Any political narrative centering on the phrase “the people” is automatically suspect because there’s no such thing as a homogenous society. Particularly during times of turmoil, societies tend to be deeply divided. Last weekend’s events in Benghazi tempts one, however, to throw caution to the wind and acknowledge that something like “the Libyan people” once again rose up and demanded their liberty. It was a confrontation not with a dictator, but abusive, thuggish militias.
The Libyan people in general already rose up against the dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi obviously had some support, particularly from within his own Qaddafa tribe, but the overwhelming bulk of Libyan society turned against him. The National Transitional Council, which led the political side of the revolution, took an eminently pragmatic approach to building a military coalition: anyone willing to take up arms against Qaddafi was welcome to join the revolution.
What this meant, however, in the aftermath was that post-dictatorship Libya was left with a very weak and barely functional central government that inherited virtually no effective institutions. It had, and still has, no real national army to speak of and few ministries that function in a genuinely effective manner.
Instead, practical power in the country has been wielded by armed gangs representing different regions, cities, tribes, clans, and ideological orientations. The men with guns have power, and they don’t want to give it up in the national interest. They want to use it.
They proved this recently by besieging government buildings in Tripoli and forcing through an abominable “political isolation law” – literally at gunpoint.
But time and again ordinary Libyan people have taken to the streets to confront the militias, demand proper governance, and insist on the need for law and order. They did this after the isolation law was passed, chasing militias away from government buildings at considerable personal risk.
Over the last weekend, the people in Benghazi staged a virtual uprising against a kind of umbrella “militia of militias,” the so-called “Libya Shield.” This nefarious organization has run parallel the fledgling national military and in de facto opposition to efforts to form legitimate security forces.
Cowed by the strength of the militias in general and the Shield in particular, much of the national government treated this pack of thugs as if they were a quasi-official security force. Lacking both courage and options, post-dictatorship governments have used the Shield to put down various rebellions and uprisings, giving it unwarranted and indefensible prestige, leverage, and authority.
But with the crude display of brute force in ramming through the “isolation law” – and obviously attempting to bring down the non-Islamist Prime Minister by creating a breakdown in order – the militias went too far. It became clear the public in general turned against them after the siege of government buildings, taking to the streets and chasing them away. Meanwhile, the leader of the Shield, Wissam bin Hamid, was appointed leader of a militia council with an ill-defined government “advisory” role.
Politicians, including the prime minister reacted in a craven, cowardly manner. The public has not.
This weekend’s incident began with a dispute over the property rights to what the Shield regards as its Benghazi “headquarters,” and it quickly boiled over into violent confrontations between the gangsters and swelling masses of enraged protesters. At least 31 people were killed, only two of them militia members. In short, it was a massacre.
In Libya, or at least in its major cities, the tide is slowly turning against the gangs.
Reports from Benghazi suggest the Shield has virtually vanished from sight, its compound abandoned and its leader to be found only on the radio blustering ludicrous accusations about the protesters being traitors, separatists, and Qaddafi loyalists. The depth of harm done to the militias political standing was demonstrated when their closest ally, military Chief of Staff Yousef al-Mangoush, was forced to resign in disgrace.
The historic and heroic Benghazi uprising is unlikely to spell the immediate end of the militia crisis in Libya, or even perhaps the Shield itself. But it does mean that armed thugs will no longer be able claim to be the vanguard of the revolution. The honeymoon is over. Now naked, raw gangster violence will be seen for what it is with no window dressing.
None of this means Libya is on the brink of political unity, law, order, or a coherent military or security apparatus with a monopoly on the use of force. That’s obviously going to take time and compromise – and, unfortunately, some additional confrontations. In the countryside (particularly in the south) it could take many decades.
But there’s every chance the Benghazi popular uprising against the “Libya Shield” will be remembered as the beginning of the end of militia rule in Libya’s major cities. And, once again, “the people” must get the credit.