Islamists tasked with drugs crackdown in Tripoli

What now for the rule of law in Libya?

Libyans are facing a dilemma. Nearly two years after the 17 February uprising began, the euphoria of defeating Gaddafi and ending his 42 years of tyranny and oppression has faded. In its place is a nationwide balance sheet of significant achievements and demoralizing failures. Recent attacks in Benghazi, the hostage crisis in Algeria and the ongoing conflict in Mali are testament to the very real dangers of allowing Libya to become a playground for militias and armed groups with anti-Western ideologies. Yet, with a legitimate but weak government, local gangs offer a semblance of order and stability. The decision by the Ministry of the Interior to empower an Islamist militia to crackdown on drug smuggling in the capital has divided opinion. Do these groups have a role to play in achieving rule of law, or will they act as a hindrance?

The Libyan capital Tripoli is more secure than other places in Libya. It is still safe to walk around and drive at night. There have been few attacks on foreigners. Police presence on the ground is thin. The peace is kept for the most part by "thuwar" (revolutionaries). These autonomous brigades of armed fighters insist that they are the last line of defence protecting the revolution, for which they were formed. They are also accused of  pursuing their own interests to the detriment of their compatriots. Infighting and drug dealing is on the increase. The Ministry of Interior recently announced that the murder rate in Libya has increased by 500% since 2010. Speaking to the Libya Herald newspaper, Khaled Karrah, the former head of Tripoli’s Suq Al-Jumaa's local council, said: "the instability of the state is due to the drug dealers and young drug addicts. They are responsible for about 80 percent of the cases of night-time abductions. The false checkpoints are also organised by young Libyans under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They steal the nicest cars and abduct people to get money to buy more drugs. When they are arrested, most of them are drunk or in a trance-like state."

The Libyan authorities, with only weak national security forces behind them, have chosen to combat these gangs by empowering another. The new anti-drug brigade, the "Quat Rida al Khaasa", although nominally part of the government-run Supreme Security Council (SSC), is controlled by Abdul-Raof Karrah. This well-known figure is head of the powerful Tripoli militia, the Nawasi brigade, and widely seen as hard line Islamist.

The Nawasi brigade has already caused controversy by carrying out its own vigilante fight against crime. Its anti drug squads have taken to covering their faces to protect themselves from retaliatory attacks from well armed drug dealers. Their hidden identities  mean they can act with impunity. A common criticism levelled against such groups is that arrested prisoners have no official recourse to justice. There have also been many allegations of torture being used against those taken captive. In January an alleged drug dealer from the Fashlum area of the capital died "unlawfully", according to Interior Ministry Undersecretary Omar El Khadrawi, after being taken into custody by Nawasi. This sparked a gunfight in central Tripoli in which several people were injured and at least two killed. The following days saw protests against the Nawasi brigade in the central Martyrs' Square, as well as a demonstration in support of the fight against drugs attended by around 2,000 people.  

This empowerment of Nawasi by the Ministry of the Interior has split opinion in Tripoli. On the one hand there are "idealists" who believe completely disbanding the militias is the only way to truly establish rule of law within Libya. For Tripoli resident, Nisreen, “these militias are basically just glorified gangs. They accuse anyone they don't like of being drug dealers then arrest them and take their revenge. We are fed up of guys with guns doing whatever they want. We need to get rid of the militias so that Libya can become secure and stable again."

Suliman Ali Zway, a journalist from Benghazi, agrees, "I don't want militias with certain ideologies to have any power because even though they say that they 'follow orders' of the Ministry of Interior, in reality they answer to no one. I think that the existence of militias (regardless of their ideology) will only prevent Libya from building a civilized state."

There is fear Nasawi will use their new role to enforce their strict religious views. When challenged, most Libyans are quick to remind you that in the July 2012 general elections Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood won less than a quarter of the party seats. A clear sign, they say, that while Libya is undoubtedly an Islamic nation, it has little sympathy for brands of extreme political Islam imported from Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Libyan support for the NATO intervention which led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi also remains strong, with supporters of the revolution hailing Western countries that supported the intervention. Huge demonstrations have been held in both Benghazi and Tripoli protesting against violence and extremism. When Ambassador Stephens was killed in September 2012 by Al Qaeda affiliated groups, thousands of Libyans turned out to express their sadness and regret.

Others argue opposing Nasawi is a luxury Libya cannot afford. A significant number of Libyans wholeheartedly support the anti-drugs tirade of these brigades. The Facebook page "We are all Abdul-Raof Karrah" has nearly 12,000 likes.

The issue of drugs and alcohol is an emotive one. In this conservative society, many are saddened and angered by what they see as  their country being corrupted. Majdi Swaidan, member of an SSC brigade based at Mitiga airport, believes there can be no compromise when it comes to the issue of drugs. "Anyone who is against drugs has to support Nawasi," he says. He admits that ideally it should be the police taking on this role, but explains that until they are strong enough,  militias like Nawasi are the only groups powerful enough to successfully tackle Tripoli's drug problem.

"At the moment it is a choice between the lesser of two evils,” says Tahir Busrewil, a former revolutionary. He argues criminals should not be left to act with impunity until such time that the government can effectively enforce law and order.

Until recently, this debate was framed as an internal Libyan issue; but developments in the region have catapulted the issue on to the international stage and injected a new sense of urgency into finding short term, as well as long term, solutions to Libya's security issues.

While in Tripoli last week, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that "there are dangers, there are problems of security in this country", and although Libya is not the anarchic hellhole some are making it out to be, there are undoubtedly some serious security concerns. There is a sense of sinking optimism and growing frustration across the country as Libya slips once more into the role of the dangerous pariah state in the eyes of the outside world. Although Cameron was keen to stress the potential for foreign investment in Libya, the reality is that foreign companies and organisations are starting to think twice about continuing or resuming activities in the country. This is the last thing that Libya wants or needs.

Libyans want to make it clear to their enemies and the rest of the world that they are not sitting idly by as militias hijack their revolution. However, solving Libya's security problems is not as straightforward as forcefully disbanding each and every militia in the country (which is by no means straightforward to begin with). The Libyan authorities are trying to exert their power over society while dealing with decades of ingrained corruption, inefficiency and bureaucracy. They are inexperienced and overwhelmed, but this does not mean they are not trying. In the place of  waiting for a fully functioning army and police force to miraculously appear, the beleaguered government has few options at its disposal.

 

Libyans wait to hand over their weapons during a ceremony at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli on 29 September, 2012, Gianluigi Guercia, CREDIT: Getty Images
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt