Libya's interim leaders confront tough task: disarming militias

The ability of transitional leaders to rein in the scores of militias that helped oust Muammar Qaddafi will signal how capable they are of governing the new Libya.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
Anti-Qaddafi fighters move to the front line, 230 miles west of Benghazi, Libya, Tuesday, Sept. 13.

As Libyan fighters battle the last remnants of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, Libya’s new transitional leaders are already confronting one of the major challenges that will come next: disarming the scores of militias that fought the war.

Once the fighting is over, disbanding the militias will be key to ensuring independent armed groups do not become a destabilizing force in the new Libya. The ability of the National Transitional Council (NTC) over the next few weeks to rein in militias will be an indicator of whether it is up to the task of governing all of Libya or not.

“You need to have people feel safe and secure. You can’t have independent military organizations roaming the country,” says Zahi Mogherbi, political science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi. “The NTC’s performance in this regard will solidify their legitimacy. And I think the legitimacy of the NTC will now be based on its performance.”

Already, the NTC is running into trouble, as divisions deepen between rebel leaders. The rebel military commander in Tripoli was stridently displeased with acting Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril's plan, outlined Sunday, to bring the militias fully under civilian control – either by sending members back to their civilian jobs or incorporating them into the army or police force.

Militiamen eager to go back to families, jobs

Most of the fighters who have become known as Libyan rebels are civilians who, until the uprising began in February, had no idea how to operate an AK-47, much less how to fire an artillery gun or launch a Grad rocket. Many men are eager to go back to their families and return to work as lawyers, engineers, teachers, and myriad other professions.

“Each one of us will go back to his own work,” says Khalid Tayer Faraj Hussien, a fighter with the Ali Hassan Jaber Brigade who has fought on the front lines in eastern Libya for months. He wants to go back to school after the fighting ends.

His friend Marai Rafallah Suleiman Dakheel says he wants to marry his fiancée of three and a half years when it’s all over. “I want to rest and marry and have a settled life,” he says.

Such fighters likely outnumber those who have angered residents of the capital, Tripoli, by charging around, firing weapons into the air, and displaying a privileged attitude toward civilians. Those who may pose the greatest difficulty are not individual fighters but militia commanders. Some worry they won’t easily give up the power that comes with directing a heavily armed group.

A National Guard model?

One of the most powerful men in eastern Libya is Fawzy Boukatif, head of the Feb. 17th Brigade and leader of the union of militias in eastern Libya. He denies any desire to stay in a military role. Disbanding militias, he says “is not difficult, but it takes time.” Amid all the talk of disarming, he points out that militias aren’t going away anytime soon, because they’re still needed.

Qaddafi gutted Libya’s army, leaving high-ranking officers but few soldiers, and the organization is in shambles, says Mr. Boukatif. He proposes a National Guard of sorts, composed of militias, to maintain order in the short term.

“We are there until we build our army,” he says. “We will try to build like the National Guard in the [US], so we have something … that at least can perform the necessity during these months until we build up our army.”

Inclusive approach – so far

The NTC plans to integrate those fighters who want to remain in the military into the army or the police force. In the meantime, with the country awash in weapons, it has begun to license guns, and eventually try to get them out of the hands of civilians altogether.

But some say not everyone will be so eager to lay down arms.

“We should all give back our weapons, but in reality that won’t happen. Some will keep their weapons,” says Seraj El Mana, a young fighter who participated in the battles for the eastern towns of Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad. He was making a veiled reference to Islamist groups, as NTC members, academics, and other fighters also did when mentioning those who might not want to give up their weapons.

Such groups are a concern for some NTC members. But so far the council has followed a strategy of inclusion, preferring to bring all groups under their umbrella rather than alienate any.

“Now in the beginning we work with everyone because we don’t want any problems with anyone,” says NTC member from Zuwara Othman bin Sasi. “But when the country is free we can start to talk. We can see who is good.”

And Mr. Mogherbi points out that with Qaddafi gone, and a transitional government that appears to be inclusive, those who might in the past have fought with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group or joined other Islamist movements would now have little reason to keep their arms. “A lot of causes for extremism will be obliterated or eliminated,” he says.

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