Libya yanks salaries for militiamen in bid to gain control

Libya's young government has failed to bring militias to heel, partly because they remained on government payrolls. But what if that money stops?

By , Correspondent

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    Libyan soldiers manned a checkpoint at an entrance to Tripoli shortly after militia fighters withdrew from the capital last November. Fighters had opened fire on protesters on 'Black Friday,' killing 52 and prompting demands that they leave the city.
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Local leaders from around Libya gathered in the four-star Waddan Hotel in Tripoli at the end of December to discuss their myriad problems in the post-Qaddafi era.

Those from the south complained about the spotty border controls, which allow immigrants, drugs, and weapons to flow freely. Those from the east complained about the string of assassinations blamed on radical Islamist groups like Ansar al-Sharia. And those from the west complained about the ungovernable militiamen who are keeping Libya on a war footing more than two years after they helped topple the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

All their complaints boil down to one common problem: the inability of Libya's elected government to assert authority over the armed groups inherited from the 2011 war. 

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Last June, Libya's parliament set Dec. 31, 2013, as the deadline for the militias to completely disarm and disband. Such deadlines have been set – and ignored – before. But Ali Mihirig, Libya's minister of electricity and the head of a ministerial committee charged with carrying out the disarmament, says that "2014 is going to be a lot easier" – for two reasons.

One, officials are freezing all payment of salaries to militiamen, including those under the control of the Ministry of Defense. Mr. Mihrig confirmed on Jan. 6 that the payment stop had gone into effect. At the same time, the government will speed up the process of enlisting militiamen in the national army on an individual basis, replacing the system of integrating the militias as a whole, which made them difficult to control in the past.

And two, he says, "After Black Friday, the militias have no choice but to cooperate."

Standoff

Sabat Elbadri, Tripoli's unelected mayor and the organizer of the conference at the Waddan, knows all about Black Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, when fighters from the Al Nasour militia opened fire on demonstrators who were initially unarmed, killing 52. He was the one who called on Tripoli residents to march on the headquarters of Al Nasour (The Eagles) to demand their immediate departure from the capital. 

The public uproar against the killings, including a weeklong sit-in in Tripoli's Algeria Square, spurred the militias' voluntary withdrawal from Tripoli's streets two days later and their replacement, for the first time, by members of Libya's nascent national army.

But Mr. Elbadri is skeptical that the government is willing to confront the militias in a meaningful way, noting that it has always backed down in past standoffs. "This government hasn't done anything for the people," he says. "It has lost its momentum. It is not serious about taking a stand."

Hanan Saleh, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch, agrees.

"It is tempting to think that the national army has driven the militia from Tripoli," she says. "But in reality the militias left on their own volition. The army was merely allowed to occupy their empty barracks. This means that the militia can also come back whenever they choose to."

Sipping fruit juice in a Misrata coffee shop, Ahmed Omran, who served in a local militia, scoffed at the idea of Misrata militias being brought to heel in 2014. 

"Misrata has suffered the most in the fight against Qaddafi. Many other tribes still love Qaddafi, so we have many enemies. As long as the national army is not strong enough to protect us against our enemies, Misrata will not give up its weapons," he says.

Mr. Omran is the nephew of Nuri Firwan, a Misrata militia commander whose death during an altercation with a local Tripoli militia started the fighting that led to the Nov. 15 massacre.

The militiamen who opened fire on the demonstration were good people, he says. "It is the government that is trying to make us out like bandits. There is a political war being waged against Misrata," he says.

Staying power

The fighters from Misrata, which lost more than 1,000 people in a months-long siege by Qaddafi's forces, used to be considered the heroes of the revolution. Initially, Tripoli welcomed them.

After they helped liberate the capital, they set up headquarters in the Waddan Hotel, renaming the street "Misrata Street" and spending their evenings firing off the heavy weapons they had taken from Qaddafi's forces.

"They liked the power and they liked the money," says Elbadri, the Tripoli mayor. "So they never left." 

"Some of these militias have become businesses," Mihirig contends. "They are making money and connections, and the longer they are in charge the better their connections become and the harder it is to get rid of them." 

But two years later, Misrata was the only town not invited to the conference at the Waddan. 

The militias are unmistakably a problem of the current government's own making. After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, paying the men and giving them weapons was an easy fix. The new, inexperienced government needed the armed groups to maintain order in the postwar era, and it was also easier than creating jobs for all those young men.

But by putting them on the payroll, the government created an uncontrollable entity that is not just stopping it from exerting its authority, but is also bleeding it dry. 

"Handing out money was the biggest mistake we made," Elbadri says. "Suddenly everybody was a revolutionary." 

There are no reliable estimates of the number of people who actually fought in the war against Qaddafi, but there were only three active frontlines, and for reporters who were there, it is hard to imagine there were more than a few thousand fighters at each of them. 

"Now, there are 750,000 of them," Mihirig says bitterly, referring to the number of people who have received state benefits by claiming to have participated in the fight against Qaddafi. 

Running out of cash

So far there has been no backlash for ending payment to the armed groups, who are infamous for pushing their demands on the country's politicians at the point of a gun. When legislation banning anyone who served under Qaddafi from holding political office was pending in May, militias occupied several ministries to pressure them into passing it into law. 

In September, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly kidnapped by militiamen angry over the US arrest of Al Qaeda member Anas al-Liby in Tripoli, and over Mr. Zeidan's plea to the international community for help in reining in the militias. The office of his predecessor, Abdurahhim al-Keib, was once stormed by armed men from the small town of Kikla demanding back pay.

The question facing Libya is whether a government running out of money will be able to address a problem it could not resolve when it still had plenty of money.

Libya's always-swollen public sector has only grown as a result of incorporating an estimated 200,000 militiamen. In pre-revolution Libya, flush with oil money, this wasn't a problem. Qaddafi preferred to put three-quarters of the country on the government payroll, rather than encourage private sector jobs.

But at a Dec. 25 conference, the Ministry of Planning released a report stating that $21.2 billion, or 42 percent of Libya's annual budget, now goes to paying Libya's 1.7 million public sector employees (it has a total population of 6 million). In a startling disclosure, the report also noted that 200,000 to 300,000 people are receiving two or more government salaries simultaneously.

Combined with the dramatic drop in oil revenue since groups demanding semi-autonomy occupied the country's main oil terminals in July, Libya is facing serious liquidity problems. Oil output has dropped to 250,000 barrels per day, down from 1.4 million in July. At the beginning of December, the government was estimated to have lost an estimated $7 billion in revenue.

The federalists have attempted to sell the oil themselves, but the central government has blocked efforts. On Jan. 6 the Libyan Navy fired on a foreign oil tanker trying to load crude oil from one of the occupied oil ports. 

An anonymous member of Libya's parliament told the Libya Herald in September that if the government doesn't change its spending habits, it will soon have to go "begging" the World Bank for a loan.

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