Analysis: Libya’s long road to disarmament

Mistrust of Libya’s interim administration is likely to deter tens of thousands of revolutionary fighters from complying with a massive new demobilization plan, according to analysts and former rebels.

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“There is no full trust in the government,” said Adel AbdElmajid Zoubi, 28, who fought in the coastal town of Misrata, besieged for months by troops loyal to former leader Muammar Gaddafi. He spoke to IRIN on 27 December, having just returned from a protest demanding the government cleanse public institutions of remnants of the old regime.

He said he was disappointed the new government did not appear to prioritize revolutionaries and said he would not hand over his weapons until after elections – currently scheduled for June 2012 – and the creation from near-scratch of a new national army, in the wake of the demise of Gaddafi’s military machine.

“The reason people are hanging on is that they see their weapons as the guarantors of the revolution,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW) emergencies director Peter Bouckaert, who was in and out of Libya during the nine-month war. “They want to see the fruits of their revolution before they’re going to give up their weapons.”

On 25 December, the government announced a long-awaited plan to start re-integrating members of hundreds – if not thousands – of disparate militias which fought to displace Gaddafi, many of whom have retained their weapons since the fighting ended in October.

According to Ahmed Safar, undersecretary of the interim Labour Ministry, the hope is to integrate 75,000 fighters during 2012 – in a three-phase programme which will see a third joining the army, a third joining the police force and a third joining the regular labour force.

The government estimates there are 120,000 armed men who need to be demobilized. Almost every Libyan family has a stockpile of weapons in its home.

Members of militias – each with diverging loyalties to individual commanders, different cities or different religious agendas – have clashed with each other in recent months, killing several people and feeding fears that Libya could slide back into conflict.

Security vacuum

At a sleepy checkpoint at the southern entry to Misrata, where fighters see themselves as heroes of the revolution, a handful of former rebels sit under a brightly coloured tent drinking tea, their AK-47s resting beside them. They complain the government has not paid them enough for their services.

“I have kids and a house,” said Ahmed Abdelqadar, 24. “Two hundred dinars a month

Zoubi said revolutionaries had not received “a single cent” from the government or the militia leadership in more than a month.

“The money is there, but they don’t spend it on us,” said another fighter. “They prioritize the injured and the martyrs’ families, which is normal.”

Most of the fighters who had jobs or studies to return to have done so, but they still serve in their militias for a day or so a week. Those who do not have alternatives remain in the militias full-time, often unpaid.

Asked why they did not just leave, Abdelqadar answered: “If everyone left, there would be no one to guard the streets. We’d lose what we fought for.”

His words echo a common belief among many of the engineers, doctors and teachers-turned rebels who had never carried weapons before the war. This was not a war of hardened fighters, but rather young boys in flip flops and jean jackets who were thrown off their feet the first time they used a rocket-propelled grenade. They themselves are worried about the proliferation of weapons in their country, but believe they have a crucial role to play until a national force can ensure security.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said fighters were likely to insist on keeping their weapons and militia structures until the elections.

“To try to force a different outcome would be to play with fire, and with poor odds,” the report said.

But it is a bit of a catch-22, according to Jason Pack, a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University who also spent time in Libya during the war.

“[The militias say] ‘We can’t give up control because the national authorities can’t do it on their own. But the national authorities won’t be able to consolidate security as long as the militias are running around.”

Government programme

Under the new programme, registration of fighters could begin as soon as January, the Labour Ministry’s Safar said, followed by the profiling of registrants, including a psycho-social assessment and identification of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a determination of skills and capacity.

The plan calls for those interested in the security services to receive basic training and for others to have their skills matched to needs in the civilian labour market, with the possibility of additional training abroad and job placements upon return to Libya. The relevant ministries have submitted proposed budgets and plans to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval

“It sounds nice, but it’s all on paper only,” said a skeptical Zoubi.

Safar said a government survey showed that many of the revolutionaries were leaning towards joining the police, but IRIN interviews with fighters suggested the opposite: many of them had no interest in being integrated into the security services. One Misrata militia which surveyed its members found that only three in 100 wanted to join the army.

Leadership and transparency

Analysts say the National Transitional Council (NTC), the self-appointed political body which emerged from the revolution and appointed the interim government, lacks strong leadership. It is in a “state of relative paralysis” when it comes to making important decisions, HRW’s Bouckaert said, and does not have a strong hold over the fighters in the country.

“When the rebels come into town, the [police] move to the side,” said one international security analyst. “They’re little kids sitting in the corner while the adults do their thing.”

The national army has no formal leadership as the NTC has yet to announce a chief of staff. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar’s once fugitive son, remains in the custody of a militia in the western mountain town of Zintan and not in the custody of the national government. The main airport remains under the control of a Zintani militia commander, Mokhtar al-Akhdar.

