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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Libya: This is what democracy looks like - protesters take over HQ of Ansar al-Sharia

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When gunmen that are widely suspected to be from the armed Islamic militia Ansar al-Sharia, used protests against the Islamaphobic video as cover and diversion for an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of the US ambassador and three other US citizens, it greatly angered the people of Benghazi. US Ambassador Christoper Stevens had been highly regarded by the Libyan people because of his support for them in their struggle against the 42 year dictatorship of Mummar Qaddafi.

The Islamic protest and militia attack on the consulate pushed many people's frustrations with the rule of the Islamic militias and revolutionary brigades to the breaking point. Whereas, just after the defeat of Qaddafi, these brigades were celebrated all across Libya, with the passing of time the perception of their role has changed. Now people are demanding an end to these independent armed groups, after the election of the General National Congress in July, Libyans have more and more demanded that the only armed groups be the regular army and the police.

There has much talk that the present Libyan government was too weak to bring these armed militia to heel, but one of the chief goals of the revolution has been to deliver power to the people and on Friday people in Benghazi flexed their muscles.

This Friday there were mass demonstrations across Libya demanding that these armed militia be disband. In Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, ten thousand protesters stormed the headquarters of Anshar al-Sharia and took it over. Reuters wrote:
Hundreds of men waving swords and even a meat cleaver chanted "Libya, Libya", "No more al Qaeda!" and "The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!"

"After what happened at the American consulate, the people of Benghazi had enough of the extremists," demonstrator Hassan Ahmed said. "They did not give allegiance to the army. So the people broke in and they fled."

"This place is like the Bastille. This is where Gaddafi controlled Libya from, and then Ansar al-Sharia took it over. This is a turning point for the people of Benghazi."
Things got ugly when the protesters move on to confront two other militias that operated under the authority of the General National Congress. The Rafallah Sahati Brigade was responsible for guarding a large cache of weapons and the February 17th Brigade was responsible for guarding some important prisoners. Five protesters were killed and twenty-four injured as these brigades initially tried to defend their positions by resorting to live fire before abandoning their positions.

Many are saying that the attacks on these two brigades was instigated by elements of the old regime in an attempt to free the prisoners and gain access to weapons. A Libyan army colonel was also kidnapped and on Saturday the bodies of six soldiers that had been guarding him were found near one of the brigade headquarters. This indicates that things are still far from settled in Libya but now the people are resolutely demanding an end to this chaos and violence and are vowing a second revolution if that is what is necessary to rid the country of these independent armed groups.

These brigades occupy a very contradictory position in post-revolutionary war Libya. On the one hand, they have been largely responsible for creating an atmosphere of chaos and lawlessness, on the otherhand, the new government, with it's own army and police very weak, has been forced to rely on them to provide security. As the WSJ Online wrote:
The Rafallah Sahati Brigade kept security in Benghazi during national elections this year and guards a large collection of seized weapons at its compound, which was once a Gadhafi residence. Ansar al-Shariah protects Benghazi's main Jalaa Hospital, putting a stop to frequent attacks against it by gunmen.

On Saturday, armed Rafallah Sahati militiamen—weary from the clashes the night before—guarded the entrance to their compound, standing next to charred cars. The fighters, some in military uniforms, others dressed in Afghan Mujahedeen-style outfits, were indignant.

"Those you call protesters are looters and thieves," said Nour Eddin al-Haddad, a young man with an automatic rifle slung on his back. "We fought for the revolution. We are the real revolutionaries."

Activists and protesters want the militias to disband and the army and security forces to take control. Benghazi lawyer Ibrahim al-Aribi said that if the government doesn't act, "there will be a second revolution and the spark will be Benghazi."

"We want stability and rule of law so we can start building the state, but the Tripoli government appears to have not yet quite understood people's demands," he said.
The Tripoli Post reported:
The other armed groups whose bases were stormed by civilian protesters is the Rafallah Al Sahati and the 17 February Brigade of Benghazi.

In a speech via radio, the President of the National Congress Mohamed Magarief called on the protesters and the armed groups not to resort to violence.

He called on protesters to differentiate between the unofficial militias and the real revolutionary brigades which helped secure the city and authorized to do so by the government.

The Libyan public have been demanding the dismissal of the large number of armed groups which emerged since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime last year.
In Derna, long reputed to be a hot-bed of Islamic militancy in Libya, two of the main Islamic militias abandoned their five bases and announced that they were disbanding on Saturday in response to the protests on Friday. Reuters wrote on this:
The Abu Slim and Ansar al-Sharia militias' announcements were apparently motivated by events in Benghazi, where Ansar al-Sharia, a group linked with last week's deadly attack on the U.S. consulate, withdrew from all its bases in the city late on Friday amid mass demonstrations in support of the government.

Those demonstrations in Libya's second city, also in the east, erupted into violence when the crowd turned against another group that had sworn support for the government.

"The militia in Derna saw what happened last night and they decided: we will not kill our brothers. So they disbanded," Siraj Shennib, a 29-year-old linguistics professor who had been part of protests against the militia, said by telephone.

"They said they no longer exist as militias in Derna. They will go home and leave security to the interior ministry and army."

Shennib said anti-militia protesters had been maintaining a vigil against the groups in Derna for 10 days, and the protests became much larger after a car-jacking three days ago. Residents blame the militia for creating a climate of insecurity.

"The people started coming because it has reached the limit. They are saying: we've had enough," he said. "It was a very peaceful operation. We are happy and we appreciate the effort the militias have done to save people from conflict."

Libyan LANA news agency quoted commanders from both militias as saying they were disbanding and vacating their compounds.
Then late Saturday, Mohammed al-Megarief, the head of the Libyan national assembly, held a press conference and announced that all the armed militias not under government control would be disbanded. Al Jazeera English reported:
"We're disbanding all the armed groups that do not fall under the authority of the government. We're also banning the use of violence and carrying of weapons in public places. It's also illegal to set up checkpoints. We've instructed the appropriate government agencies to ensure that these directives are implemented," he said.

Armed forces in the capital, Tripoli, gave the militias two days to withdraw from government buildings in and around the city that they have occupied since the fall of Gaddafi's regime.

Commander-in-chief Yussef al-Mangush said on his Facebook page on Sunday that the armed forces had dislodged a militia from a military complex on the highway to Tripoli International Airport, arresting militiamen and confiscating their weapons.

"We will carry out these kind of operations for the next two or three weeks until we dislodge all armed groups not under the authority of the State," an army officer said.

The authorities also decided to put in place an "operations room" in Benghazi bringing together the army, forces of the interior ministry and defence ministry brigades comprising former rebels.

They have called on the army to impose its authority by putting its own officers at the head of brigades born out of the 2011 revolt, which escalated into civil war and toppled Gaddafi's government.


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