Libya's continuing struggle for democracy

An anti-militia protester gunned down on November 15, 2013.

By Chris Slee

January 9, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In recent months there has been a wave of protests against militias in Libya’s cities. The militias are armed groups originally formed during the 2011 civil war. Most are based in particular towns or regions, but they sometimes try to exercise power over a wider area. There is widespread resentment at their arbitrary exercise of power. One protester told the Libya Herald that the militias “terrorise, steal and kidnap people”.[1]

On November 15, 2013, protesters marched on a militia base in Gharghour, a suburb of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. The base was occupied by a militia from the city of Misrata. The protesters were demanding that the militia leave Tripoli. But the militia opened fire, killing 47 people and injuring 500.[2]

This led to more protests. The Tripoli local council called a general strike, initially intended to last three days.[3]

The militias agreed to withdraw from Tripoli, and Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called for an end to the strike. However there were reports that some of the militias had merely moved to locations on the outskirts of the city, waiting to return when protests died down.

University students and staff met and voted to continue the strike. The Tripoli local council also called for the strike to continue.[4]

The strike lasted for two weeks. It ended on November 30 after the government had promised to ensure that all militias were withdrawn from the capital.[5]

There have also been anti-militia protests in many other towns. In Benghazi and Derna the main target of the protests has been an Islamist militia called Ansar al-Sharia.


Most of the militias were formed in 2011 during the war to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi had come to power in a military coup in 1969. In the early years of his rule he was a radical Arab nationalist, evicting a United States air base from Libya and nationalising the oil industry.

Gaddafi used Libya’s oil revenue to create a welfare state. Health and education were greatly improved and life expectancy rose from 51 to 74 years.[6]

For a long time the Western powers were very hostile to Gaddafi. The US attempted to kill him by bombing his Tripoli compound in 1986. The Western powers also imposed economic sanctions on Libya and supported attempts by Gaddafi’s opponents to overthrow him.

The sanctions caused considerable difficulties for Libya, and Gaddafi made big concessions in an effort to end them. The pretext for the sanctions was Libya’s alleged involvement in the terrorist bombing of an aircraft over Lockerbie in Scotland. Although Libya always denied involvement, Gaddafi eventually agreed to hand over two suspects for trial. One was eventually found guilty and one acquitted in a trial of dubious validity.

In 2003-2004 normal diplomatic and economic relations with the Western powers were re-established. Gaddafi began implementing neoliberal policies. Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and neoliberal ideologue, was appointed as an adviser to the Libyan government. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (one of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons) announced plans to cut the state sector by 20 per cent.

However the neoliberal policies were not implemented as fast as Porter wanted. In March 2007 Business Week magazine said:

Porter complains that reform ground to a halt last year… One reason: a backlash against proposed layoffs of public sector workers. A planned privatisation of a public sector bank called Sahara also failed when investors rejected the government’s valuation.[7]

Nevertheless, it appeared as if Gaddafi and the Western powers were now reconciled. The latter even sent back a few exiled opponents of Gaddafi to Libya to face punishment.

However there were still tensions between Libya and the Western powers. For example, Gaddafi opposed US plans to establish the Africa Command, Africom – a military force with bases in Africa and able to intervene in African countries. Hence when the opportunity arose to remove Gaddafi, NATO took it.

Despite the improvements in health, education and welfare made under the Gaddafi government, there was widespread discontent for a number of reasons – lack of democracy[8], high unemployment, the privileges of the elite (including Gaddafi’s family) and inadequate public services.

There was also a rise in hostility to African migrant workers. The exploitation of these workers had contributed to Libya’s wealth, but many Libyans blamed them for the country’s social problems, leading to race riots in the year 2000.

In February 2011, there was a wave of anti-Gaddafi protests in many Libyan cities, inspired by the protests which had succeeded in overthrowing repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tripoli the protests were suppressed by the regime, but in a number of other cities and towns the rebels took control. Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and Misrata, the third largest, were among them.

The rebel movement was portrayed in the Western media as a movement for democracy. But in reality it was more complicated than that. No doubt the February protests included many who were sincere in their desire for democracy. But many of the leaders of the movement were prepared to act in an undemocratic manner to promote their own interests, and those of the anti-Gaddafi wing of the capitalist class. The most blatant example of this was the promotion of violent racism by the rebel leadership.

