The Zintan Militia and the Fragmented Libyan State

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The Zintan Militia and the Fragmented Libyan State

Hot Issue Jamestown Foundation u January 19, 2012denounced his appointment as “undemocratic” whilepromoting their own candidate, General Salah Salemal-Ubaydah (AFP, January 3; Jeune Afrique, January13). General al-Mangush is determined to establish asupreme defense council and speed up the integration ofmilitia fighters into the national army and police, but hemay need a greater level of support than he has now tobe successful (Jeune Afrique, January 13).Libya’s Difficult TransitionIn political science, especially following the collapse ofthe Soviet Union, the term “transition” is mostly usedto define those political processes leading to a – more orless – effective (liberal) democracy. In Libya, at present,it is impossible to use transition in this meaning, as thefirst step to start a transition to democracy is to have agovernment capable of imposing its rule on the peopleand groups in its national territory. The 42 years ofthe Jamahiriya (State of the Masses) – a very personalQaddafi creation lacking institutions typical of modernstates – makes this an enormous challenge, even in theevent of a scenario (at present completely detachedfrom the reality on the ground) in which everyone inLibya acted to meet the need to create a functioningstate without seeking to advance narrow and factionalinterests at the same time.The success of this transition is strongly connected tohow Libyans will be able to manage the thorny issueof militias and the risk of starting a political shift towarlordism rather than democracy. The continuousclashes between different militias – the latest occurringin near Gharyan (50 miles south of Tripoli), involvinga militia from Gharyan pitted against another militiafrom neighboring Assabia – are a powerful reminderof the menace they pose to Libya’s increasingly volatileand fragmented security environment (Reuters, January14; AFP, January 16). One of the most importantand well organized groups in present-day Libya is theZintan militia, which controls the Tripoli airport andother institutions in the capital. The group has been theprotagonist in several political and security incidentsover the past few weeks.Moving on from the Jamahiriya StateLibya as a unitary state has always been characterizedby several internal fault lines, with ethnic, tribal, culturaland political cleavages characterizing its political andsocial environment. These fault lines were exploited byQaddafi during his rule. For example, in the very early2stages of his rule after the 1969 coup, Qaddafi tried todowngrade the importance of the tribes, but, after a fewyears he understood that it was impossible to maintaina strong grip on the country without the support of atleast some of the major tribes. The resulting “divideand rule” policy was a major feature of the Qaddafijamahiriya (state of the masses). In the long run,stressing these divisions proved to be unsustainable andwas a key factor in explaining the eruption of the revoltsin February 2011.It is no coincidence that the core of the revolt was theeastern city of Benghazi, the stronghold of the pre-Qaddafi Sanussi monarchy and the area most penalizedunder Qaddafi. The Libyan east-west divide is a longstanding feature of the Libyan political and sociallandscape and is essential to understanding Libya’sfragmentation. The increasing weight of local, regionaland tribal interests – which emerged clearly in theprotests against the appointment of the new transitionalgovernment – is connected to this domestic cleavage.Though very important, this dynamic is only one ofmany working against the establishment of a unitarystate in Libya.The killing of Qaddafi was not only the symbolic endof an era but visible proof that his rule cannot returnto Libya. The psychological relief this provided hadanother side to take into account; the death of thecommon enemy opened the underlying structuralfissions within the heterogeneous bloc of rebels whocarried out the revolution. In this context, the presenceof autonomous armed militias on the ground representsa major obstacle to the normalization of the Libyansecurity environment.Recent Clashes in TripoliAt the end of November, fighters of the Zintan militiastopped Abdulhakim Belhadj at the Tripoli airport,accusing Belhadj of travelling to Istanbul on a fakepassport. Only after a direct intervention from Libyaninterim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil was he able to catchhis flight (Tripoli Post, November 26, 2011). Belhadj,head of the Tripoli Military Council, a former leader ofthe Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and one ofthe most important figures in the anti-Qaddafi revolt, isconsidered to be one of the main enemies of the Zintangroup. His military council presents a direct challenge tothe Zintan Brigade in the struggle to control the securityof Tripoli. Like other militias active in the Libyancapital, establishing control over the city is considered


