Democracy Lab

The Lesson of Bani Walid

In post-Gaddafi Libya, the dream of a stable central government is fading. Militias are filling the gap.

In the hilly desert scrub north of the town of Bani Walid, Libya's revolutionaries have been fighting again. Militia units who thought the war ended last year with the death of Gaddafi are back in uniform. Their battered pickup trucks mounting anti-aircraft guns are parked again astride the highway north of the town, 90 miles south of Tripoli.

Many of these men participated in the rebel assault on the town, one of Gaddafi's last redoubts, when it fell in October. Now they are back again, this time as pro-government forces. Sort of. "We are not part of the National Army," says Hatir Said Suleiman, a bearded fighter from Tobruk, hunched deep into his green combat jacket against the freezing wind that rolls in off the desert. "We are the National Guard."

The distinction is important: "National Guard" is a rather grand name for what is actually a hodgepodge of volunteers from militias across the country, sporting as many styles of camouflage jackets as home towns. The National Guard is an alliance with no certain leader, an amalgamation of elements from hundreds of militias, held together because they share a common goal: the eradication of the people who terrorized them for forty-two years, then bombed, rocketed, tortured, and raped for another eight months. Think Paris Commune, or Cromwell's New Model Army.

By contrast, the government-appointed National Army is small. In the eyes of the militiamen, its reputation is tainted by its officers, many of whom served under Gaddafi. In Bani Walid it has been conspicuous by its absence.

Contrary to many of the headlines, the battle in Bani Walid, which the pro-revolutionary forces now seem to have decided in their favor, was not part of a pro-Gaddafi uprising. Green flags did not, as was first reported, sprout from the rooftops. The issue was the arrest of war crimes suspects. Since the end of last year's fighting, Bani Walid has become a refuge for the waifs and strays of the former Gaddafi administration who are on the war crimes lists of other cities. A pro-government unit in the town had begun to arrest them when on Monday their base was attacked by a local clan. Four soldiers were killed, the rest fled, and the suspects were set free.

Now the National Guard wants them back. "We want to go home, we all want to go home," says National Guard fighter Osman El Hadi, himself from Beni Walid. "But first we need to finish this."

This minor uprising, in short, is less significant in itself than for what it says about the disarray of the post-revolutionary administration in Tripoli. Right now, power on the national level is exercised by the National Transitional Council (NTC). But this latest crisis has revealed once again that the NTC is, at best, a bit player.

The real power in Libya remains dispersed among the country's bewildering array of grassroots military formations. Most are grouped around town or city military councils; Tripoli is divided into 11 district militias. The last time anyone counted, Misrata had 172, ranging from ten-man outfits to the 500-strong Halbus Brigade, with a wartime strength of 17,000. That figure has since plummeted, with thousands returning to their jobs.

Of these, the strongest groups are from the cities of Zintan and Misrata. Both have dispatched key officials to Tripoli to take part in the new government. The defense minister, Usama al-Juwali, is a career military officer in the former army from Zintan. Fawzi Abdul Aal, a bespectacled Misratan lawyer, is interior minister. It was their militias that did the most to win the war against Gaddafi, and the appointments were recognition of the fact. (On Wednesday, al-Juwali showed up in Bani Walid, where he tried to negotiate an end to the fighting.)

Encouragingly, neither man is a warlord in the traditional sense: Both are answerable to their city councils, and to parallel military councils. It's not quite democracy, to be sure. But they still enjoy a legitimacy beyond that of the ruling National Transitional Council, which is self-appointed.

The NTC has been doing little to help itself. Formed in the eastern city of Benghazi in the heat of battle, it has morphed into an organization both secretive and inefficient. It refuses to make public its membership list, or its meetings, or its voting records. Nor will it open the books on what is being done with the country's swelling oil revenues. On top of everything else, earlier this month it bungled the drafting of legislation for a planned June national election, thus feeding the paranoia of Libyans who believe that many of its members are Gaddafi loyalists trying to manipulate the revolution to their own ends.

It has no press office. Or rather, it does, but as one of its former press officers recently explained to an online journalism forum, a decision was taken that the NTC would have no press officers, so the office is unmanned and the door locked. There is no phone.

