Will Libya's militias defeat democracy?

By Rana Jawad
BBC News, Tripoli

  • Published
Libyan militias in Tripoli pictured in 2013Image source, AFP

Libya's newly elected MPs have huge challenges ahead of them as the country slowly moves from the dictatorship it was under ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi to the democracy they would like it to become.

With no effective army to subdue the growing influence and rivalry of militias, the country is trapped in a cycle of battles risking civilian lives.

The capital, Tripoli, finds that it has become a battleground in recent weeks not for hearts and minds, but for power through the gun.

Some of those living in areas affected by the fighting in Tripoli are trying to move to safer districts, others are trapped at home and often share pictures on social media showing buildings battered by stray rockets or shrapnel and bullet marks.

Tripoli's main airport, which is the centre of the latest conflict, resembles a scrap yard.

In the city, most petrol stations are closed over security concerns or are choked with endless queues.

For the last two months, banks have had cash problems because of frequent armed robberies and the central bank is apparently unable to secure money trucks to deliver cash.

Most banks over the last week have actually closed their doors.

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Many garages have closed in Tripoli because of security concerns
Image caption,
Banks have also started to shut in the city as they have been short of cash for weeks

The only good news for the incoming MPs is that the export of crude oil is gradually rising after almost a year of oil terminal blockades by militias - up to some 500,000 barrels a day from a trickle a couple of months ago.

But the distrust and absence of accountability means it will be hard to contain the militias where personal ambition and regional rivalry all play a role.

Militias on the payroll

Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani was in The Hague on Saturday to explore ways of pursuing militia members responsible for the latest fighting in Tripoli.

The day before, the foreign minister was in New York asking the UN Security Council for help to train Libyan teams in protecting oil ports and civil airports.

The government even said it was considering the "possibility of a request for international forces to protect civilians and to prevent chaos".

For political analyst Ezzedine Akil the situation is dire.

"The government is merely an entity with no foundation," he told the BBC.

"It has no tools to impose its authority… This conflict over the airport is a dangerous phase."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Many planes at the airport have been destroyed in the recent battles
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The fighting in some parts of Tripoli has prompted some to move to safer districts

There are two militia brigades at the airport, one originally from Zintan, charged with guarding the airport since they took control of it in 2011 and refused to leave.

They are both on the ministry of defence's payroll and earlier this month came under attack from the Libya Revolutionary Operation's Room (LROR), which has known hardline Islamists within its ranks.

Astonishingly this group, too, is on the official payroll, and was formed by the outgoing interim parliament.

None of them appear to answer to any central authority - unless it suits their wider goals.

Media caption,

Why is Libya so lawless? In 45 seconds

There are also several battalions from the city of Misrata also fighting alongside the LROR.

Misrata is reputed for its stability and the economic boom it has enjoyed since the revolution but the ambitions of its leaders are viewed with suspicion by neighbouring regions.

Proxy war?

The divisive politics and ideological fault lines have emboldened all sides over the last two years.

To try to overcome this, candidates for last month's election for the 200 parliamentary seats had to run as individuals, not as members of a party.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Parliamentary candidates had to stand as individuals, not on a party ticket

It is believed that Islamist-leaning candidates did not do well, but the political affiliations of the House of Representatives, which will replace the National Congress, are not yet clear.

The distribution of armed groups across the country means the weapons are evenly spread out - and most battles achieve little beyond a trail of destruction.

It is tricky territory for Western players, and recent efforts by the UN mission in Libya to bring political and militarised sides to a negotiating table failed.

It is common for rival groups to accuse each other of being tied to Gaddafi's regime.

"The war in Tripoli is between the real revolutionaries from Misrata and elsewhere against remnants of the former regime. They are the ones terrorising the people," Anwar Sawan, a member of the city of Misrata's Shura council - a body that usually intervenes as a peace broker in times of violence - told the BBC.

The Zintan militia brigades argue that they are fighting against the growing influence of political Islam - namely the Muslim Brotherhood at large, which they hold responsible for all the country's ills.

Ezzedine Akil agrees that a proxy war is being fought on Libyan soil.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Rival militias often accuse each other of links to Col Gaddafi's regime

"It is a regional conflict over the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood," he argues.

But he believes that self interest is the real motive.

"The militias are not doing this out of principle for anything or anyone, they're doing it to maintain their existence and the flow of money."

So what can the international community do?

The EU has described the attacks against civilian airports as a "violation of international law" but says "there is no military solution to Libya's problems; the only option is a political solution".

Several local and foreign observers have raised short-term options that may serve to jolt the armed groups into serious negotiations such as a travel ban on senior militia commanders and an order making them subject to prosecution in international courts.

That might bring all sides to the table, says Ezzedine Akil.

For Libyans, only a credible move to stop the chaos and infighting - be it from abroad or from their elected officials - will give them faith in the future.

The stakes are high as growing hostilities only threaten to pour more fuel on a fire that is becoming more difficult to control.

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