The argument for disbanding the militias as independent forces is overwhelming. The groups should hand in their weapons and return to . . .[restrict]their jobs – if they have them – or take up the government’s offer of help to start up businesses. Or they should accept integration into the security forces of either the ministries of defence or the interior.
The harsh truth is that the militias, once the vanguard of the revolution, have become an embarrassing and sometimes heavy piece of baggage, holding back the advance of the new free Libya.
They are rightly criticised for their occasionally barbarous behaviour as at the Janzour Naval academy where seven of the 1,500 displaced people from Tawergha were gunned down in February, or the earlier abduction and murder of former Libyan ambassador to France, Dr Omar Brebesh.
But it can also be argued that the militias do not deserve all the bad press that they have been getting, here and around the world, from the likes of Human Rights Watch.
Let’s leave aside the commanders of these brigades who might believe that they have a lever for power and influence and indeed perhaps also profit. Let’s forget the unedifying and bloody fighting for booty in the former homes of Qaddafi stalwarts and the way in which some militiamen have tried to become warlords.
Let’s consider instead the ordinary members of militias that have still not disbanded.
Leaving aside the johnny-come-latelies who grabbed a weapon and a snazzy set of fatigues when all the fighting was safely over, the average militiaman has been through some of the toughest and most frightening months of his life. With minimal military training, these amateurs took on an army that contained a core of tough professionals and merciless mercenaries.
For sure, NATO warplanes may have blasted away any fixed position that Qaddafi’s troops tried to establish, but there was still that moment when, often after enduring long bombardment, the revolutionary fighters had to go forward to seize ground. So many of them were killed and injured. They learnt modern fighting the hard way, by watching their comrades die for lack of military and tactical knowledge. Moreover, in the process, these rag-tag irregular units formed the bond and ésprit de corps which only shared adversity can produce.
Even before Sirte fell and Qaddafi was dead, many of the militias converged on Tripoli, quite reasonably to protect the revolution in its early days. The experience of being in the capital, where deadly power had once shot like lightning from the single point of the Bab Al-Azazia compound, the experience of being in Tripoli when there was suddenly nothing more to fear, must have been intoxicating. To be feted and welcomed as heros must have convinced many out-of-town boys that the militias still had an invaluable role to play in Libya’s future. Their immense pride can well be imagined.
The frequent rumours of counter-revolutionary forces meant that ordinary citizens, as well as the fighters, saw that they still had an important duty to carry out. How many times have we heard militia leaders say that they needed to stay under arms because the interim government did not have the resources to protect the revolution? And for some months, this was absolutely right.
Then came the moment when the first units of the new army and police completed their training and sought to take over security tasks. The heady days of victory were long gone. Militiamen were bored and, what was worse, not being paid their promised money. The slow return to normal life was getting in the way of brigades that had commandeered hotels, schools and other public buildings as their bases.
Yesterday’s heroes were becoming today’s nuisance, a cause of instability rather than a guarantee of order. To close-knit groups of former fighters, the change of public attitude to them must be embittering and perhaps puzzling. They grew up in a country where merciless power came out of the barrel of a gun. Now there was something coming called democracy, where the ballot box was supposedly more powerful than the AK47 they cradled in their arms.
Can it be surprising therefore that many of these ordinary men and probably more than a few of their commanders have felt reluctant to abandon the power on the streets which they had won so dearly? Is it not understandable that it may be hard for many to understand that in terms of our new stability, they are now part of the problem and no longer part of any solution?
The interim government has a mountain of tasks to achieve. Perhaps it could be argued that in among this pile of work, it could be doing more in convincing the rank and file militiamen that their job is done, and that they should be going home now, with their heads held high and the gratitude of a free nation echoing in their hearts. [/restrict]