Transitions

Who's Really In Control of Libya's Guns?

More than a thousand armed vehicles filled with troops arrived in Tripoli last week. The forces were ordered into the Libyan capital by Nuri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress (GNC), signaling the start of a major push to secure the city in light of the worsening security situation.

The troops, who are members of Libya Shield (a security force designed to bring Libya's fractious militias into a single force under government control), vowed support for the new chief of staff's initiatives to improve security in the cities and rebuild a strong national army. At first glance this would seem to be good news. In reality, though, Libya now finds itself with four armies, all sanctioned by the government and nominally under government control. In fact, however, all of them have conflicting agendas.

The first army is commanded by the army chief of staff. It consists of Libya Shield militias, and its power base is in Misrata. The second is subordinate to the minister of defense. Established by former minister Osama al-Juwali, its power base is in Zintan, and it controls some of the most powerful militias in Tripoli. The third is the Border Control Army. It has its own commander and budget and is resisting any calls to integrate under the chief of staff's command, insisting on its autonomy. The fourth force is the Barqa Army, viewed by many as the armed wing of the Cyrenaica Council, which is calling for autonomy for the country's oil-rich east. Attempts by the government to tame these factions have met with mixed success. Each of these groups views the others with suspicion, and there have been no serious efforts to coordinate their efforts.

The deployment of Libya Shield forces comes as violence in Libya is escalating. Tripoli and its surrounding areas have experienced a number of recent attacks on military installations that saw weapons and military equipment stolen by armed groups. Some commentators say that the attacks revealed a high degree of coordination. Alarms were raised by the GNC president, who implied that a coup against the GNC was in the offing. GNC officials let it be known that the coup was likely to be orchestrated and staged by remnants of Qaddafi's army and their sympathizers, in emulation of last month's overthrow of President Morsy in Egypt. Abusahmain was nominated and supported for the GNC presidency by the Islamist blocs within the legislature after Mohamed Magariaf resigned due to the controversial political isolation law. The law was pushed through by the Islamists with the help of Libya Shield militias that besieged government ministries and pressured politicians to pass the law (yes, the same Libya Shield that is now being used to secure Tripoli). In this respect, the deployment of Libya Shield forces can be seen as a pre-emptive attempt to safeguard the Islamists' influence and control over the capital Tripoli with the help of their allies in Misrata.

The decision to deploy Libya Shield forces in Tripoli was taken over the Eid al-Fitr holidays. GNC President Abu Sahmain took the decision without consultation with the legislature or the government, which has spooked some lawmakers and officials. Now, according to official GNC spokesman Omar Hmaidan, some lawmakers are insisting that Abusahmain submit to questioning about his actions. Hmaidan went so far as to declare the GNC president as unconstitutional and illegitimate. The decision by Abusahmain comes after increasing calls for the dismissal of the GNC and the dissolution of political parties, due to the widely held view that political infighting between political parties is the main reason for polarization and instability in the country.

The deployment of the Libya Shield forces in Tripoli underlines the fragile security situation in the country and the increasing polarization among political factions. It also shows how the different factions are using armed groups to protect their political interests in the face of growing instability and the potential for the collapse of the post-revolutionary political establishment. Many Libyans do indeed blame political infighting within GNC for the deteriorating security situation and the heightening of tensions.

Most Libyans have clearly expressed their opposition to the existence of armed militias and refuse to accept anything short of a national army and police force. Still, the deteriorating security situation has warranted urgent measures to establish control by relying on Libya Shield militias. It's entirely possible, though, that these militias could turn their back on the government, either to ask for more money or to pressure the government into adopting certain laws that benefit them and their political backers. The reliance of militias will also continue to erode Libya's finances through the huge payouts given to the militia members and delay any real effort to rebuild Libya's security and defense sectors.

In post-revolution Libya, the politicians are playing a dangerous game by politicizing the security establishment. Right now security institutions in the country are plagued by factionalism and political polarization. Given the widening regional and political mistrust, it's hard to see how the existing security and defense forces can ever be developed into a viable national force.