The rebel leaders were generally neoliberal in their economic outlook, but varied politically. Some were regarded as Islamists, others not. Some were recent defectors from the Gaddafi regime, including former high officials; some were people who had campaigned peacefully for human rights (e.g. lawyers who had defended political prisoners); and some were longstanding opponents of Gaddafi who had attempted to overthrow him by violent means in the past.

Some of Gaddafi’s opponents were veterans of war in Afghanistan. Many anti-Gaddafi Libyans went to Afghanistan in the 1980s as part of the US-backed war against the government of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which was backed by the Soviet Union. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the overthrow of the PDPA government in 1992, some of the Libyans returned to Libya to fight against Gaddafi.

One Afghan veteran who played a significant role was Abdul Hakim Belhadj. He fought in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1992. He then returned to Libya and set up the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought a guerrilla war and made several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Gaddafi. When the LIFG was crushed in 1998 Belhadj went into exile. Belhadj was seized by the CIA in 2004 and sent back to Libya, where he was imprisoned. He was released in 2010.

When the protests began in February 2011, Gaddafi’s various opponents all saw an opportunity to get rid of him. Some put themselves forward as spokespeople for the rebel movement. Some, including Belhadj, became leaders of rebel armed groups.

The National Transitional Council was formed in an attempt to unite the disparate anti-Gaddafi forces. However, past grievances, ideological differences and personal rivalries created conflict within the rebel movement. General Abdul Fattah Younis, a defector from the regime, was murdered by Islamists.

Racism among the rebels

One particularly harmful feature of the rebel movement was racism. Sections of the rebel leadership actively promoted virulent hostility to black people. This was initially directed mainly against migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, who were falsely accused of being “mercenaries” for Gaddafi,and were subject to pogroms in which they were murdered, detained or forced to flee the country. But black people who were Libyan citizens were also affected.[9]

If the rebel movement had been genuinely democratic, it would have made every effort to win the support of black Libyans. But the racism of the rebel movement naturally alienated black people. This made it much less likely that black soldiers in Gaddafi’s army would join the rebellion. Thus the rebels were weakened militarily by their own racism. This was one factor contributing to their inability to defeat Gaddafi without NATO support.

Why did the rebel leadership promote racism? In my view they did not want a thoroughgoing democratic revolution in Libya. They wanted parliamentary democracy, but only if it was dominated by politicians representing the interests of the capitalist class.

Dividing the population on racial lines was a tactic for avoiding a real democratic revolution, which might have led eventually to the election of a left-wing government.

The war

Although some military units and a number of senior officers defected to the rebels in the early days of the uprising, Gaddafi’s army did not collapse. Instead it was able to go on the offensive. In March 2011 it recaptured several cities and was advancing on Benghazi. The rebels appealed for foreign intervention. The UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. NATO took this as carte blanche to intervene on the side of the rebels, bombing government troops and sending military advisers to accompany selected rebel units. The rebels also got aid and military advisers from Qatar.

Eventually the rebels gained the upper hand. NATO bombing played an important role in the rebel victory. NATO planes carried out more than 9600 bombing raids on Libya.[10]

NATO special forces personnel accompanying some rebel units were able to guide NATO aircraft in accurately targeting pro-Gaddafi troops who were blocking their advance. According to George Friedman of STRATFOR:

Accurately identifying targets and taking them out with sufficient precision involves highly skilled special operations teams guiding munitions to those targets. The fact that there have been relatively few friendly-fire accidents indicates that standard operational procedures have been in place.

These teams were probably joined by other special operators who trained – and in most cases informally led – indigenous forces in battle. There were ample reports in the early days of the war that special operations teams were on the ground conducting weapons training and organising the fighters who opposed Gaddafi.[11]

During August rebel forces advanced on Tripoli from the west. There was also an insurrection within Tripoli by residents of the city. Participants in this insurrection claimed to have liberated most of Tripoli before the rebels from outside the city arrived.

