we know how to do revolution.”
I fucking called it. That’s two for two on geo-political predictions I’ve made that have come to pass.
RIP: the colonial borders of Ottoman/Italian/French/British Libya.