Instead, what the Libyan people get are occasional edicts delivered from upon high, such as the bewildering pronouncement, in reaction to anti-NTC protests across the country, that the economy and oil ministries would be moved to Benghazi and the finance ministry to Misrata, a recipe for bureaucratic confusion. "Don't think that the NTC is a single cohesive body," said a Libyan who spent years in exile in the UK. "It is chaos. Chaos. It is everybody against everybody else."

Meanwhile protests continue across the country accusing the NTC of a lack of transparency, and of ineptitude. Earlier this month the NTC's headquarters in Bengahzi was stormed by demonstrators. The NTC's deputy leader, roughed up the day before by a crowd of protesting students, resigned.

The militias, meanwhile, are gaining in strength. And the Zintanis and the Misratans have formed a de facto alliance to bolster their position against the NTC. Their rising power was marked by the recent appoint of a Misratan, Yussef al-Manguish, as army chief of staff.

But it is the two militia leaders who remain the men to watch in Libya. Al-Juwali, the Zintani, is a soft-spoken man whose calm demeanor belies his resolve. It was Zintanis who captured Saif al Islam, Gaddafi's son, last fall, thus prompting al-Juwaili's appointment to the NTC. (Saif remains in the custody of the militia to this day). Al-Juwali's men also control the international airport in Tripoli, an important potential source of funds.

In November, the Zintanis made headlines when they prevented Abdulhakim Belhaj, the former Al Qaeda-sympathizer who now heads the Tripoli Military Council, from entering the airport, accusing him of trying to travel on a fake passport. (He was allowed to travel only after NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil personally intervened to smooth out the dispute.) The month after that, the Zintanis at the airport became embroiled in a firefight with the bodyguard of yet another leading light of the NTC.

Both Zintan and Misrata have transformed themselves into virtual statelets, with heavy security forces that control all movements in and out. Misrata's "gate" boasts thirty white poles flying the flags of the world, giving you the feeling of entering another country. The city's bewildering array of local militias operate on a duty roster that allows their members to keep up with their day jobs when they're not carrying guns. The city and its operational zone, which includes East Tripoli and stretches as far as the coastal city of Sirte (a distance of about 300 miles), is to all intents and purposes outside NTC control. Abdul Aal, the Misratan now serving in the government, is regarded as urbane and smart, and enjoys the unreserved loyalty of the cityfolk.

Yet there are reasons to doubt the durability of the Zintan-Misrata alliance as a basis for national stability. In both Zintan and Misrata there are problems with rogue units; the flip side of this citizens' army is that each element is free to do its own thing. A few weeks ago a Misratan unit attacked a Tripoli militia when they refused to hand over a wanted man. Elders in Misrata bemoan the attack, saying that it has fractured relations between the groups involved and that the militia should have awaited some judicial mechanism for the arrest of the individual.

The situation is not hopeless. These militias could potentially serve as useful building blocks for the new Libyan state. The easiest way would be to give each group wide-ranging responsibility for its own turf. But so far that is not happening. The appointment of the two militia leaders to their posts in the NTC were concessions to reality, not part of any wider process of coalition-building.

And there is still considerable sympathy for the idea of a unitary Libyan state -- especially among the revolutionaries who hail from the relatively sophisticated towns of the coast.

Hitching a lift back from the Beni Walid front line to Tripoli in a car full of National Guard is instructive. Two of the young men are from Bani Walid itself, the third from Benghazi. None of them takes the NTC particularly seriously. They dismiss current NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil as neither charismatic nor decisive, though they do regard him as personally trustworthy.

Going down the list of other leaders, they agree that the shedding by the NTC of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and former Finance and Oil Minister Ali Tarhuni, men who did so much to muster international support in the war, was a mistake. Libyans did not much warm to them when in office, but the NTC seems a faceless beast without them.

We pass a National Army road block at Tarhuna, and there are polite hellos to the soldiers in newly pressed beige uniforms from my companions. They tell me that that the National Army specializes in keeping out of the real action, in case their uniforms are spoiled. While the militias don't like the army or the NTC, they follow orders from Manguish, trusting him because the former army colonel spent most of the war in a Gaddafi jail.

The man they mistrust most of all, however, is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, figurehead of the Islamists.

Contrary to much feverish reporting, jihadism is not really the threat in Libya. Despite backing from Qatar, the intelligent, charismatic Belhaj, often cited for his past sympathies with al Qaeda, remains a minor player. This is not to say that Libya is a bastion of liberal thought. Talk to the many flourishing women's groups, who are making impressive inroads into politics, and they will tell you how Libya's male-dominated pro-democracy political outlook contrasts with a deep social conservatism.

