Amid the stinging acrid smoke and triumphal yells of the protestors who had just occupied the base of Benghazi’s Islamist Ansar Al Sharia militia last weekend, a big man in a yellow polo shirt pressed through the crowd. Mistaking me for an American, he introduced himself as a politics professor, Ehad El-Fawsi, then apologized on behalf of his city for the death of “my” ambassador. “He was a good man.”
Encounters like these are a frequent occurrence for the few westerners still in Benghazi following the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and three fellow diplomats on September 11.
The narrative from Washington briefings paints this eastern Libyan port city as a den of jihadists, but the reality on the ground is very different. There is real sorrow at the death of Stevens, who had made the city his second home. “People feel responsible. He was so good, he was so interested in what civil society was doing,” said Hana Al Galal, a prominent civil rights activist, who had been due to meet Stevens the day after he died.
She, like many others, fears that the triumph of last year’s Arab Spring revolution in throwing off the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi may be eclipsed by militants ushering in a new one. “Everybody is rallying against extremists, against all brigades,” she told me. “We are not going to go from darkness to darkness.”
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And rally they did. Last Friday, after a protest they dubbed “Save Benghazi,” thousands of mostly young male protestors decided they had had enough, and marched on the militia bases. I watched the first assault, on the local headquarters of the Shahouda Abu Salem militia, and it was an extraordinary experience. Hundreds of local teenagers forced the gates of a compound surrounded by crumbling apartments from the city’s colonial Italian past. Militiamen, still clutching their guns, were manhandled into the street.
Ansar Al Sharia, the Islamist unit blamed by Libya’s de facto president Mohammed Magarief for involvement in the assault on the US consulate, was the next to go. Once the bearded militiamen were respected for bringing security to Benghazi; in more recent times they were feared, booming through the streets in their black-flagged jeeps.
After the attack on Stevens, Ansar’s adherents braced themselves for retaliation, deploying anti-aircraft guns deployed against fearfully anticipated U.S. drone strikes. But they had no answer to the thousands of protestors who marched down a narrow street to the front of the militia’s main compound. The militiamen fired a volley of shots over the heads of the protestors, then fled. In minutes, their compound was ablaze, inspiring scenes at once triumphant and farcical.
By the time this correspondent got inside, a handful of red-capped military policemen had arrived, to be embraced by the protestors. A lone fire truck was dousing one blaze even as cheering looters set fire to its neighbor. “It’s like in the revolution,” said one military police colonel, Mohammed Ben Eisa. “We're taking orders from the people.”
The night ended several miles away, when long columns of cars spilled protestors onto the street outside a third base, a former farm complex of the Islamist Rafalla Al Sharia militia. This time they came under fire, four protestors dropping dead.
Chaos ensued as more carloads of people arrived. Red tracer sliced the night sky and other cars hooted a way back into town, ferrying the wounded to hospital.
When the smoke cleared, literally, the following morning, the militia was back in their base, and the bodies of six soldiers of the army’s first infantry brigade were found, bound and shot through the head, in a nearby field. Exactly who did the shooting was not clear, and recriminations continue to boil, but it is clear the protestors of Benghazi had made their point.
“I’m so, so, optimistic,” said aviation student Mohammed El Gadari, his face lit up by the blue-red strobes of a military police jeep outside Ansar’s burning compound. “It’s always a problem, how to get rid of these katibas (militias). This is the best way, not by force, peacefully, because no one from any katiba will shoot a local guy.”
"Peacefully" is, of course, a relative term in today’s Libya. But it is clear, at least in this city, that extremism has met its match. Elsewhere in the world this month, jihadists scorched television screens with a wave of attacks on U.S. embassies. In Libya the holy warriors’ image as the Great and Terrible Oz has been shattered by nothing more menacing than thousands of desperate people.
Their desperation is directed in two directions: First, against the jihadists who are blamed for attacks on five diplomatic targets in Benghazi in as many months; and second, against a government seemingly incapable of taking action.
That sense of the government’s passivity remains -- though it has taken a somewhat new twist. While Tripoli has announced that all “illegal” militias will be disbanded, if necessary by force, it has also given permission for Benghazi’s biggest Islamist units, Rafallah and the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, to remain.
Officially, they have been declared part of the army. Officially, each must now work with an army-appointed commander, a ruling that has raised eyebrows. Benghazi’s own MPs in Libya’s new parliament have called for more, demanding a total ban on all militias.
But that is not so simple. Islamists are a powerful force in the government. It must be said that there are Islamists and Islamists. Ansar Al Sharia were considered the wild boys of the Islamist groupings, and, crucially, they lacked government support.
That support is heavy for Rafalla and February 17 -- and not just from the Libyan government. Qatar, which backed Libya’s Arab Spring with aircraft, money, and supplies, is intimately connected with the brigades through Ali Salabi, the Doha-based cleric who is the mentor of Libya’s Islamists and who receives generous airtime on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel.
Fawzi Bukatef, commander of 17 February, was a political prisoner released a few years ago after talks between the Gaddafi regime and Salabi. Salabi’s younger brother Ishmail runs Rafalla Al Sahati.
Ismail met journalists this week wearing a long white silk robe, through which seeped blood from two bullet wounds in his thigh sustained on the night of the protests. He presented this as verification of his claim that among the protestors were some Gaddafi elements bent on settling scores.
He insists his men played no part in the attack on the U.S. consulate, and says that he even advised diplomats to leave the city after a rocket attack on the convoy of the British ambassador in June wounded two UK bodyguards. “I advised the Americans and the British to leave. The British took the advice and left Benghazi, the Americans did not.”
Even so, Islamists of every stripe are finding it hard to gain traction in Libya. First, Libya is already a conservative Muslim country, one happy in its faith, and relatively secure that this faith is not in danger. There is popular resentment at seeing Islamists claiming to speak for Libya’s Muslims. A few weeks ago I met with the campaign manager of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, who explained to me that the party had come second in the elections because Libyan people “did not understand Islam.” Afterwards, my translator, a young and pious medical student, told me it was not the man’s business to tell other Libyans how to observe their faith.
Second, Libyans welcome broader contacts with the outside world. “Libyans don’t want an extremist regime. We’ve already experienced an extremist regime,” said Bilal Bettemer, one of the organizers of the Save Benghazi rally. “In Benghazi there is a big unemployment problem, and only business can solve it, not oil on its own. We want to open out to the world, to Europe, to the Gulf.”
Like Galal, Bettame, a law student, knew Stevens, working with him on a joint foreign policy forum, one of a dozen initiatives the ambassador was pursuing. “With Chris Stevens Libyans had a special relationship," says Bettame. "He was so supportive.”
During the 2011 revolution, the constant refrain from rebel formations was that they were “not Al Qaeda,” a reaction to Qaddafi characterizing the rebellion as jihadist. One commander of a Misratan militia unit last summer refused to have his picture take until he had stuck a cigarette in his mouth. “Qaeda don’t smoke,” he explained.
The Islamists suffer also because, while their units fought hard in last year’s revolution, so did everybody else, robbing them of the claim to have secured Libya’s freedom. And the heavy lifting of that war was provided by western warplanes.
Salabi concedes that ordinary Libyans appreciate the alliance bombing campaign. “What NATO did helped us,” he says. “But it does not mean they can come when they want. Maybe there is a secret agreement for the Americans to use our air space.”
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Islamists here is that Libya is rich. Present in everyone's mind is the fact that Libya has only six million people but enormous reserves of oil. There is no need for an absolutist government, only one that is competent enough to share the oil wealth equally. Asked how they want Benghazi to look in five years, residents opt for a cross between Dubai, Paris, and London. Not Riyadh.
Libya’s parliament is due to choose a government in the coming days. The protests of Benghazi have given it a popular mandate, should it grasp the nettle, to bring order to the extremists. In some parts of Libya this should be easy. Most of the country’s 500-odd militias are drawn from their own communities: The most powerful, those of Misrata and Zintan, mind their own business, under control of city hall. For the others, a bold administration can be fairly sure of popular support if it tells them to disband.
“Ansar al Sharia” -- the name means “Partisans of Sharia” -- are another matter. Since their eviction, the members of the group have scattered, though a bomb that exploded harmlessly against the wall of an interior ministry building in Benghazi this week indicates that their members are still around. Salabi warned that denying them a base might prompt them to “take to the shadows.”
The people on the streets of Benghazi are skeptical that Libya’s chaotic authorities will dare to take such a step. “The government is part of the problem. The government, after the revolution, armed these militias,” complained El Fawsi, the professor, that Friday night.
Nevertheless, he remained optimistic. The protest, he insisted, had shown militias they are not wanted. And, he hoped, it had shown the outside world that far from rejecting the outside world, Libyans, after 42 years of dictatorship, are eager to embrace it.