On Sunday, March 3, four pickup trucks filled with Ansar al-Sharia militiamen pulled up at the European School in Benghazi. The men jumped out and stormed the school, saying that they were searching for teaching materials that they viewed as contradicting sharia law or the values of Libyan society. The incident at the school continued for about two hours and caused mixed reactions among Libyans as they followed the story.
Ansar al-Sharia (English: "Partisans of Islamic Law") is a radical group that advocates the implementation of strict sharia law across Libya. (Shown above, supporters protest the film Innocence of Muslims.) The group has branches in other countries, including Mali, Tunisia, and Yemen.
In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia fought with other Libyans to topple the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Since the fall of Qaddafi, the heavily armed group has declared itself to be an independent paramilitary body that does not fall under the government's direct command and control.
The group was linked to the attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi back in September of last year, which led to the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. (The group denies any links to the attack, though few experts in Western capitals take that seriously.) At any rate, by all accounts Ansar al-Sharia stands for a marginal minority that does not represent the views of the wider Libyan society.
In the wake of Stevens' death, 30,000 people in Benghazi took to the streets to demonstrate against terrorism and violence on the night of September 21, 2012, forcing Ansar al-Sharia out of the city. At some point, however, the militia returned, claiming that they want to help secure the city and fight crime alongside the police and army. Nevertheless, many in Benghazi disapprove of any presence of Ansar al-Sharia or other militias in the city, and would like nothing better than to see these groups disband and disappear from the streets.
The basis for Ansar's reappearance seems to be an arrangement with the Libyan Ministry of Defense. At the time of the attack on the consulate, the government promised to do everything in its power to bring the perpetrators to justice -- but now we see the Libyan authorities actually cooperating with the militia. What happened?
Despite the ongoing efforts to improve security, including training programs for thousands of new recruits in the police and army, there is currently a big shortage of security personnel on the ground, especially in Benghazi. This could help to explain the arrangement between the Libyan government and groups like Ansar.
In addition, in the course of the rebellion against Qaddafi, many of the militia groups helped themselves to Qaddafi's stockpiles of weapons, leaving government troops and security units underequipped to face them. This would explain the Libyan government's recent move to ask the United Nations to lift the arms embargo that was imposed by the U.N. Security Council at the start of the 2011 uprising as a way of protecting civilians during the armed conflict. The international community undoubtedly has an interest in helping the Libyan authorities establish some control over armed militias like Ansar.
After people in Benghazi forced them out of their headquarters, Ansar's members went underground and hid their weapons. They have since made a high-profile effort to carry out charity work, such as cleaning streets, unblocking drains, and distributing food and essentials to poor families. Many Libyans welcome such efforts, but they question the real motives behind these charitable activities.
So why did the Sunday incident at the European School in Benghazi divide public opinion about Ansar al-Sharia's actions?
Ansar al-Sharia is working hard to win the public's trust by championing its cause. Its members claim that one of the parents of the students at the school complained to them about some of the material being taught at the school. The particular material of concern was in the biology book for sixth-grade students (10- to 11-year-olds) at the school. Some of the images were very graphic, and in all fairness, I suspect that the majority of Libyans would agree with Ansar al-Sharia on this one.
The members of Ansar al-Sharia are trying to champion popular causes in Benghazi in particular and Libya in general. However, they remain firmly opposed to the idea of democracy, which, they contend, contradicts sharia law. They insist that all sovereignty belongs to God, and that democracy, which places the public will above all else, flaunts this principle.
Yet many Libyans are criticizing the militia's actions. While agreeing that the images in the biology book are very graphic for sixth-graders, people question the jurisdiction of Ansar al-Sharia to carry out such actions. The European School is a private institution, and it is governed by Libyan regulations. The Ministry of Education should accordingly be the responsible body to take action and address the issue raised by the parents.
The school administration has since stated its willingness to change its teaching materials to suit Libyan cultural norms on the basis of talks with the ministry.
Ansar al-Sharia is trying to champion issues that it hopes will improve its standing with the Libyan public. The Libyan government and the Libyan people are aware of these efforts, and this could provide an opportunity to de-radicalize some of Ansar al-Sharia's members, especially new young recruits, by having constructive dialogue with them about the ideology and beliefs by which they operate. This is a view that is widely held by many Libyans -- even though many Westerners may have a hard time understanding it. More importantly, this view does not condone any sort of terrorist activities, and certainly would not stop the Libyan government and people from seeking justice for Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues.
All this begs a question: What role should Ansar al-Sharia play in the new Libya? The majority of Libyans are unlikely to support the group because of its opposition to democracy -- even if it tries to champion causes that are dear to many people's hearts.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.