Libya’s restive revolutionaries

Nicolas Pelham writes: Beneath a golden canopy lined with frilly red tassels and vaulted with chandeliers, hundreds of militiamen from across Libya gathered at a security base in Benghazi, the launch pad of their anti-Qaddafi revolution, at the end of April and called for another uprising. After a lunch of mutton and macaroni, a nod to their former Italian masters, one belligerent revolutionary after another took to the podium to lambast Libya’s would-be governors, the National Transitional Council (NTC). “Thuwwar (revolutionaries) of Libya unite!” cried the chairman, beseeching his fellows to reclaim the country from those who had stolen the revolution. These are no idle threats. My lunch companion from Jufra, one of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s former garrison towns in central Libya, claimed to have 600 tanks under his command. If push came to shove, the militias could overpower the fledgling forces the NTC have at their disposal.

While the militiamen flaunt their might, they seem less confident of public support. No one at the swashbucklers’ Congress mentioned the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 19, as the means of being catapulted to power. Rather, for many the new assembly threatens to transfer authority away from those who “paid the price of the revolution” to elected representatives. “They are afraid that an elected government will limit their voice,” says Milad al-Hawti, a recruit to the Benghazi branch of the Supreme Security Commission. If the thuwwar are to make a bid for power, their window of opportunity is now, while the NTC — with its less than solid legitimacy — still holds the constitutional reins.

Friction between the civilian and military arms of the revolution has been brewing since the first days of the February 2011 uprising, when a nascent civilian leadership, the NTC, struggled to establish a semblance of governance over liberated territories. To stand up its authority in the face of a plethora of anarchic rival groups of thuwwar under its wing, and prepare for a smooth transition, the NTC reached out to defecting old regime commanders and their forces. But what the NTC viewed as a professional corps, able to stabilize a post-Qaddafi era, the thuwwar saw as a fifth column riddled with Qaddafi loyalists bent on denying them ownership of the revolution for which they had risked their lives. In July 2011, militiamen killed Maj. Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, Qaddafi’s former interior minister, whom the NTC had appointed commander-in-chief of rebel forces.

As relations spiraled downward, the thuwwar began to tar the NTC with the same brush. Spokesmen and leaders were denounced as pretenders and holdovers from jama‘at Sayf, Sayf’s gang, a reference to the coterie of apparatchiks who surrounded Sayf al-Islam, the late colonel’s favored son, and filled the ranks of the last Qaddafi-era governments. Determined to thwart the resurrection of the old order that had hobbled them, the thuwwar posed increasing challenges to the NTC’s self-appointed role as the revolution’s moral arbiters. For its part, the NTC viewed the militiamen less as liberators than as looters and hooligans, whose celebrations traumatized Tripolitanians for weeks with their firing of heavy weapons throughout the night. When the thuwwar finally conquered Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the NTC stymied their plans for a triumphal march through Tripoli with the promise of a heroes’ welcome in Benghazi. The welcome never materialized, leaving the militias aggrieved and determined to settle the score. [Continue reading…]

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