"We are Islam," a young fighter in Misrata once told me. "Why do we need an Islamic Party? It would be like America having an America Party."

Meanwhile, Washington, its fingers badly burned in Afghanistan and Iraq, is taking a back seat in postwar Libya, leaving the British and, more discreetly, the French and Qataris, as the leading international players.

Many of the American diplomats are veterans of a decade of blunders and misguided theories in Baghdad and Kabul, and are now more chastened. Their challenge, as they try to push and prod the NTC in the right direction, is to figure out what this direction should be.

But the problems, like the one at Bani Walid, are the NTC's to solve. Thus far, it is too befuddled and besieged to indulge in such forward planning. It will be an achievement if it survives until the promised summer elections. If it delays those elections, or is seen as tweaking the voting process, its days may be numbered. As one Benghazi militiaman told me: "With this government we will wait and see. If it is no good, well, we know how to do revolution."

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Hard Times in Hebron

Can the thriving Palestinian economy survive as millions of U.S. aid dollars slow to a trickle?

HEBRON, West Bank – This flashpoint city, nestled in the West Bank's Judean Mountains, is rarely noted for its bustling economy, neatly paved roads, or sparkling performance center. It is far better known for the nets shopkeepers have stretched above the market streets to keep Jewish settlers from throwing rocks on Palestinian pedestrians, its "apartheid sidewalks," the disputed Ibrahimi Mosque (both a Muslim and Jewish holy site), and the recurring street clashes between Jewish and Arab residents.

And yet, U.S. government funding has led to some small glimmers of economic life for Palestinians here -- gains that may crash to a halt because of a diplomatic feud spurred by the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

As with many cities in the West Bank, Hebron's economic vitality centers around the millions in foreign dollars that have poured in, including money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). An April 2011 World Bank report noted that real economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza reached 9.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, exceeding the Palestinian Authority's budget projection of 8 percent -- although the growth was largely "donor-driven."

USAID has been one of those major sources of foreign funds. Since 1994, it has spent $3.4 billion in development funds in the Palestinian territories of West Bank and Gaza, with new roads, water systems, health care facilities, and schools that have served both residents and businesses of cities like Hebron, the largest municipality in the West Bank, with some 189,000 residents.

The money has helped fuel Hebron's recent boom, especially as other economic indicators have improved. The city has doubled the number of building permits issued since 2006, and is preparing to solicit bids for a road to a new $13 million water treatment facility -- financed, of course, by USAID.

"The USAID support is very essential," said Khaled Osaily, Hebron's mayor. "It creates a lot of jobs. The situation here, the infrastructure is very bad. This USAID money stopped a lot of suffering for the people."

But since September -- when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated with the lack of progress of peace negotiations with Israel, defied the United States and Israel by formally submitting a request to join the United Nations as a full member state -- the flow of U.S. funds has been in jeopardy. The congressional committees responsible for the aid moved quickly to stop it. "Despite decades of assistance totaling billions of dollars, if a Palestinian state were declared today, it would be neither democratic nor peaceful nor willing to negotiate with Israel," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a congressional hearing to review the funding. "By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion over the last five years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior. It raises tough questions as to just what are the tangible benefits for the U.S., or for lasting peace and security between Israel and the Palestinians, derived from decades of assistance provided by the United States taxpayers."

Although the Obama administration opposes Palestinian efforts to seek greater global standing outside of the peace process -- and cut off payments to UNESCO, as required by U.S. law after the organization accepted the Palestinian territories as a full member state in October -- it also rejected the congressional moves to punish the Palestinians. "This money goes to establishing and strengthening the institutions of a future Palestinian state, building a more democratic and stable and secure region," Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman, said in an Oct. 3 briefing with reporters in Washington. "We think it is money that is not only in the interest of the Palestinians; it's in U.S. interest and it's also in Israeli interest, and we would like to see it go forward." The freeze on funds has created a climate of paralyzing uncertainty for the workers employed by USAID, for the agency's partners, for contractors who do business with the NGOs and for a Palestinian government that relies heavily on donors' largesse.

"New schools were built, wells were dug, and judges were trained," said Daoud Kuttab, director general of the non-governmental Community Media Network in the Palestinian territories. "All this positive change ... is threatened to evaporate as the United States Congress decides to punish the Palestinian population for the acts of their political leadership."

