Comment: Demobilising armed brigades is vital if Arab Spring is to flourish
‘They are armed. I am not going to fight a losing battle and kill my men over a demolished shrine,” said Fawzi Abd al-Aali, the former Libyan interior minister, before he “resigned” last August.
He was referring to the armed Salafi groups that were accused of destroying Sufi shrines. One of the accused groups was the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade, which was quick to support the demolition, but denied any responsibility for it.
Ahmed Jibril, Libya’s deputy ambassador to London, has now accused the Brigade, headed by Muhammed Ali Al-Zahawy, of perpetrating the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other US personnel, as well as Libyan guards. Others have quickly embraced and promoted Jibril’s allegation. But the picture is more complex.
The Brigade denied responsibility – like its statement on the destruction of the Sufi shrines, it denied involvement while stressing the gravity of the insult against the Prophet that putatively triggered it.
The Brigade also attracted attention last June, when around 300 armed members staged a rally in Benghazi, sparking outrage among Libyans. One of its commanders, Hashim Al-Nawa, said: “We wanted to send a message to the General National Council members: They should not come near the Shariah. It should be above the constitution, and not an article for referendum.”
But was the Brigade really behind the attack on the US Consulate? Salafi jihadism is not an organisation, but an ideology based on the core belief that armed tactics are the most effective – and, in some versions, the most legitimate – method of bringing about social and political change.
Last year, its adherents did play an important role in the removal of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. Many subsequently matured politically, revised their worldview, and shifted from armed to unarmed activism, forming political parties and contesting elections.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, for example, has produced two main political parties. Al Watan (“The Homeland”) is led by former LIFG and Tripoli Military Council commander Abd al-Hakim Belhaj. The other, Al Umma al-Wasat (“The Central Nation”), is led by Sami al-Saadi, the group’s former chief ideologist, and Abd al-Wahad Qaid, an LIFG military commander and the brother of the deceased al-Qaeda commander Hasan Qaid (known as Abu Yahya al-Libi).
Both parties fared poorly in the election in July of a new General National Congress, with only Qaid winning a seat. Indeed, the GNC elections were in many ways a defeat for Libya’s non-violent Salafi parties and other post-jihadists.
Other armed Islamist formations, including Salafi groups, accepted integration into Libya’s new state institutions, such as the interior and defence ministries. The National Guard, headed by former LIFG deputy leader Khaled al-Sharif, absorbed more than 30 brigades, mostly from the west and south-west.
But several armed brigades still reject the transition to party politics and integration into state institutions. Often small, some were not invited – or given sufficient incentive – to join official bodies.
The death of Stevens and his colleagues has engendered wide public outrage in Libya, adding to the isolation and de-legitimisation of the armed groups. Dozens of Libyan activist groups have uploaded videos paying tribute to Stevens, as well as issuing statements against terrorism and al-Qaeda.
Two issues remain critical in Libya to prevent future tragedies. The first is the need to capitalise on public support and continue the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process that started under the National Transitional Council but was never completed. Second, the government must enhance its communication strategy.
Arab Spring governments condemned the outrageous movie smearing the Prophet of Islam, but they should have stressed that American official and unofficial bodies had nothing to do with the film’s production. Collective punishment and targeting the innocent is forbidden in the Koran in more than 20 verses: “That no burdened person [with sins] shall bear the burden [sins] of another” (The Star Chapter 53:18).
• Omar Ashour is director of the Middle East graduate studies programme at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.
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