Assassinations and targeted attacks are not a new phenomenon in post-revolutionary Libya.
However, the surgical killing of Abd al-Salaam Mesmari, a lawyer and long-time political activist, on Friday July 26 stands apart from the estimated 57 assassinations that have targeted mainly military or judicial staff since the end of the rebellion against Muammar Ghaddafi.
Mesmari was shot in the heart as he walked home through Benghazi’s al-Birkah district, in an attack that the city’s Joint Security Force (BJSF) spokesman Mohammed Hejazi described as a sniper shot.
His killing, coupled with the assassination of Mohammed el-Mesallati, a former revolutionary, in Tripoli on the same day, marks an escalation in Libya’s often under acknowledged internal war.
Mesmari and Mesallati broke the mould of the usual victims. Their killings did not occur in isolation, but rather were part of a series of assassinations that included several others, including retired Air-force trainer Commander Salem al-Sarah who was unceremoniously shot in the back while performing Ramadan’s Taraweeh prayer in Benghazi.
Emad al-Trabulsi – the Commander of Zintan’s al-Sawaeiq brigade – was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade in Tripoli on the 26th, although he survived the attacks and was hospitalized for his injuries.
Ahmed al-Gaybali, a civilian political-activist, was assassinated on Sunday, July 28, as he handed out flyers for an anti-extremism protest that night.
These Ramadan killings have aggravated already tense relations between Libya’s various militias groups, as well as between militias and members of the country’s nascent army. In the western part of the country, escalating conflict between Libya’s two most powerful militias, based respectively in the cities of Zintan and Misrata, has drawn in their local allies in Tripoli. In Benghazi, the ‘Sa’iqa’ Special Forces unit has struggled to bring calm to the city and tame smaller militias.
These assassinations have also deepened a trilateral rift between the people, politicians, and security services. Libyans were already distrustful of the many militia groups that have ruled the country since the revolution. Perceiving these groups to be involved in national politics, people held protests around the country on July 6 calling for a formal police and army force to displace the militias.
Meanwhile, the militias have allied themselves with various political factions. They have worked to pressure the government to protect their privileges and maintain their current status as units aligned with the Libyan state security services, which work in their particular regions and earn very high salaries.
These assassinations were followed by even more troubling developments. On Saturday, July 27, there was an early morning jailbreak in al-Kuweifiyah Prison, 10 kilometers east of Benghazi, with 1,200 prisoners escaping from the facility. Those who escaped were serving sentences for crimes ranging from murder and drug dealing to “crimes of morality,” such as rape, perjury, and slander.
A special forces unit surrounded, and secured the prison before hunting down those who escaped. Eighteen convicts were caught by the end of the day.
In the eastern city of Tobruk, armed assailants attempt to break open another prison. Three assailants were captured during the attempted assault, but no prisoners successfully escaped the facility.
On Sunday, July 28, Benghazi braced itself for mass demonstrations against the preceding days’ events.
The protests were originally planned to commemorate the first assassination, which came at the height of the 2011 revolution. On July 28, 2011, General Abd al-Fath Younis, who defected from Ghaddafi’s army, was killed in unclear circumstances after being summoned to the town of Brega by the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s war-time government. No suspect has yet been named in this case.
But right before the planned protests, on Saturday evening, Benghazi’s Northern Courthouse, which was located at the site of the scheduled demonstrations, was decimated in a powerful explosion. BJSF spokesman Hejazi attributed the attack to anti-tank explosives hidden under a nearby car.
On the same night, the Benghazi branch of the Ministry of Justice was also hit with a bomb hidden in a bag. According to the Ministry of Health, the two attacks wounded 42 people.
On Monday, July 29, numerous clashes took place between militias and army units.
These included clashes at the al-Qurwasha checkpoint, which marks Benghazi’s main western entrance and is guarded by the infamous, Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia. The violence grew out of protests against the group, demanding that it leave Benghazi in the wake of Mesmari’s murder. Two special forces soldiers died in the ensuing skirmishes.
Fighting was also reported near Sirte between the army and Ansar al-Sharia units. Three militiamen were wounded including the group leader and one Algerian and one Tunisian national.
It is unclear exactly which side was to blame for starting the two skirmishes.
What is clear, however, is that the assassinations that began on July 26, perpetrated by anonymous individuals, are exacerbating existing disputes and fissures within Libyan society.
The deaths of the widely-loved Mesmari and Mesallati, in conjunction with other assassinations, inspired a national outpouring of grief and frustration. In a rare show of unity, large-scale protests in almost every city, town, and village across Libya have since taken place.
This grief mixed with growing frustration over the lack of progress in re-building and developing Libya since the end of the revolution. Efforts at reconstructing decimated buildings, economic development, social and institutional reformation, and drafting a new constitution have been continuously deferred as repeated crises have spurred a slow slide into chaos.
As Benghazi’s residents took to the street late Friday night, they were joined by the city’s representatives from the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s transitional parliament, Halima Abd al-Matloub al-Warfalli and Ameena al-Maghribi.
On July 27, Maghribi publically announced her resignation from the GNC. She voiced support for protesters in Benghazi, and expressed a lack of trust in the government, which she alleged was unable to improve security despite the money and resources it had been given to do so by the GNC.
