Libya's purge of former Gaddafi officials reveals growing power of militias


Libyan protesters hold placards and banners during a demonstration in support of the Political Isolation Law in Libya's landmark Martyrs Square' on May 5, 2013 in Tripoli, Libya. Libya's General National Congress, under pressure from armed militias, voted through a controversial law to exclude former regime officials from government posts. Gunmen who had surrounded the foreign and justice ministries lifted the sieges when state television broke the news.


Mahmud Turkia

EDITOR'S NOTE: William Wheeler, recipient of the first annual GroundTruth reporting fellowship in the Middle East, is now on assignment in Libya. This is the second in a series of guest posts for this blog and he will soon be filing a GlobalPost Special Report on Libya's struggle to forge a democracy in the smoldering aftermath of the Arab Spring.

TRIPOLI, Libya — “The [militia] people said to us, ‘either you endorse the Isolation Law or we slaughter you,’” the congressman said, wide-eyed. “Not kill you — slaughter you. You know the difference? Killing is by shooting. Slaughter is…” He trailed off, dragging his finger across his throat. “This is terrible.”

The speaker was Abdurrahman Shater, a member of Libya’s General National Congress. The conversation took place at his home office, and he was referring to the Political Isolation Law, passed last month and barring former Gaddafi regime officials from senior posts for the next decade.

A few hours earlier, the new law had claimed a political casualty: chief of parliament Mohammed al-Megarif, who had served as Libya’s ambassador to India in 1980 before founding an opposition group in exile. In his resignation speech, al-Megarif said he made his decisions “out of respect for the legitimacy and institutionalization of democracy.” But the law by which he was abiding, he added, had been passed under threat of force from militia members.

Human Rights Watch and other critics have said the law is too sweeping, and Shater’s story in particular is useful as a prism for understanding some Libyans’ view of what is happening in their country today. He is a former journalist who published newspapers in English and Arabic during the reign of King Idris, which ended in 1969 with a coup d’etat led by Muammar Gaddafi. After the coup, Gaddafi’s revolutionary court gave Shater a one-year (suspended) jail sentence and a hefty fine for being part of the old regime.

He spent nearly a decade in the UK before returning to Libya, and then served briefly as head of the Chamber of Commerce — a position he says he was asked to resign from because of his aggressive support of free-market policies. Eventually he returned to journalism, publishing a Tripoli-based magazine and writing about corruption and the need to empower the private sector, which ran against the grain of Gaddafi’s version of socialism.

Though the magazine regularly published stories critical of the regime — including one on Benghazi children who were infected with HIV in a hospital, which the regime had tried to cover up — Shater was recently suspended from parliament by the Integrity Commission, which has been investigating leaders’ ties to the former regime.

“These are the articles they depended on,” Shater told me, flipping through the file from his case, which he is appealing. “Whenever they find a phrase the ‘Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi,’ they say ‘this is not good.’ But they don't read the whole article. The whole article is criticism. We have a phrase in Koran: ‘don't pray if you are drunk.’ What they read is ‘don't pray.’”

Shater believes that he was singled out by the Commission because he has also publicly criticized Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I am number one enemy for them,” said Shater.

Some argue that a similar phenomenon is at work with the Political Isolation Law, which the Muslim Brotherhood rallied to push through.

While support for the law does seem to break broadly along the lines of the Liberal vs. Islamist divide — as outside news agencies frequently describe things — the reality of the political terrain here is much more complex. The law will not just bar some liberals, but also some Islamist leaders. And revolutionary fervor to uproot anyone who accommodated the Gaddafi regime transcends many lines.

Unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, the Libyan political sphere has yet to produce easily categorized camps and parties. When I asked Shater to paint a general picture of the factions, he described groups motivated by a mixture of ideological differences and greed —“who can get more of the cake,” as he put it.

“The Islamists have their own agenda to capture the country like what happened in Egypt. No doubt about it… They accuse the nationalists of supporting Gaddafi. Others, they say Allah wants us to govern this country because of Islam, we want a pure Islam. The Nationalists say, ‘No you are wrong. We are in the 21st century. We have to build up our country, to be part of the international society …’”

Shater continued, “Now if we come to the revolutionary powers, who are they? Are they all pure revolutionaries? Some of them, they pretend to be revolutionaries because they have the machine gun and the heavy armament and say ‘I am a revolutionary.’ Some of them were in jail under Gaddafi, as criminals. And now they [have] a machine gun.”

On that point, Shater and al-Megarif now seem to agree. In fact, the most striking thing about the parliamentary chief’s resignation may be how dramatically he has changed his position on the armed groups that have mushroomed in size and strength since the revolution, resisting calls to disband or be individually reintegrated into a national force that answers to a civilian leadership.

Following the attack in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens, al-Megarif disappointed anti-militia demonstrators by denouncing their protests, saying that some of the country’s militias were legitimate.

“When people demonstrated in Benghazi to get rid of these militias, the Congress and the government diverted the public interest,” Shater said. “Al-Megarif was one of those people who participated and facilitated this thing. And now he’s paying the price.”

Now, weeks after some militias besieged government ministries during the vote on the Isolation Law, the former lawmaker has changed his tune. In his speech, he suggested that many were now pretending to be revolutionaries to benefit from the spoils and that some groups were even backing members of parliament.

Shater, who fielded a call from al-Megarif’s advisor during our talk, echoed a sentiment I’m hearing a lot here — that Libya is moving in the wrong direction.

“Things are deteriorating. Inflation is going up. Unemployment is getting worse. Health services [are] very, very bad. Education also. So we are going backwards,” he said. “We will be in this hassle for ten years. We will not be able to build our country in a democratic way, a civil country trying to join the world, unless some blood will be [spilled] in the streets.”