11 Nov 2013

Why Libya’s revolutionaries are the greatest threat to its revolution

I was trying to get to sleep when the shooting started. Not a few rounds of small arms fire but the deafening boom of an anti-aircraft gun just near our hotel. Our cameraman, Soren Munk, filmed from the balcony of his room – it was too dangerous to go out but at least we had a good view.

It was the beginning of several nights of battles between the militia – known as thowaar, meaning revolutionaries – who spearheaded the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi two years ago. We had been filming with the Nawasi brigade a few days earlier, watching as they searched cars for weapons and drugs. That sounds fine, but the Nawasi choose which laws to enforce, substituting for Libya’s weak and ineffectual police force. They’ve been accused of ill-treating prisoners and they favour strict Islamic law.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

The fighting started after they stopped a man from a rival militia from the coastal town of Misrata. The Misratans, who fought tenaciously during a three-month siege during 2011, see themselves as the heroes of the Libyan revolution and everyone else as also-rans. The Nawasi brigade, whose members come from Tripoli, regard the capital as their territory. An argument ensued when the Misrata militiaman refused to take off the blackout on his car windows. So, out with the anti-aircraft guns. Several men were killed.

Car bomb attack in Benghazi

One friend posted on Facebook that she was in her apartment making cups of mint tea. The idea that the thowaar were protecting Libyans was absurd, she said. Yet the government pays many brigades, supposedly to bring them into the new security system, but really as a kind of bribe to stop them doing worse.

In Benghazi, where the revolution started, they are doing worse. More than 100 people have been assassinated in the past year. I spent months in Benghazi during the revolution and only felt threatened when Colonel Gaddafi’s troops were approaching. This time we drove round carefully, checking if we were being followed, and only got out to film for a few short minutes.

“If anyone remembers the first months of the revolution, Libya was a different country. A different country from Gaddafi’s regime and a whole different country from now,” said Taha al-Barghati, whose cousin, Colonel Ahmed Mustafa al-Barghati, was gunned down outside the family home. Everyone’s seen the hit list – Taha told me that six more of his family members are on it.

On some streets we saw the black al-Qaeda-style flag flying, yet people are reluctant to blame jihadis for the murders. Most of the victims are army officers who joined the revolution after fighting in Gaddafi’s army. They fought the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the jihadis who tried to overthrow Gadaffi in the 1990s – in the Green Mountains east of Benghazi. Old scores are being settled.

Since we left Libya the government has tried to reassert itself. Armoured personnel carriers with balaclava-clad men from the “Thunderbolt Brigade” patrolled the streets to show presence late last week. Prime Minister Zeidan visited today.

But the government forces are weak, and paying the militia, far from co-opting them into the system, seems to be strengthening them. The men who fought the revolution now pose the greatest threat to its success.

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