Libyans Protest Islamist Militias
There was an extraordinary and noteworthy occurance in Benghazi last night as the people of the city gathered together to protest, sometimes violently, the militias in their city that have created a sense of chaos:
BENGHAZI, Libya — Galvanized by anger over the killing of the popular American ambassador here last week, thousands of Libyans marched through this city on Friday, demanding the disarming of the militias that helped topple the dictatorship but have troubled the country with their refusal to disband.
In a show of mass frustration at the armed groups, protesters seized control of several militia headquarters on Friday night and handed them over to Libya’s national army in what appeared to be a coordinated sweep. They also stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line Islamist militia that has been linked to the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
As members of Ansar al-Sharia fled their headquarters, protesters set at least one vehicle on fire, and Reuters reported that one person was killed. There were unconfirmed reports that several had been wounded by the departing gunmen.
At the seized headquarters of another militia, protesters burned and pillaged a large number of weapons, and hundreds of looters could be seen walking away with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The killing of the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, a well-liked figure in Benghazi because he had worked closely with the rebels who toppled Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi last year, appeared to be the catalyst for the protests on Friday, though hardly its only cause.
The militias, which started forming soon after the February 2011 uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began in this eastern Libyan city, emerged as a parallel and often menacing presence after his downfall in October 2011, seizing territory for themselves and asserting their authority over the fledgling government.
In western Libya, turf wars between militias resulted in regular street fights with heavy weapons. Months ago, members of Ansar al-Sharia brandishing weapons paraded through Benghazi and called for an Islamic state.
It was unclear whether the backlash against Ansar al-Sharia and the other militias on Friday represented an opportunity for the government to consolidate its power in the post-Qaddafi era or would lead to new violent confrontations.
But no weapons were left behind in most of the seizures, protesters and officials said, suggesting the militias had been anticipating such an event because of a buildup of resentment against them.
In a further sign that tensions had been stoked, some militia members accused Qaddafi loyalists of instigating the backlash. Mohamed Bazina, a spokesman for the Rafallah al-Sehati brigade, one of the militias whose headquarters were seized, said it had video evidence to prove it.
“This is a military coup against the true revolutionaries in the city of Benghazi,” he said. “Benghazi will not calm down.”
The attack on the American Mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, was an affront to many in Benghazi, which Mr. Stevens had made his base during the uprising. He became a familiar, cheerful presence at public events.
“We want justice for Chris,” read one sign among the estimated 30,000 Libyans, including families, who marched into Benghazi’s main square on Friday to protest in front of the chief encampment of Ansar al-Sharia.
Some held signs reading “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.” Many protesters carried Libyan flags, and government police officers could be seen mingling with the marchers.
Members of Ansar al-Sharia held a counterdemonstration, and arguments erupted between the opposing sides, but no violence occurred, at least not initially. Protesters chanted: “You terrorists, you cowards. Go back to Afghanistan.”
Benghazi wasn’t the only city where anti-militia protests sprung up:
Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against Ansar al-Shariah and other militias.
The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt against him last year, Gadhafi’s regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic Emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida.
But now, the residents are lashing out against Ansar al-Shariah, the main Islamic extremist group in the city.
“The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous,” said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young bearded Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received multiple death threats because has spoken out against militias on a radio show he hosts. “We felt that the revolution is going in vain.”
Leaders of tribes, which are the strongest social force in eastern Libya, have come forward to demand that the militias disband. Tribal leaders in Benghazi and Darna announced this week that members of their tribes who are militiamen will no longer have their protection in the face of anti-militia protests. That means the tribe will not avenge them if they are killed.
Activists and residents have held a sit-in for the past eight days outside Darna’s Sahaba Mosque, calling on tribes to put an end to the “state of terrorism” created by the militias.
It’s unclear what impact this will end up having on the militia problem in Benghazi, Darna, and the surrounding area. Indeed, it may cause the militias to become more violent in an effort to clamp down on dissent. Nonetheless, it does show that they are in the minority in Benghazi, and that the people of the city where Libya’s revolution started don’t want what they worked for to be taken over by terrorists. There’s something heartening about that. Unfortunately, these militias have reportedly gotten quite adept at hiding out in the vastness of Libya’s eastern deserts and it’s unclear that Libya’s military and police forces have the resources to go after them in sufficient number.