“If the government has good people to secure the airport, then we will hand it over and go home,” he told the New York Times. “But they cannot even control the border with Tunisia. If we give the government the airport, they will destroy it.”

According to the ICG report, “Libya’s long tradition of local government reinforced this resistance to and suspicion of central authority.”

While some militias from Misrata have very publicly pulled out of Tripoli, the 20 December deadline imposed by police and residents for foreign militia to leave the capital was largely ignored.

Many Libyans also complain of a lack of transparency in the NTC. Until now, it is not entirely clear who sits on the Council, whose meetings HRW’s Bouckaert described as “completely opaque.”

“Until that changes, it is impossible to have a real demobilization,” he said.

Ticking time bomb?

But the government says it cannot afford to wait until it has complete credibility to start working on demobilization.

“People are desperate to see something done about militias,” Safar told IRIN. “Yes, there are issues of transparency… but the vast majority of people that we have been speaking to understand the difficulties under which this government is operating… People want to see us get our hands on things more and more to move on.”

Other critics say that despite the appointment of a revolutionary from Zintan as the interim defence minister, the government has failed to properly consult the revolutionaries as it makes its decisions – a challenging task given the vastness of military formations.

“There are ad-hoc consultations,” said one senior UN official in Tripoli. “But there is no systematic way of incorporating the revolutionaries in the decision-making process.”

In recent days, the numbers of weapons and military vehicles on the streets of Tripoli have decreased significantly, and signs reading “The weapons helped us. Don’t let them hurt us” are common. But the clock is ticking.

With so many weapons floating around, June’s elections could be dangerous.

And already, frustration is mounting, with near-daily demonstrations, protesting among other things against the lack of transparency and rebel representation in government. At one such protest in the eastern town of Benghazi, the country’s interim leaders came under gunfire, according to AFP.

Some drunken armed men roam around the streets harassing women or shooting guns in the air. As one resident put it, “anyone who wears fatigues and carries a gun calls himself a revolutionary.” Others engage in vigilante justice.

Dangerous minority

In the back of Mohammed’s* car sits a set of army fatigues. When he leaves his day job – distributing food to displaced people – he sometimes throws them on to go out with the “Misrata boys” on raids to capture people who fought with Gaddafi and are still in hiding.

His companions – members of a militia from Misrata – act independently, based on information they receive from neighbours or confessions from detainees, without any specific orders, but under the understanding that there is a “general order” to arrest any members of the fifth column.

The outfit gives Mohammed a thrill and his armed buddies often storm houses “like you see in the movies”, kicking in doors and pushing women and children out of the way to get to the wanted people. The latter sometimes return fire, leading to exchanges of gunfire on residential streets.

“The vast majority of these militias are not blood-thirsty gunmen,” Bouckaert said. “[But] it’s the small minority of either power hungry or criminal militias that can destabilize the country.”

That being said, the overall absence of chaos and level of self-organization has been surprising – even to Libyans – given how recently the country came out of war and how little government presence there has been.

“I’ve worked in 23 conflict zones,” said Brian McQuinn, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind, who has spent months in Misrata interviewing militias. “I’ve never seen militias as disciplined as these ones.”

In the back office of the camp for the Ard al-Rigal brigade in Misrata, binders line the bookcases and stacks of paper clutter the desks. While revolutionaries play table football into the late hours of the night, the brigade’s administrative leader, Ali Mousa, flips through the files of its members – mostly university-educated – complete with blood type, ID and health certificate. Every weapon and vehicle belonging to the militia is registered on a list and stamped by the local military council.

Even during the days of the fighting, decisions within the militias were taken by consensus, rather than orders from above.

“From the outside, it looks like chaos, but there is this underlying structure to it,” the researcher, McQuinn, told IRIN. “When you have a bunch of doctors, engineers and teachers as fighters, they don’t follow orders blindly.”

City states

But if, for the most part, the militias have not been as big a security threat as they could have been, the real problem, analysts say, is longer term. In the three months between the liberation of Tripoli and the creation of a cabinet, militias consolidated power and became entrenched to the point that they now offer services like other regional militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, including running hospitals.

At the western entrance to Misrata from the main coastal highway, cars line up before an archway made from stacked shipping containers. Armed men wave through some drivers and check the IDs of others. This is one of a series of militia-controlled and coordinated checkpoints that have earned the city nickname “Republic of Misrata” – for its order and some say autocratic nature.

Many now see Libya as a country where identity is shaped more than ever by city of residence and wartime allegiance rather than wider national affiliation.

“If you don’t take steps to build national institutions, these local militia and councils will be difficult to govern later on because they will develop their own identity and start solving their problems at the local levels,” the UN official in Tripoli said. “The longer it takes you to deal with the issue of the revolutionaries, the longer they stay in power. You create new centres of power that will not be easy for them to give up.”

*not his real name



Theme (s): Aid Policy, Conflict, Early Warning, Governance, Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]