Anti-militia protests show frailty of Libyan state

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 22 2012 11:46 a.m. MDT

Farag Akwash, a 22-year-old protester wounded in the arm during the night's clashes, insisted, "We don't want to see militias in the city anymore. We only want to see army and police."

The Sept. 11 attack against the U.S. Consulate that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans galvanized public anger against the militias. Some 30,000 people marched through Benghazi on Friday to the gates of the Ansar al-Shariah compound, demanding the groups disband. The storming of the compound came hours later after the march ended. Protesters also stormed into the Jalaa Hospital, driving out Ansar fighters there.

The unrest comes at a time when the power vacuum in Libya continues. The first post-Gadhafi national elections in May chose a national assembly that is serving as a parliament and that chose the new president, Mohammed el-Megaref, and a prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur. But Abushagur, believed to have struck an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, has yet to form a cabinet. Members of the assembly are pressing him to replace the interior and defense ministers in charge of security forces and the military in part because of their failures to bring control.

Authrorities were left trying to keep protesters away from what they called "legitimate" militias — ones that they rely on for security like Rafallah Shahati, which is headed by an Islamist, Ismail al-Salabi, who was reportedly injured in the clashes.

El-Megaref called on protesters to leave alone militias that are "under state legitimacy, and go home."

Omar Humidan, assembly spokesman, acknowledged that militias "have wrong practices ... serve their own agenda and have their own ideology." But he warned that "striking these militias and demanding they disband immediately will have grave consequences."

"These are the ones that preserve security," he said. "The state has a weak army and no way it can fill any vacuum resulting in eviction of these militias. ... The street is upset because of the militias and their infighting. We are worried of the fallout in the absence of those militias. The state must be given the time."

Aside from Rafallah Sahati, there are two other major militias in Benghazi that authorities rely on. One is called Libya Shield, led by Wassam Bin Hamaad, another Islamist and who has interfered several times in separating rival tribes. Another is the Feb. 17 Brigade, led by Fawzi Abu Kataf who is seen as connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The militia is believed to be the closest to the state authorities and has helped secure borders.

Fathi Fadhali, a prominent Islamist thinker in Benghazi, said the description of some militias as "legitimate" just contradicts common sense.

"How can you be a militia and legitimate at the same time?" he said. "How do you leave a group of extremists taking charge of security? Yes, you can accept their help for the short term but not long-term.

"The state must interfere as soon as possible — even, excuse me to say it, by using force — before everything collapses., I am extremely worried."

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