A wave of protests has broken out in recent months against militias in Libya’s cities.
The militias are armed groups originally formed during the 2011 civil war. Most are based in a particular town or region, but they sometimes try to exercise power over a wider area.
There is widespread resentment at their arbitrary exercise of power. One protester told the Libya Herald that the militias “terrorise, steal and kidnap people”.
On November 15, protesters marched on a militia base in Gharghour, a suburb of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. The base was occupied by a militia from the city of Misrata.
The protesters were demanding that the militia leave Tripoli. The militia responded by opening fire, killing 47 people and injuring 500.
The shootings led to more protests. The Tripoli local council called a general strike, initially intended to last three days.
The militias agreed to withdraw from Tripoli and Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called for an end to the strike. However, there were reports that some of the militias had merely moved to the outskirts of the city, waiting to return when protests died down.
University students and staff met and voted to continue the strike. The Tripoli local council also called for the strike to continue.
The strike lasted for two weeks. It ended on November 30 after the government promised to ensure that all militias were withdrawn from the capital.
Most of the militias were formed in 2011 during the war to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi came to power in a military coup in 1969. In the early years of his rule, he promoted Arab nationalism, evicting a United States air base from Libya and nationalising the oil industry.
Gaddafi used Libya’s oil revenue to create a welfare state. Health and education were greatly improved and life expectancy rose from 51 to 74 years.
In response to such moves, Western powers were hostile to Gaddafi. The US tried to kill him by bombing his Tripoli compound in 1986.
Western powers imposed economic sanctions on Libya and supported bids to overthrow him.
The pretext for sanctions was Libya’s alleged involvement in the terrorist bombing of an aircraft over Lockerbie in Scotland. Although Libya always denied involvement, Gaddafi eventually agreed to hand over two suspects for trial. One was eventually found guilty and the other was acquitted in a trial of dubious validity.
In 2003-04, normal diplomatic and economic relations with the Western powers were re-established. Gaddafi began implementing neoliberal policies favoured by Western powers.
However, there were still tensions between Libya and the Western powers. For example, Gaddafi opposed US plans to establish the Africa Command a military force with bases in Africa, able to intervene in African countries.
Despite the improvements in health, education and welfare made under the Gaddafi government, there was widespread discontent in Libya. Among the factors stoking discontent were a lack of democracy and human rights abuses, high unemployment, the privileges of the elite (including Gaddafi’s family) and inadequate public services.
In February 2011, there was a wave of anti-Gaddafi protests in many Libyan cities. In Tripoli the protests were suppressed by the regime, but in a number of other cities and towns the rebels took control. Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, and Misrata, the third largest, were among them.
Despite the protests being fuelled by hostility to Gaddafi's undemocratic regime, many of the movement's leaders were prepared to act in an undemocratic manner to promote their own interests and those of the anti-Gaddafi wing of the capitalist class. The most blatant example of this was the promotion of violent racism by the rebel leadership.
Sections of the rebel leadership actively promoted virulent hostility to black people. This was initially directed mainly against migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, who were falsely accused of being “mercenaries” for Gaddafi.
Such migrants were subject to pogroms in which they were murdered, detained or forced to flee the country. Black people who were Libyan citizens were also affected.
Although some military units and a number of senior officers defected to the rebels in the early days of the uprising, Gaddafi’s army did not collapse. Instead it was able to go on the offensive.
The rebels appealed for foreign intervention. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.
NATO took this as carte blanche to intervene on the side of the rebels, bombing government troops and sending military advisers to accompany selected rebel units. The rebels also recieved aid and military advisers from Qatar.
Eventually the rebels gained the upper hand. Rebel troops entered Tripoli in August 2011. There was also an insurrection within Tripoli by residents of the city.
Pro-Gaddafi resistance continued for some months. Gaddafi was captured and murdered on October 20.
The militias created during the war continued to exist after its end. They tend to behave like warlord armies, each ruling a particular area.
Sometimes, militias have fought battles for control of territory. Some militias have their own prisons.
The most powerful militia is based in Misrata. It has often been called on by the central government to repress rebellions in other cities.
The Misrata militia is extremely racist. In August 2011, it expelled the whole population of Tawergha, a town near Misrata whose people were descended from black African slaves.
Struggle for democracy
The struggle against the arbitrary power of the militias is one aspect of the struggle for democratic rights in Libya. Many people hope that an army and police force accountable to the elected government will be better than militias under the control of warlord/gangster leaders.
In reality, there is no guarantee that a regular army and police force under the control of a capitalist government will be any better than the militias. The struggle against the abuse of power will need to continue.
It should also be noted that most people who belong to militias do so because of the lack of other work. Hence job creation must be part of the solution.
However, the economy is in poor shape. Prospects for job creation do not appear good given the government's neoliberal policies.
Other democratic struggles include those for ethnic minority rights, workers rights, women’s rights and civil liberties.
The Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg minorities have taken action around issues including recognition of their languages and increased representation in parliament. At times, they have shut down oil and gas facilities to put pressure on the central government.
The people of Tawergha, who now live in refugee camps in Tripoli and other cities, have demanded the right to return to their home town.
However, the Misrata local authorities and militia will not permit this, and the central government is unwilling or unable to confront the rulers of Misrata over this issue. As a result, Tawerghans continue to live in terrible conditions.
There have been strikes by oil, electricity and other workers around health and safety, pay and other issues. At times, the workers have demanded that managers be sacked.
The campaign for women’s rights has suffered setbacks. Libyan writer Aicha Almagrabi said: “Things have changed but not for the better, and we’ve lost the few rights we had.
“As an example, polygamy is still common currency in Libya, but at least a man needed his wife’s approval to marry a second wife under Gaddafi. That is no longer required …
“Girls at school are now forced to wear the hijab (a headscarf that covers women’s hair and necks but not their faces) and the mufti [chief Islamic religious leader] is also campaigning for all women to always cover their hair.”
Almagrabi said some militias try to enforce restrictions on women’s freedom: “I live outside the city, and on February 13 I was stopped by a group of armed men on my way to work. They held me at gunpoint for and hour and a half because I had no muharram [male companion] traveling with me.
“I took the issue to media and it got the attention of the general public. On March 14 we organised a protest called ‘the march for the dignity of women’. As usual we were insulted, beaten and harassed.”
At the moment, the struggle against the militias is the key front in the fight for democracy. But a real democratic revolution will require a mass campaign for women’s rights.
It will require widespread solidarity with the struggle of the people of Tawergha to return to their homes. It will require a struggle for free speech, and a struggle to free all political prisoners.