Tripoli residents showed considerable suspicion towards the outsiders. According to Nicholas Pelham, writing in the online version of Middle East Report on September 7, 2011:

Neighborhoods that claim to have freed themselves continue to man their own checkpoints and barricades long after the fighting has moved on. Their purpose, they say, is to guard against pockets of [Gaddafi] loyalists, but few doubt that they also intend to keep out incoming anti-Gaddafi fighters. Inside these enclaves, the neighborhood councils hold sway, reestablishing civilian life in the name of the NTC, but with little if any actual contact with it.[12]

Meanwhile resistance by pro-Gaddafi forces continued in some cities such as Sirte and Bani Walid for a few months. Gaddafi was captured and murdered near Sirte on October 20.

The new regime

The NTC acted as an interim legislative body until July 2012, when elections were held for a new 200-member legislative assembly called the General National Congress. Elections were also held for local government bodies.

Limitations on democracy included the continuing detention without trial of political prisoners; a ban on alleged Gaddafi supporters running for office; and a ban on “glorifying” Gaddafi or criticising the “revolution”.

Although the “anti-glorification” law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, most people would probably still hesitate to say anything positive about Gaddafi or critical of the “revolution”, for fear of being violently attacked by reactionary militias, or discriminated against in employment.

Militias and army

The militias created during the war continued to exist after the war. They tend to behave like warlord armies, each ruling over a particular area. Sometimes they have fought battles for control of territory. Some militias have their own prisons.

The government tries to exercise some control over them, by paying militia members and declaring them to be part of the army or police force. However they cannot always be relied on, especially if there is a conflict between the central government and the local elite of the area in which the militia is based.

The government has begun to build a new army and police force. Militia members can apply to join, but have to do so as individuals, not as a group. Progress in building the new army is slow.

Because the new army remains weak, the government still sometimes has to use militias to suppress dissent.


The most powerful militia is that which is based in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city.

According to Juan Cole, it has more arms than the central government:

Misrata is a vast arms depot, with tanks, rocket propelled grenades and other arms stockpiled in such numbers as to dwarf the armaments of the central government. Much of the equipment was conquered from Gaddafi’s forces, but some was sent during the fighting of 2011 by Qatar.[13]

The Misrata militia has often been called on by the central government to repress rebellions in other cities.

Misrata is the place in Libya where private enterprise is most highly developed. It is making a big effort to attract foreign capital, with considerable success. The Economist magazine has described Misrata as “the can-do city”.[14]

The Misrata militia is extremely racist. In August 2011 it expelled the whole population of Tawergha, a town near Misrata whose people were descended from black African slaves.

The expulsion was planned in advance by the militia leadership. A June 21, 2013, article by Sam Dagher in the Wall Street Journal quoted a militia leader stating his intention to drive out the residents of Tawergha from their homes:

Ibrahim al-Halbous, a rebel commander leading the fight near Tawergha, says all remaining residents should leave once his fighters capture the town: “They should pack up”, Mr Halbous said. “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata”.[15]

Why is Misrata such a centre of racism? In part, it is a legacy of Misrata’s past involvement in the slave trade. Sean Kane, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, says:

Originally inhabited by black African cast-offs from the 19th century slave trade, Tawerghis were kept as owned slaves in Misrata until Libyan King Idris al-Sannoussi reportedly put a stop to the practice in the 1960s.[16]

But racism today is not just a product of history. It has been consciously promoted by influential figures in Misrata. For example, Yusuf Bin Yusuf, who was at that time the newly elected leader of Misrata’s city council, said of the black people of Tawergha:

There is a lot of doubt about their right to be in this particular place. As far as we know they are escaped slaves or freed slaves who just came and took over this area.[17]

Why have the political and military leaders of Misrata promoted racism? I believe it is a conscious effort by the Misrata capitalists to divide the working class.

The Misrata bourgeoisie supported the anti-Gaddafi rebellion because it wanted the more rapid and thorough implementation of neoliberal policies. But the rebellion had the potential to develop in a more progressive direction. Racism was a key tactic to avoid this possibility.

Many of the inhabitants of Tawergha formerly worked in Misrata. So, among other things, the expulsion of the Tawerghans was a racial purge within the Misrata working class. It is reminiscent of the religious purge in Northern Ireland in 1920, when Catholic workers were driven out of the shipyards and other workplaces.

