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
Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game