How do you ask a group of armed men if the rumors that they’re a gang of ordinary thieves are true? You begin with a joke.
“Is it true that you guys stole an elephant from the Tripoli zoo, took it back to Zintan, and mounted an antiaircraft gun on its back?”
Mohamed Kor, a stern, bearded commander of the Zintan Brigade, can’t help but chuckle.
“I know we have a bad reputation,” he says in his office in Rigatta, a luxury beachfront compound in West Tripoli, where the fighters from Zintan have taken up residence. “We get called every day by people who say that fighters from Zintan are stealing. But it’s not true. These are common criminals who abuse the name Zintan because they think it will protect them. As soon as we catch them we will expose them to the world.”
And no, he adds, “the elephant really wasn’t us.”
Maybe not, but heavily armed militias like Mr. Kor’s are very much the elephant in the room of post-Qaddafi Libya.
The new Libya is dominated by militias like the Zintan Brigade. They participated in the liberation of Tripoli in August and they never left. Now that the fighting is over, most militias won’t give up their guns. Accusations of mafia-style behavior are growing, as are worries that inter-militia fighting could break out before the new Libya is even born.
Saying that the fighters from Zintan, a small town in Libya’s western mountains, have a bad reputation is putting it mildly. The word “Zintani” has replaced the word “thief” in Tripoli street slang.
They are far from the only armed group around. On Sunday, Oct. 30, a firefight broke out between fighters from Zintan and Misurata; a Zintani was killed. Zintan fighters then followed an ambulance carrying a wounded Misurati, seeking to execute the man in revenge. That didn’t happen, but on Monday another firefight broke out outside the hospital, wounding four.
That same day, a small demonstration in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square protested against the continued presence of heavily armed fighters in the capital. Growing numbers of ordinary citizens fail to see why fighters should still be tearing around in pickup trucks with antiaircraft guns mounted in the back.
The battle-hardened fighters from Misurata have, if anything, the worst reputation of the lot.
Few cities in Libya suffered as much during the war as the western coastal town of Misurata, where more than 1,000 people were killed during a months-long siege by Muammar Qaddafi’s troops.
As a result, Misurata’s fighters feel they are accountable to no one, not even the country’s interim government.
They say they’ve earned the right to do what they like, and are showing some disturbing tendencies distinctly at odds with the pro-democracy aspirations voiced by Libyans, who have already paid dearly for Mr. Qaddafi’s overthrow.
For instance, the men from Misurata have unilaterally declared that the inhabitants of Tawargha, a mostly black neighboring city where many people stayed loyal to Qaddafi, will not be allowed to return. Fighters from Misurata have chased the residents of Tawargha all over Libya, arresting them in refugee camps and jailing them in Misurata. Last week, they began burning houses in Tawargha to make sure that nobody returns.
Graffiti in the streets of Misurata even opposes the aaidoun or returnees, meaning people from Misurata who fled the city during the siege by Qaddafi’s troops.
“It’s the new propaganda,” says one Libyan human rights activist who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Misurata feels that they’re the heroes of this war and therefore they deserve a bigger piece of the pie. But what Misurata is doing in Tawargha is a time bomb under the future of Libya.”
A lawless new Libya?
The activist and two other men in a dingy Tripoli office have just formed a new human rights organization to document violations in the new Libya.
All three played key roles in the uprising against the rule of Qaddafi. Now they are concerned about the lawlessness.
“Misurata considers every Libyan citizen a Qaddafi supporter until proven otherwise,” says the activist. “If I have a problem with you, all I need to do is call Misurata and you will be kidnapped from your house and taken to Misurata.”
He gives examples: a student who denounced his professor, the president of a sports club who was accused by someone who wanted to take his place. “Every day we get phone calls from people looking for missing relatives.”
He does not hesitate to compare the situation to that of the 1980s, the height of the repression under Qaddafi. “It is the same climate of fear where people are afraid to speak out for fear of being denounced as Qaddafi supporters.”
The human rights group is not planning to go public anytime soon: For now they are discreetly using their own wasta (connections) with the revolutionary
fighters to get people released.
There are signs that time is running out, with both an increasingly uneasy public and rivalries between militias erupting into open conflict.
The Iraq scenario
The misconduct of some of the militias is not just a security issue. It also threatens to upset the delicate relationships between Libya’s various tribes.
Bani Walid, where Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam made his last stand, had hoped to avoid a fight.
The western city is the capital of the Warfalla, Libya’s biggest tribe, with 1.2 million members. Many Warfalla were loyal to Qaddafi, but many others – including interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril – joined the rebellion.
After the fall of Tripoli, anti-Qaddafi members of the Warfalla tribe went shopping for a suitable brigade to negotiate the surrender of their town.
Zintan fighters were out of the question because they are occasional rivals, and Misurata was not an option because of the historical bad blood.
Bani Walid decided to take their chances with fighters from Jadu, a town in the western mountains. The Jadu militia gained a good reputation for the way they liberated the south of the country almost without firing a shot.
“We believe in negotiating first and fighting only as a last resort,” says Omar Dougha of the Jadu brigade, who explains that things didn’t go as planned. “But then several thousand fighters from Zawiyah showed up uninvited. They forced our hand.”
Zawiyah fighters had a score to settle with the Warfalla. When the Qaddafi regime crushed the uprising in Zawiyah in March, Warfalla made up the bulk of the attacking force.
There are no signs of executions of Qaddafi supporters in Bani Walid. But like Sirte, the town was thoroughly destroyed and looted by the fighters from Zawiyah.
A huge graffiti mural in downtown Bani Walid spells it out in plain English: “Zawiyah are thugs.”
“We won the fight, but we won it in a bad way,” says Mr. Dougha.
The vengeance and arbitrary killings and arrests have many in Libya worried about what the future holds.
“I believe that if we don’t announce a general amnesty the country will never have peace,” says Dougha.
The anonymous activist evokes Iraq, where de-Baathification, a policy that banned all government employees associated with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from future employment, helped spark a vicious civil war.
“I have spoken to many people from Sirte and Bani Walid who say: ‘If you cast us aside, if you make sure that our children will have no opportunities in the new Libya, then you leave us no other choice than to fight you.’ ”
Why disarming is hard
Attempts to disarm the militias have failed miserably so far. Mr. Jibril’s call last month for the militias to surrender their weapons went unnoticed.
The new prime minister, Abdurrahim El-Keib, is an unknown figure who has spent much of his life abroad.
When Abdelhakim Belhadj, an Afghanistan veteran and the self-proclaimed leader of the military council of Tripoli, ordered the militia to leave Tripoli last month, the Zintan militia responded by issuing a warrant for Mr. Belhadj’s arrest.
“We are waiting for the right man in the right place,” says Kor of the Zintan Brigade.
Even the law-abiding Jadu Brigade is on the fence about disarming.
“It’s not that we don’t want to,” says Dougha, on his bed in one of the designer bungalows in the Rigatta compound.
Jadu and Zintan are close neighbors in the western mountains and also in Tripoli, where they each control half the beachfront compound.
Dougha points at a flier posted on the wall asking all Jadu fighters to prepare to leave Tripoli by Oct. 28, a date already three days in the past.
The problem, says Dougha, “is that we can’t disarm unless Zintan does the same.”
Jadu is a Berber town and Zintan is Arab. Three generations ago, Zintan fighters chased Jadu fighters from the area until they were able to fight their way back.
“We fought as brothers against Qaddafi, but we don’t entirely trust them. Zintan with heavy weapons and Jadu without weapons is simply not an option,” says Dougha.