 

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Transitions

Coup Déjà vu: What Egypt's Military Learned - And Failed to Learn - From Venezuela

Long-time observers of Venezuelan politics view the events unfolding halfway across the globe, in Egypt, with more than a bit of déjà vu.

A populist president with a power base in the poor classes? Check.

A revolution imposing a constitution and running a sectarian government, prompting a political crisis? Check.

Massive street demonstrations triggering a military ouster of said president, who is immediately placed in custody while his supporters take to the streets? Check.

Venezuela lived through all of this in 2002. And while so far the Egyptian coupsters have succeeded longer than the Venezuelans did, it's still an open question whether the coup will have actual staying power, and at what cost to the Egyptian people.

In 2002, Hugo Chávez was facing a political crisis of enormous proportions. A sluggish economy had eaten away at his base of support. The approval of a new Constitution -- tailor-made to his desires -- was seen by many as a sectarian move. The approval of a series of secret decrees that touched everything from the oil sector to land holdings without consulting affected sectors brought panic to boardrooms across the country. And the suggestion of a new education law seeped in leftist ideology sent worried parents out into the streets en masse.

By April of 2002, the crisis had reached a boiling point. Members of the military began openly questioning the president. Throughout the month millions of people marched through the streets of Caracas demanding Chávez resign. A general strike was called.

The crisis came to a head on April 11, when hundreds of thousands of people marched on to the Presidential palace, only to be greeted by snipers of unknown affiliation. A violent, confusing confrontation ensued and nineteen people (from both the opposition and pro-government camps) lay dead.

This prompted the military to act.

Within a few hours, the top brass of the Venezuelan army had removed Chávez and placed him under arrest. The president of the main business federation and leader of the protest movement, Pedro Carmona, was named interim-President, and he quickly moved to dissolve parliament, the courts, and suspend the Constitution. (The best book on the subject is The Silence and the Scorpion, by American author Brian Nelson)

Then, in a development that changed the course of Latin American history, the military backtracked. Seemingly afraid of being in charge of a coup d'etat, facing internal grumblings from dissenting commanders, and unwilling to attack pro-Chávez demonstrators who marched on the streets demanding to know where Chávez was, the coup quickly collapsed. On April 13, two days after being removed, Chávez came back to consolidate his grip on power. Carmona and the generals are now in exile in Colombia. The opposition has never fully recovered from these events.

The parallels with Egypt are striking. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the government of Mohamed Morsy moved to change the Constitution. By all accounts, the new constitution left important sectors of society out in the cold. Demonstrations demanding Morsy's ouster paved the way for Egypt's military to depose Morsy and place him under arrest. Thousands of his supporters are now demanding his release, and the result has been unspeakably violent.

Yet, unlike Chávez, it does not appear as though Morsy has any allies in the armed forces. This is a crucial difference that may spell doom for the former Egyptian president. It is also understandable -- Chávez, after all, came from the military, and his deep knowledge of the institution along with the friendships cultivated there proved a daunting challenge for Venezuela's plotting generals.

Furthermore, Venezuela's generals were unwilling to go all the way with their coup.

When Chile's Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, he promptly unleashed a wave of terror that overwhelmed Allende's backers. The swiftness and the unabashed violence of his campaign helped consolidate his grip on power. Venezuela's generals did nothing of the sort, and their power quickly dissolved.

If Egypt's generals begin to feel remorse for the violence in the streets, if they begin losing allies, or if they face internal conflict, with sectors of the armed forces thinking twice about what they have done, the coup could very well collapse. Failing to quash dissent will only embolden the poor masses at the heart of Morsy's movement, just like the chavista masses were emboldened after seeing Chávez's detractors squabbling. This could pave the way for Morsy's return amidst a popular wave of support, no matter what the middle-class crowds in Tahrir Square think.

There is a popular saying in Venezuela: doing something and not finishing the task is like "killing a tiger and being afraid of its dead skin."

Venezuela's generals overthrew a president and immediately began regretting it. If Egypt's generals blink, the same could happen there. But if they tighten their grip, blood will continue being spilled, and the hopes for an open, democratic Egypt will be quashed.

Either way, it's a tragedy for all Egyptians...just like 2002 was a tragedy for all Venezuelans.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and the co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images