the early hours of Monday morning, the streets of Benghazi witnessed heavy fighting between the
units from the national army's Special Forces units and extremists militants from
the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia. The clashes left nine dead and dozens injured,
al-Sharia is the same group suspected of killing United States Ambassador to
Libya Christopher Stevens during an attack on the American consulate in
Benghazi in September 2012. The latest clashes erupted when Ansar al-Sharia
militants targeted one of the Libyan army's special forces units in the city, according to
Wanis Abu Khamada, the special forces commander. Ansar al-Sharia has been
putting out a rather different version of events. The jihadis claim they were
harassed by soldiers from the Special Forces at a checkpoint near their
headquarters in Benghazi. In this version, the army was trying to provoke Ansar
into fighting, thus giving the government an excuse to campaign against their
presence in the city.
of Benghazi took to the streets in support of the army, denouncing the actions
of Ansar al-Sharia and repeating the call for all militias in the country to be
disbanded. (The photo above shows participants in the demonstrations holding a poster that says "I love Benghazi.") This is not the first time that Ansar al-Sharia has been the target
of public anger and mass protests. Following the killing of Ambassador
Stevens, thousands marched in Benghazi against the group and managed to drive
them out of their bases and out of the city altogether. Nevertheless, Ansar
al-Sharia returned to the city quietly a few weeks later. Its members carried
on their activities with a special focus on charitable work in a bid to win
public sympathy and support. But this public relations effort was successful
only up to a point.
latest clashes in Benghazi are significant because this is the first time that government forces have confronted armed militias in the city. After
hours of fighting, the army units managed to push Ansar al-Sharia out of their
strongholds in Benghazi and took control of their bases. It remains unclear
where the bulk of the group's forces have gone, or if any of the militants have
been arrested. On Wednesday morning, at least four special forces members were
killed in a suspected Ansar al-Sharia attack on a checkpoint east of Benghazi.
Over the last few days, the situation in Benghazi has been tense and fighting
continues both inside the city and in towns to the East.
Benghazi Local Council, civil society groups, and the council of elders in the
city have called for a general strike until the authorities in Tripoli take
serious action to shore up security. The national army and police have been
sidelined for some time, while preferential treatment has been given to armed
militias that have coerced the government to strengthen their position by
demanding legal and political recognition (not to mention billions in financial
his visit to Benghazi on Monday, Prime Minister Zeidan and other government
officials supported the people's demands to disband the militias and to extend
official recognition only to the national army and police forces. Yet there are
still some significant political forces within the national parliament that continue working hard to protect the interests
of militias that are linked to them either politically or ideologically.
government forces have successfully pushed Ansar al-Sharia out of
Benghazi for now, many locals fear the militia may choose to retaliate. In particular, some observers worry that the group may be
changing its tactics. As the people of Benghazi and the armed forces join hands
against the militants, public places could become a prime target for attacks.
These fears were reaffirmed when a member of Ansar al-Sharia's Shura Council appeared
on Libyan TV and declared the government, army, and lawmakers to be infidels,
while promising death to those who oppose the jihadis' strict application of
sharia law. Other figures from Ansar al-Sharia tried later to play down his
the authorities in Libya to succeed in controlling the security situation and
the threat that armed militias pose to the country's democratic transition, they
need to localize their efforts. They have
to empower local security agencies and commanders throughout the country by
granting them appropriate authority to respond to local communities' needs. In
addition, local police and army forces must have the political and financial
support of the central authorities in order to feel confident that they can
take full responsibility for local security arrangements. Localization would
also help to counter recruitment campaigns by armed groups such as Ansar
al-Sharia, which sometimes offer an attractive alternative to the many unemployed
young men in the country.
U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Schmiere came up with a fitting summary of the situation in Libya during his recent testimony to a Senate subcommittee: "Libya is
not one big mess, it is a bunch of little messes that are not very related."
The Libyan government and its allies in the West need to acknowledge this
reality and incorporate it in their plans to bring stability. Security,
political, and economic efforts must be localized to help resolve those "little
messes." "One size fits all" won't work.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.
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