I am not aware of any overt resistance to the militia within Misrata. However there is some anti-militia sentiment among youth. John Thorne, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, mentions a café where such young people gather, and quotes a graphic designer called Abdul Hamid as saying: “They [the militia] make the rest of us look bad.”[18]

The struggle for democracy

The struggle against the arbitrary power of the militias is one aspect of the struggle for democratic rights in Libya. Many people hope that an army and police force accountable to the elected government will be better than militias under the control of warlord/gangster leaders.

In reality, there is no guarantee that a regular army and police force under the control of a bourgeois government will be any better than the militias. The struggle against the abuse of power by “bodies of armed men” (whether these be militias, or the regular army and police) will need to continue.

It should also be noted that most people who belong to militias do so because of the lack of other work. According to Bill Lawrence, director of the North Africa project for the International Crisis Group:

Surveys have revealed that only 10-15 percent of the 200,000 or so Libyans under arms want to be in the police or army. Most of them want to start businesses or to be doctors or lawyers or to go overseas.[19]

However, most are unable to achieve their goals, and remain in the militia for lack of anything better:

Being a militia member is also a relatively dependable way to earn a living in Libya right now. Job opportunities are limited.[20]

Hence job creation must be part of the solution. But the economy is in poor shape and prospects for job creation do not appear good, given the neoliberal policies of the current government.

Other democratic struggles include those for ethnic minority rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights and civil liberties.

The Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg minorities have taken action around issues including recognition of their languages and increased representation in parliament. At times they have shut down oil and gas facilities to put pressure on the central government.[21, 22]

The people of Tawergha, who currently live in refugee camps in Tripoli and other cities, have demanded the right to return to their home town.[23] However the Misrata local authorities and militia will not permit this, and the central government is unwilling or unable to confront the rulers of Misrata over this issue, so the Tawerghans continue to live in terrible conditions.[24]

There have been strikes by oil, electricity and other workers, around health and safety, pay and other issues. At times, the workers have demanded the sacking of managers.[25] (However the frequent closures of oil, gas and electricity facilities are not always due to workers’ strikes. Ethnic minority campaigns have already been mentioned. But in addition, closures are often carried out by local elites as a tactic in conflicts with the central government.)

The campaign for women’s rights has suffered setbacks. According to Libyan writer Aicha Almagrabi:

Things have changed but not for the better, and we’ve lost the few rights we had. As an example, polygamy is still common currency in Libya, but at least a man needed his wife’s approval to marry a second wife under Gaddafi. That is no longer required…

Girls at school are now forced to wear the hijab (a headscarf that covers women’s hair and necks but not their faces) and the mufti [chief Islamic religious leader] is also campaigning for all women to always cover their hair.[26]

Almagrabi reports that some militias try to enforce restrictions on women’s freedom:

I live outside the city, and on February 13, I was stopped by a group of armed men on my way to work. They held me at gunpoint for and hour and a half because I had no muharram [male companion] traveling with me. I took the issue to media and it got the attention of the general public. On March 14 we organized a protest called “the march for the dignity of women”. As usual we were insulted, beaten and harassed.[27]

Almagrabi says that:

a key question is to break the militia rule… If that doesn’t happen, we’ll be heading towards an “Afghan model” in women’s rights.[28]

Currently the struggle against the militias is the key front in the fight for democracy. But a real democratic revolution will require a mass campaign for women’s rights. It will require widespread solidarity with the struggle of the people of Tawergha to return to their homes. It will require a struggle for free speech, and a struggle to free all political prisoners.

It will also require a struggle against neoliberal economic policies, and for jobs and social justice.







6. Maximilian Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte, Baraka Books, Montreal, 2012, p. 143.


8. For a discussion of the political system under Gaddafi, see Hugh Roberts, Who said Gaddafi had to go?, London Review of Books,

9. For a detailed account of this racist campaign, see Maximilian Forte: “Race, ‘Humanitarianism’, and the Media”:

10. See Maximilian Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte, Baraka Books, Montreal, 2012, p. 262: “NATO’s latest figures showed that 26,323 sorties had flown, including 9,658 attack sorties, over a period of 204 days”. Cruise missiles were also fired from ships."



13. Juan Cole is a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan.




17. Reported by Kim Sengupta, July 18, 2012:

18. Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 2013. Reproduced by:









27. As above.

28. As above.