George Grant, Deputy Editor of the Libya Herald, writes: Many outsiders looking at events in Libya from afar are probably not fully aware of the powerful significance of the recent desecration of Sufi shrines and the dangerous truth that it exposed.
Perhaps more than any other event since the end of last year’s revolution, the attacks have encapsulated the biggest challenge now confronting post-Qaddafi Libya.
That challenge is for Libya’s democratically-elected authorities to achieve a monopoly on the use of force. This is the bedrock of any government’s power, without which the social contract between government and governed cannot be built.
Over a period of four days, from 23-26 August, the distance Libya’s government needs to travel before attaining that monopoly was laid bare.
On Thursday, one of Libya’s most important Sufi shrines, that of the Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri in Zliten, a town some 150 kilometres east of Tripoli, was systematically targeted following tribal clashes there that left at least three dead.
On Saturday, another mausoleum, that of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Zarruq, was targeted in nearby Misrata, the same day that the Al-Sha’ab shrine in Tripoli was also hit.
This latter attack in the Libyan capital was the most brazen of all. Following the initial strike in the early hours of Saturday morning, the perpetrators returned later in the day with an automatic digger to continue the task over a period of some 48 hours.
Those responsible for the attacks were Salafists, puritanical Muslims who are closely associated with the Wahabbi form of Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia. The sites are revered by Sufis, whose practice of Islam is abhorred by Salafists. The latter believe that any veneration of human beings or physical objects constitutes idolatry.
What was so disturbing about this affair was not the attacks themselves but rather the manner of the government’s response.
In a fragile, transitional environment such as exists in Libya, attacks by opportunists are to be expected. But whilst failing to prevent a hit-and-run strike is one thing, standing idly by whilst the systematic and illegal destruction of an important religious building takes place over two days, in one of the most genteel parts of your capital city, is quite another.
In truth, the demolition of the shrines could not have come at a worse time for Libya’s new rulers.
The interim government, which took power on 22 November last year, is to all intents and purposes the lamest of lame ducks. Not only was it weak anyway, both by virtue of its limited mandate (it was not democratically elected) and by virtue of the practical realities imposed upon it (a weak army, fractured economy, shattered infrastructure and so forth), but it also has at most ten days before its term in office is scheduled to end.
As for the new National Congress, it only took power on 9 August 2012 and is still finding its feet. At the time of the attacks, Congressmen were still wrangling over the terms of their internal procedures and by-laws, and it is in any event only a legislative, not an executive body.
That, however, does not constitute a legitimate excuse. Back in June, the government successfully mobilised 3,000 men to retake control of Tripoli international airport in just a few hours, after it had been seized by an errant brigade armed with heavy machine guns and a tank.
Here, all that was required was for the government to put a stop to a demolition job by two-dozen men and a digger.
Unfortunately, what is now becoming clear is that short of rolling up their shirt-sleeves, dusting off their Kalashnikovs and heading down there personally, Libya’s government ministers could no more have put a stop to the destruction than could you or I.
The reason for this is now increasingly clear: the government had quite simply lost control. The body tasked with maintaining internal security in Libya, the notionally Interior Ministry-controlled Supreme Security Committee, had either refused point-blank to stop the attacks, or else had been complicit in authorising them in the first place.
This body of 100,000 former revolutionaries, which likes to call itself the ‘guardian of the revolution’, had not so much become a law unto itself as it had become the law. [Continue reading…]