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In Benghazi, militias may promote security one day, threaten it the next

Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan Islamist militia publicly blamed for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month, has disappeared from the city's streets. Not all locals are happy about that.

By Gert van LangendonckCorrespondent / October 12, 2012

Soldiers stand guard at an armed militia base belonging to the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia group, that they had stormed with pro-government demonstrators in Benghazi, Libya, September 21. Ansar al-Sharia's members are known in the US as the killers who overran the US consulate in Benghazi last month, murdering US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

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Benghazi, Libya

Ansar al-Sharia's members are known in the US as the killers who overran the US consulate in Benghazi last month, murdering US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. The incident that has roiled the US presidential race and led to furious rounds of politicking and finger pointing in Washington.

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But to Fadya Bargathi at Benghazi's El Jala hospital, the designated culprits in the consulate attack are something else: saviors. “Before Ansar al-Shariah took over security here our lives were hell,” says Ms. Bargathi, a hospital administrator. “People would walk in and out of the hospital with their weapons, and if they didn’t get treatment immediately they would put a gun to a doctor’s head.”

The story of Jala hospital and Ansar's role in restoring order there captures the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. Militias, some Islamist, some not, are frequently the first line of security, other times the threat themselves.

Ansar al-Sharia is alleged to have been both. While many in Benghazi are skeptical the group ordered the attack on the US consulate, and see them more likely as a convenient scapegoat, US and Libyan officials have been pointing in their direction.

But Bargathi sees the group differently. She was one of the few staff members at the hospital during a visit last week. Most of her colleagues were on strike, demanding the return of Ansar al-Shariah’s security detail.

They vanished from the city's streets after Sept. 21, when tens of thousands of ordinary Libyans took to the streets to demand an end to militia rule in a "Save Benghazi" protest. The protest, which came 10 days after the consulate attack, ended with thousands of people storming the barracks of Ansar al-Sharia and several other Islamist katiba, or brigades.

But while many in Benghazi hailed the routing of the militias as an example of people power overcoming militia rule, life just got worse again for the staff at El Jala hospital.  

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Bargathy, “I marched in the ‘Save Benghazi Friday’ protest myself. All of us want a real national army and an efficient police force to take over security from the militia. But the military police they sent us after Ansar al-Shariah left just wasn’t up to the task. One day they just didn’t show up anymore.”

Hospital protection

Ansar al-Sharia offered its assistance to El Jala hospital last August, ostensibly in response to cries for help from the staff in the local media that went unanswered by the authorities.

It was also something of a public relations move from a young, radical group desperate to win over the hearts and minds of the community. A public display of force in June, when Ansar al-Shariah had declared the upcoming general elections to be against Islam, had left a bad taste in the mouths of many in Benghazi.

Jahiya Kuwafi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya who has spent a lot of time with Ansar al-Sharia. Even before the US consulate attack, “I was talking to them, trying to convince them to give up their weapons and help society in other ways. Their work at the hospital was part of that,” he says.  

At El Jala hospital now, a number of posters reminding people that smoking is against Islam are the only remaining evidence of Ansar al-Sharia’s presence.

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