On Jan. 16, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would need to raise taxes and cut costs to cover a more than $250 million shortfall in foreign assistance, the majority of which was supposed to come from USAID.

"We're hopeful that the rest of the money will come back, but we're not sure," Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, told me. "This money is going mainly to development and humanitarian projects. There is no justified reason for holding it. It's important for stabilization."

The Palestinians receive different payouts from different pots of U.S. money, both through USAID and the State Department. Of $187 million in economic assistance from USAID that had been pledged to the Palestinians, Congress is still withholding $147 million from the fiscal year 2011 budget cycle -- $40 million was released in late December. Another $200 million in direct budget support from the State Department to the Palestinian government was paid in two installments; the final $50 million was released in early September after a U.S. congressional delegation returned from visiting the region. Later in the fall, an additional $150 million was released for security assistance through the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.  

"We have to use whatever levels of influence we have to try to get the peace process going," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. "They're not entitled to other people's money. We're not punishing them. We're trying to encourage them."

U.S. officials have declined to name which projects will be affected, saying only that health service and education projects will feel the biggest pinch. But Osaily, a businessman by training, is understandably worried about how he will keep his city thriving in the coming months without the money. He knows that Hebron will not get all of the pledged assistance it had expected. "If they cut it, all of these projects will be paralyzed," he said. "It's not in the favor of the Palestinians or America or even Israel to do this."

Palestinian businessmen are also wringing their hands as they look for ways to make up lost business revenues, which had been fueled by foreign-funded infrastructure projects.

Nabil Zghier, chief executive of the Royal Industrial Trading Co., which makes plastics in Hebron, said that although he gets no direct foreign assistance, many of his customers do. Zghier said he owes his suppliers $2 million, but his customers, who rely on USAID funding, have not been able to pay him.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do," he said.

Israel initially withheld funds in retaliation for the statehood bid, freezing the monthly transfer of tax funds collected through customs and other fees, but ultimately released the money in late November. It is now pushing the United States to release the remaining USAID funds, under the logic that withholding the funds will only weaken the Palestinian Authority and empower Hamas.

Critics of the Palestinians' reliance on foreign funds argue that the freeze highlights how fragile the Palestinian economy remains, despite Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's much-touted state-building efforts. They also emphasize donor money's negative effects on private Palestinian businesses -- NGOs pay higher wages, for example, making it difficult for private companies to compete for workers.

Sam S. Bahour, a Palestinian-American businessman who lives in the West Bank, said the money was meant mostly to appease Palestinians, offered as a concession because diplomacy has failed to produce an independent state.

"Those donor monies are not coming in to sustain our economy," he said. "Those monies are coming in to sustain a welfare system."

For many Palestinians, who are concerned about the upheaval in the Middle East and the future of their nascent state, this focus on U.S. congressional funding misses the point.

"The question is bigger than the question of money," said Mahdi F. Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an important think-tank in East Jerusalem. "The stake is bigger than the question of funds. Those experiencing poverty, those experiencing misery, they are living in an apartheid system. They have other priorities. The agenda is so big, so complicated, so much more than the people benefiting from the funds."

Hadi said he is confident the United States will restore funding. "This is a political matter, and it's a matter of timing," he said. "They don't want to be out of the arena."

For now, all the residents of Hebron can do is wait for foreign donors to decide their city's economic fate. And, so far, preoccupied with their own fiscal crises or domestic issues, no other countries have stepped in to fill the void. On the al-Haras road, one of the city's main arteries, the King of Falafel restaurant serves fresh pickles, hummus and, of course, falafel -- which, like most everything else in this disputed region, is claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis cuisine as their native cuisine.

On New Year's Day, King of Falafel was busy, with a steady line of customers keeping the falafel-maker busy scooping balls of mashed chickpeas and dropping them into a vat of oil. Two men who gave their names as Khalid and Waleed took long drags on their post-dinner smokes and discussed the loss of USAID funds.

"We have no resources like gold or oil like the other Arab countries," Khalid said. "We really care about the money that comes from the outside. [But] it all depends on politics. We get it if we are 'good.'"

As he spoke, Waleed interrupted, waving his hand. "The American support for us is not free," he said. "We do not ask for it. It's imposed on us. The one who asks for it is the leadership." In other words, Waleed explained, he who asks for the money is ultimately the one who benefits from it.

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Jackie Spinner