On Monday, July 29, Abd al-Salaam Sabri the Undersecretary for Culture also resigned. That evening, Kamila Khamis al-Mazin the Minister of Social Affairs, stepped down from office in front of crowds in Benghazi.
The protests themselves were heavily anti-Islamist, and also opposed to the country’s political parties, which have been seen as thwarting Libya’s progress.
Chants against the Muslim Brotherhood – and even calls for the group’s removal from the city – mingled with slogans lamenting the distorted path of the country’s February 17th revolution and demands to dismiss the current government.
A banner reading “when somebody speaks the truth, it will cost him his life” was an apt description of the feelings held by many demonstrators.
Seeking swift justice, protesters turned to symbols of the Brotherhood in Benghazi, setting fire to its regional headquarters, as well as to the local branch of its political party, the Justice & Construction party (JCP).
Also on the night of the 26th, protests took place in Tripoli, which were largely similar in character.
Massing in the city’s symbolic Martyr’s square, demonstrators laid general blame on the country’s politicians and political parties, and did not focus exclusively on the Brotherhood.
Protesters’ anger was unleashed on the square’s famous protest tent, which was erected in December 2012 as a focal point for those advocating in favor of the Political Isolation law.
The law sought to exclude from political office for ten years all those who had held key positions during Ghaddafi’s regime or displayed signs of ideological agreement with his regime. The legislation was passed on May 5th 2013 under contentious circumstances.
While the tent was often pointed to as proof of the law’s general popularity, it was also commonly regarded as aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
By the end of the next day, Saturday, July 27th, the headquarters of four political parties including those of the JCP and their main competitor the National Forces Alliance (NFA) were ransacked. There were also reported attacks against the house of Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s war-time prime minister and founder of the NFA.
The Tripoli protests included calls for a national strike on July 29 to close all shops and businesses and demand the removal of the current government and GNC.
By the end of Saturday night, the Brotherhood’s headquarters around the country were reportedly destroyed or forcibly closed in various places, as far south as the city of Sebha and as far west as the town of Zuwara.
Incompetent Government Authorities
As assassinations and protests shook all of Libya, the authorities floundered in their response.
Former-information minister Mahmoud Shammam publically stated that the GNC was unreliable and unable to conduct a fair inquiry into Libya’s political assassinations, and called for an international investigation.
Similarly, ex-GNC congressman Hassan Al-Amin, who resigned on March 13, 2013 after receiving repeated death threats for comments made against the country’s militias, called for protests, and claimed the GNC and government were paralyzed.
Notably, Amin also alleged the government had recently paid a large sum of money to militia commander, Ismail al-Salabi, who many in Benghazi believe was involved in Mesmari’s assassination.
A tribal council meeting in Zintan on the 27th called for the current Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to replace his cabinet with an emergency government focused on ensuring the country’s security.
Protests groups from Tripoli, Benghazi, and Zintan all released statements on the same day with different demands.
Their wide-ranging positions included disbanding and decommissioning the militias from the state security services, banning all political parties until a new constitution is drafted and passed, holding new elections for the GNC, conducting an international investigation into all assassinations since 2011, and replacing the country’s Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani; Al-Ghariani had distributed mass text messages urging Libyans to trust the government and refrain from participating in demonstrations.
GNC President Abu-Sahmein reacted to the unrest by anointing the “Revos operation room,” a high-level security coordination committee to protect Tripoli and ensure the security of its prisons.
The decision, passed in dubious circumstances by Abu-Sahmein and a few other GNC members, to create this command and control committee coupled with the fact it is led by various Islamist groups and militiamen from Misrata (who have been closely allied with the Brotherhood for a long time) have caused many to deride the move.
On Sunday 28th, the NFA met to discuss the party’s response to the crisis. In the resulting resolution, the party threatened to boycott the GNC if suspects for the weekend killings were not named within the week.
On Monday the 29th, the GNC approved a new Chief of Staff Abd al-Salaam al-Obaidi who is known for his close ties to the Brotherhood and its militias in Benghazi. This move only heightened suspicion about the parliament and its close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Prime Minister Zeidan held an emergency press conference to call for calm on all sides and to urge the various parties to refrain from aggravating the situation. He announced both a cabinet reshuffle and a reduction in the number of ministers, effectively ceding to demands to create an emergency government (which he backtracked on two days later).
Zeidan also promised to bring in investigators from Interpol, France, and the UK to help identify those responsible for the recent attacks.
During the press conference, Zeidan stressed his government’s patriotism and independence from any political movement, reacting to repeated allegations that he has ideological links with Jibril’s NFA.
He blamed the GNC for many of the government’s problems stating, “A minority in the GNC, talking in loud voices, are rejecting everything we put forward” while calling on greater cooperation from the body.
He also sided with protesters by admitting that the formation of political parties in Libya was “premature” and should have been postponed until a constitution was in place.
The Conspiracy of Coincidence
One of the main issues driving public outrage, and facilitating impunity with regard to the assassinations is the lack of coordination and communication between the various forces, including the security services, that govern the country.
