Published by The Progressive
Militias Become Power Centers in Libya
by Reese Erlich
DRESSED IN MILITARY fatigues and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, the
Zintan militia surrounded the building in Tripoli and entered without
a fight. They weren’t seizing the last remaining Qaddafi stronghold;
they were taking an oil company CEO hostage. The militiamen were
demanding money for protecting the CEO’s oil fields during Libya’s
There was only one problem. The company had already paid $600,000 for
those services and wasn’t about to pay again.
A month earlier, a different armed group seized the offices of the
same company demanding protection money. Employees didn’t know which
militia carried out that raid.
“The police are useless,” one middle-level company employee told me.
“There’s a new Libyan mafia.”
Forty-five miles away from the foreign oil company offices, the Zawiya
refinery was producing gasoline and other fuels at 102 percent of
capacity. Because each faction during the civil war figured it would
be the eventual winner, much of the country’s oil infrastructure has
remained intact. Overall oil production hit 1.5 million barrels per
day in May, close to the 1.77 million mark under Qaddafi. British
Petroleum announced it will resume exploration. France, Italy, Spain,
Great Britain, and the United States are getting their crude, while
near chaos reigns in the rest of the country.
The Western-backed National Transition Council (NTC) operates a weak
and ineffective government. Some sixty militias are the real power
centers. Unable to suppress the militias, the council uses some as
auxiliary forces to be called out in time of emergency. Others are
signing up among the various political parties, a dangerous trend.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration sees Libya as a great success
for its policy of “humanitarian intervention.” NATO removed a dictator
hostile to the United States, the argument goes, without the death of
any U.S. soldiers and with the cost to the Pentagon of a mere $1.1
billion. (The costs incurred by the CIA, State Department, and other
government agencies have never been made public.)
I asked a State Department spokesman in Washington about the
invasion’s political aftermath. He minimized the problems, arguing
that the American colonists who expelled the British also fought among
themselves after the Revolutionary War.
“In 1787, there was major conflict between the groups that fought,” he told me.
But Libya’s situation is far more unstable. I don’t believe there are
any recorded cases of disgruntled American revolutionaries engaging in
cannon and musket battles in front of the American government
headquarters with George Washington trapped inside. That’s the
equivalent of what happened in May when one militia used anti-aircraft
cannons and rocket-propelled grenades to fight a two-hour gun battle
outside the prime minister’s office in Tripoli.
Granted, any post-Qaddafi government in Libya was bound to face
serious problems. The former dictator had suppressed independent
political parties, trade unions, and the media. Libyans are building
civil society institutions from the ground up.
But the NATO invasion made conditions much worse because the United
States allied with militias and politicians most likely to ensure
Western dominance, not those most determined to build democratic
Washington sought allies among the ex-Qaddafi military leadership and
the newly minted militia leaders. The Obama Administration first
backed Major General Khalifa Haftar, who reportedly had CIA ties while
living in the United States for many years. He became
commander-in-chief of the National Army until he was ambushed and
wounded by the Zintan militia. Shortly thereafter he was demoted. The
United States also backs Osama Al-Juwali, current minister of defense
and former leader of the Zintan militia.
Libyan revolutionaries fear that such men will become U.S.-backed
autocrats, similar to those who rose in Afghanistan.
“Some leaders here in Libya are trying to get Western backing to
become the next Hamid Karzai,” says Elhabib Alamin, a famous poet and
official with the Ministry of Culture. “We don’t want another Iraq or
Afghanistan here in Libya. Those wars didn’t result in improvements
for the people.”
The United States and the International Monetary Fund also are
imposing cookie-cutter solutions for Libya’s economic future, leaning
on the council to privatize state-owned companies and eliminate state
Under their tutelage, for example, the Ministry of Economy studied how
to eliminate food subsidies and other state-sponsored services that
protect poor Libyans from the impact of inflation and unemployment.
Economy Minister Ahmed Alkoshli acknowledged that complying with
western dictates won’t be easy. “It’s very difficult to suddenly cut
the subsidies,” he told me. “People will complain.”
The IMF will also face strong opposition from Libya’s nascent trade
union movement, which has organized dozens of strikes so far this
year. Workers at the Sirte Oil Company struck last October and forced
the removal of the company president.
Mabrouk Othman, vice president of the Sirte union, tells me workers
would never allow privatization of government oil fields and
refineries. Profits from oil and gas should help pay for health care,
education, and other public services as they do now, he says, adding
that privatization of the oil industry is “a redline that can’t be
Libya’s future economic policies are supposed to be determined through
free elections for a national assembly, which will appoint a new
government and oversee writing a new constitution. The elections will
take place July 7.
But as experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, one or two elections
do not a democracy make. In a particularly dangerous development,
political parties are now allying with the strongest of the militias.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party has a militia.
Jihadist leader Abd al-Hakim Belhadj ran for the assembly while
maintaining his Tripoli militia.
The alliances of parties and militias can quickly develop into a
system of warlords, with politicians illegally siphoning off
government funds to pay for the salaries and arms of their allied
forces. Libya seems destined for a prolonged period of instability.
Despite these clouds, Alamin remains upbeat. “I’m optimistic,” he
says. Just because the United States has a plan to rule Libya doesn’t
mean it will actually happen, he contends.
The popular revolution that overthrew Qaddafi will not accept another
strongman—at least not without a fight.
Reese Erlich is a veteran foreign correspondent and author of the new
book, “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics,
Violence and Empire.” See www.reeseerlich.com