Hot Issue Jamestown Foundationu January 19, 2012to be a strategic necessity for these groups to enablethem to advance their interests and agendas in the newpolitical balance. In this context, control of the airportis considered fundamental.The Zintan Brigade was the protagonist in anotherincident at the Tripoli airport on December 10, 2011,when the militia was involved in a firefight with aconvoy carrying Major General Khalifa Haftar. Twomembers of the militia were killed and several injured(see Terrorism Monitor Brief, December 16, 2011).Khalid al-Zintani, a spokesman for the Zintan militia,said that members of his group did not try to killHaftar and that clashes occurred simply because no onenotified the Zintan revolutionaries of Haftar’s intentionto travel to the airport (AP, December 11). Al-Zintaniand Mukhtar al-Akhdar, the commander of Zintanifighters at the airport, criticized the nascent NationalArmy, of which Haftar is now the ex-commander-inchief,saying that the presence and influence of thisarmy on the ground is almost nonexistent and addingthat the Zintan Brigade will step down only once thenew government authorities are able to fully guaranteesecurity in Tripoli. Only a few days later, the membersof the Zintan militia were involved in another clashwith members of the neighboring Mashashiya, arresting20 members of the tribe, which was considered loyal toQaddafi’s regime (AFP, December 12, 2011).The Zintan Militia Benefits from Strong OrganizationThe Zintan militia is named for Zintan, a city ofroughly 50,000 people in the Nafusa Mountainsof western Libya. The relationship of this city withQaddafi’s regime was always unsettled. Though locatedin that half of the country that benefited by the shiftin the political balances following the overthrow of themonarchy, Zintanis remained rather critical of Qaddafiand his Jamahiriya state. Some Zintanis participated inthe failed 1993 coup against Qaddafi that was organizedby some members of the Warfalla, Libya’s largest andmost powerful Libyan tribe and usually regarded as apower base for the Qaddafi regime (though this supportwas far from unanimous). Zintani fighters joined the2011 revolution during its very early stages and wereresponsible for arresting the fugitive Saif al-IslamQaddafi in southern Libya (Jeune Afrique, November30, 2011). The charismatic founder of the Zintanmilitia, Muhammad Ali Madani, was killed by loyalistforces on May 1, 2011 (al-Arabiya, September 7, 2011)3The Zintan Brigade has an inflexible approach in itsrecruitment procedures - only those who can fullydemonstrate that they were not attached to the previousregime can join the group. As shown by the dispute withthe Mashashiya, the Zintan Brigade has a more general,non-negotiable approach of rejecting any possibilityof collaboration with people attached to the previousregime.Another characteristic of the Zintan militia is theirstrong and efficient organization, which allows themto implement an effective control of the areas undertheir informal rule. Unlike other Libyan militias thatare composed mostly of civilian volunteers, the ZintanBrigade has a balanced but strictly hierarchical mix ofcivilian volunteers from Zintan and former membersof the Libyan national army who defected in the earlystages of the revolution and are now in commandpositions within the Brigade.It is not surprising that a member of the Zintan militia,Osama al-Juwali, was appointed Minister of Defense inthe new transitional cabinet (al-Jazeera, November 22,2011). Unlike other members of the Libyan leadership,al-Juwali has opted for a milder approach towardsthe militias, aimed at integrating and co-opting thesegroups. Al-Juwali says that time is needed to settlethis situation, without setting any deadlines. In mid-December al-Juwali suggested that six weeks was theminimum time needed in which to expect some resultsconcerning the normalization of the militias’ presence(Reuters, December 19, 2011). This stance is part of awider pragmatic approach pursued by al-Juwali, whowants to integrate militiamen in the new military andsecurity services of the country. He stressed the factthat these men represent those marginalized duringQaddafi’s era and will bring new blood into the Libyansecurity forces (al-Jazeera, December 26, 2011). In hisefforts, al-Juwali can count on his growing reputationwithin the revolutionary forces as a member of one ofthe most powerful Libyan militias with the support of awide network of personal relations within it.ConclusionApart from a powerful shared aim to get rid of Qaddafi,the various loose-knit groups of the rebel camp hadlittle in common, leaving a general feeling of mistrustand suspicion as the main denominators of theirrelationship. Every militia has its own self-narrativeand myth concerning its role and weight in destroyingQaddafi’s Jamahiriya. As shown by the recent clashes


Hot Issue Jamestown Foundation u January 19, 2012in and around Tripoli, the ability to obtain a consensusamong the militias seems slight and the possibility thatthese groups will voluntarily give up their arms and getout of Libyan streets appears to be remote. The Zintanmilitia is a rather powerful example of how muchmilitias matter in the current Libyan environment; wellorganized, tough, irreducibly anti-Qaddafi and even ina way reliable, they patrol several areas of Tripoli and,although at odds with some residents and local groups,have been able to perform a more or less effective job ofcontrolling their districts. Their role during the revolutionbought them some credibility amongst ordinary Libyansand other revolutionaries. With some other factions,however, relations remain tense, especially with groupsvying for control of Tripoli such as the Tripoli MilitaryCouncil, the Misrata militia and the National Army.Any state pretending to be effective and functioningcannot allow the presence of armed groups on itsterritory that act independently. The efforts of al-Juwali, a member of the Zintan group, will be aimed atintegrating, rather than marginalizing, these militiamenin the new security structure of Libya. The presence of amilitia member in the position of Minister of Defense isa vivid demonstration of how much the militias matter.That the Minister is a member of the Zintan militiadisplays the importance of this group and suggests thatthe next political moves by the Transitional Governmentwill not be hostile to Zintani interests.The presence of an enormous number of “liberated”weapons on the streets of Tripoli and the strongpossibility that not all the militias will be satisfied by thenew political balance make the outcome of the processstarted by al-Juwali very uncertain. Optimism regardinga settlement of the militia issue in Libya in the shortterm appears to be unrealistic.Dario Cristiani is a PhD Candidate in Middle Eastand Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London.Previously, he has been a teaching fellow in PoliticalScience and Comparative Politics at the University ofNaples “L’Orientale” and a political analyst with thePower and Interest News Report (PINR).4

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