By Ibrahim El Mayet.
Tripoli, 16 October:
Formed as part of a flawed reintegration programme set in motion by the NTC’s interim government, . . .[restrict]the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) is part of a dangerous duality in Libya’s security apparatus which undermines freedom and threatens future national progress. Drifting further from the Ministry of Interior’s control, attacks and incidences of intimidation against civilians perpetrated by the self-proclaimed ‘guardians of the revolution’ are on the rise.
Made up of a coalition of militias who were brought under the control of the Ministry of Interior in an attempt to integrate militias into the national security forces, the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) operates as a parallel police force, much as its counterpart, the Libya Shield, operates in parallel with Libya’s national army.
A series of flawed decisions starting with the formation of these organisations, then allowing militias to join in their entirety leading to dual leadership and split loyalty, and efforts to appease militiamen by paying them generous salaries, have significantly undermined efforts to build a strong national army and police.
During the 2011 uprising, thousands of ordinary Libyans at home and abroad answered the call of the revolution by joining the various brigades formed throughout the country to fight the Qaddafi regime. Following the liberation of Libya in October 2011 the real freedom fighters quit their revolutionary brigades, some joining the legitimate national security forces, whilst most returned to civilian life.
One year on, however, the militias’ remain and their membership has swelled. The SSC is estimated to have over 100,000 members, more than the number of people who fought with the revolutionaries during last year’s uprising.
Now deeply embedded in the state security apparatus and entrenched in heavily guarded barracks in towns and cities around Libya, the question is whether the SSC is beyond the control of Libya’s interim authorities? As early as December 2011 the National Transitional Council passed a law to dissolve the SSC, with the body originally intended to be a temporary measure to be replaced by regular security forces. However this legislation was ignored and the SSC continued to deepen its roots.
With official unemployment at 30 per cent and the majority of Libya’s young population under employed and underpaid with no real prospects, the allure of life in a ‘legal’ militia is clear. Members of the SSC have the right to carry weapons and they receive a generous salary from the government. They can be seen daily and nightly guarding buildings and manning checkpoints alongside their police counterparts.
However, unlike the police they have not received proper training, do not follow proper protocols, and take their orders from their militia leaders. While some wear the black t-shirt with the SSC logo, there seems to be no obligation to wear a uniform and most wear scruffy civilian clothing. There is a distinct lack of professionalism and accountability with many considering themselves to be above the law, citing their ‘revolutionary’ credentials or showing off their battle scars when their authority is questioned.
Fed up with the attitude and actions of SSC members, some Tripoli residents have started referring to the SSC as the ‘New Lijan Thouriya,’ a reference to Qaddafi’s feared and despised Revolutionary Council which operated above the law and whose members received special perks and privileges.
The dangerous side of this lack of control and accountability within the SSC has become increasingly apparent in recent months as the SSC leadership began to break ranks, taking actions which were not sanctioned by the Ministry of Interior. The role they played in the destruction of Sufi Shrines as well as the intimidation and arbitrary arrests of photographers and journalists covering the events in August was widely publicised. Members of the public were also assaulted by SSC personnel at a subsequent anti-militia protest in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, and one member of the Libya Herald staff was himself briefly detained at the event.
Crackdown on ‘illegal’ militias
Promising tough action on militias, the government made the distinction between illegal and legal militia (those which are under government control). Officially an organ of the state, members of the SSC may point to positive examples of tackling illegal militias such as the disbanding of the Abu Miliana Martyrs’ Brigade who were residing in Tripoli. However the SSC (itself a militia) yet again went beyond its brief and demolished the building (a Qaddafi-era landmark) without permission from the Ministry of Culture who had been given responsibility for the site.
Most worrying for the ordinary residents is the increase in cases of intimidation and attacks by young SSC members who are armed, and, bolstered by their status in the SSC, feel untouchable and well within their rights to exact their own personal interpretation of law and justice. The lack of discipline and the readiness of SSC members to resort to violence and intimidation to obtain their personal aims represents a real threat to Libyans.
A Personal encounter with the SSC
The rising wave of intimidation and attacks by SSC members is something I experienced personally when my wife and I were physically assaulted by some of them in a Tripoli hotel last week.
Finding ourselves on the fringes of an argument that escalated into a fight when a female GNC member insisted that people should not be allowed to bypass the body scanner and rules should be applied universally, I was accused of filming or taking pictures on my mobile. A group of SSC members surrounded me and demanded that I hand over my mobile phone. My refusal to do so resulted in me being dragged across the lobby towards the exit. I suffered cuts to my hand as the glass door shattered while I attempted to remain in the building.
Meanwhile another of the men had told my wife that they would put her in the boot of the car and take her to a place she could not imagine. Once outside and surrounded by a group of armed men waving pistols I was punched in the face while they tried to wrestle my phone from my hand, still dragging me further from the hotel. The main attacker grabbed my wife by the neck as she attempted to hold onto me, she managed to strike a blow of her own clawing the attacker’s face. The situation was eventually diffused by SSC commanders with help from the hotel staff. When I demanded that the man who laid his hand on my wife be brought to justice I was invited to join the SSC commanders ‘downstairs’ to make a statement, an invitation I declined. One of the hotel management indicated that the situation remained dangerous and offered to escort us safely to our car.
Libya’s legitimate authorities must take action to curb this new trend of violence and intimidation by members of an organisation which is supposed to be under government control. It is not appropriate for the SSC to make decisions independently of the State. Although some members of the SSC may feel that they are working to better our nation, the interests of the nation would be better served by them joining the legitimate national security forces.
The SSC should be declared illegal and disbanded and its members properly integrated into society. The interim authorities must deliver on promises to provide training, job opportunities and grants for young people to start their own businesses, giving them their rightful place in mainstream society before more of them fall under the influence of the subversive elements beginning to gain a foothold in Libya. Failure to take action now could result in Libya being lost for another four decades.
Ibrahim El Mayet is a Libyan businessman and occasional contributor to the Libya Herald. [/restrict]