As it has since the killing of General Younis, the government claims recent attacks have been perpetrated by those who support the old regime and want to de-stabilize and fatally compromise Libya’s ability to develop.
These claims have logical consistency, although they have been no suspects, arrests, or intelligence information to corroborate this.
On the other hand, the Libyan public has gradually come to believe the Brotherhood is responsible for the attacks. This theory is based on several events. For instance, the Brotherhood pressured the NTC to allow political parties to be involved in the GNC. The group also organized various militias to force the GNC to pass a Political Isolation law that favored the Brotherhood.
Suspicions about the Brotherhood’s involvement have been embellished by destructive political in-fighting within the country. That outspoken anti-Islamist activists like Mesmari were assassinated has added more fuel to the conspiracy fire.
Mesmari had received many death threats from Islamist groups, and, in 2011, publically released a now famous message inviting those who wished to kill him to talk to him instead.
Mesmari frequently appeared on television lamenting the loss of Libyan unity following Ghaddafi’s ousting, and calling on the public to pressure the government by protesting against the on-going assassinations.
Before his death, Mesmari played a leading role in organizing the July 28 protests to commemorate the assassination of General Younes (who many now believe was slain by Islamists).
Allegedly, the Rafallah al-Sahati militia, headed by Ismail al-Salabi, which is affiliated with the Brotherhood, reportedly threatened Mesmari because of the planned demonstrations. On the 27th, Major General Mahmoud also accused Salabi and Ansar al-Sharia for Mesmari’s murder on television.
There are indeed well-known links between the Brotherhood and armed groups, like the militias in the city of Misrata. These connections in particular helped alter the country’s political course.
Earlier this year, these militias violently advocated for the Political Isolation law, by using their weapons and the threat of violence to besiege and ransack Tripoli’s ministries, promising to stay until the law was passed.
The law significantly weakened the Brotherhood’s main opponents, the NFA, and many of its allies, which made them more reliant on the Brotherhood for political influence.
Since the law’s passage, the Brotherhood has worked to ensure those affiliated with the group secure powerful government roles, including the GNC presidency, head of the Ministry of the Interior, chief of staff of the national army, and chief of the Internal Audit Bureau, which holds heavy sway over the country’s budget and spending.
Misratan militias have previously used assassinations as a political weapon. During a conflict with militias from Zintan earlier this month, members of the Misrata militia allegedly killed the son of Zintani Military Police Chief Mokhtar Abu-Fananas.
These explanations about the recent spate of assassinations, whether from the government side or from the public, suffer the same problem: the absence of solid or objective evidence to confirm these claims.
It is clear the GNC has become a divisive body. The parliament includes Islamists, the NFA, and regional interest groups, all of which are engaged in a perpetual power struggle to the detriment of Libya’s national interest.
This can be seen in the delays that have plagued the forming of a government and constitutional assembly, as well as the GNC’s repeated inability to act with unity and purpose in times of crisis.
But public calls to disband the institution in favor of other bodies or fresh elections carry great public appeal but will, at best, have questionable effects.
Various political ideologies have become entrenched within different regions in the country. This can be seen in the push for a federalist state in the east, the tribal issues dominating southern politics, Misrata’s allegiance with the Brotherhood, and Zintan’s links with the NFA in the west.
The same political and geographic splits that have paralyzed the GNC will likely reappear in any new body. Disbanding the GNC will, as such, perpetuate current problems while creating more anarchy during the transitional period.
Instead, the roots of Libya’s political problems must be addressed by revisiting the constitutional declaration, an interim document devised by the NTC to govern the transitional period until a constitution is drafted.
As it currently stands, the constitutional declaration is a brief document that loosely outlines the role of the GNC, and provides guidelines and an optimistic timeline of a few months (which has already passed) for creating and approving a constitution.
To ensure the GNC acts transparently and in the interest of the state, the declaration must be amended to include a new timeline with clear goals and a detailed plan to accomplish these objectives while clearly detailing the procedures, duties, and rules that should apply to Libya’s political institutions.
This should include a clear division of responsibilities and powers between the GNC and government, as well as detailed procedural rules for how these bodies should conduct their business.
Libya’s informal security services, which according to the Interior Ministry includes 17,000 members of various militias, should be internally restructured to minimize the ability of these militias to act on their own instead of in the national interest.
At present, whole units have been inducted into the national security service, along with their existing command structures. Many of these groups pursue their own interests, refuse to take orders from above, and act with impunity.
There is only one road open to Libya, and that is the road forward.
Libyans must understand that their actions, constructive or destructive, are shaping the country and its future.
Ultimately it was not the religious warriors, or scheming politicians who started the February 17th revolution, but rather the grieving wives and frustrated sons of Ghaddafi’s victims.
It is once again up to the people to decide how to mould the new Libya. They must harness the energy and enthusiasm embodied in on-going protests in a manner that smoothes the road ahead and creates a country that resembles their own best image.
In the spirit of progress, Libyans must act to remove the divisions existing between them and create solutions that encourage unity and do not tear them apart.
Only then will they be able to truly solve the many problems facing the country.
* Published in Muftah.org August 3, 2013