By George Grant.
Tripoli, 29 August:
Many outsiders looking at events in Libya from afar are probably not fully aware of the powerful . . .[restrict]significance of the recent desecration of Sufi shrines and the dangerous truth that it exposed.
Perhaps more than any other event since the end of last year’s revolution, the attacks have encapsulated the biggest challenge now confronting post-Qaddafi Libya.
That challenge is for Libya’s democratically-elected authorities to achieve a monopoly on the use of force. This is the bedrock of any government’s power, without which the social contract between government and governed cannot be built.
Over a period of four days, from 23-26 August, the distance Libya’s government needs to travel before attaining that monopoly was laid bare.
On Thursday, one of Libya’s most important Sufi shrines, that of the Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri in Zliten, a town some 150 kilometres east of Tripoli, was systematically targeted following tribal clashes there that left at least three dead.
On Saturday, another mausoleum, that of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Zarruq, was targeted in nearby Misrata, the same day that the Al-Sha’ab shrine in Tripoli was also hit.
This latter attack in the Libyan capital was the most brazen of all. Following the initial strike in the early hours of Saturday morning, the perpetrators returned later in the day with an automatic digger to continue the task over a period of some 48 hours.
Those responsible for the attacks were Salafists, puritanical Muslims who are closely associated with the Wahabbi form of Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia. The sites are revered by Sufis, whose practice of Islam is abhorred by Salafists. The latter believe that any veneration of human beings or physical objects constitutes idolatry.
What was so disturbing about this affair was not the attacks themselves but rather the manner of the government’s response.
In a fragile, transitional environment such as exists in Libya, attacks by opportunists are to be expected. But whilst failing to prevent a hit-and-run strike is one thing, standing idly by whilst the systematic and illegal destruction of an important religious building takes place over two days, in one of the most genteel parts of your capital city, is quite another.
In truth, the demolition of the shrines could not have come at a worse time for Libya’s new rulers.
The interim government, which took power on 22 November last year, is to all intents and purposes the lamest of lame ducks. Not only was it weak anyway, both by virtue of its limited mandate (it was not democratically elected) and by virtue of the practical realities imposed upon it (a weak army, fractured economy, shattered infrastructure and so forth), but it also has at most ten days before its term in office is scheduled to end.
As for the new National Congress, it only took power on 9 August 2012 and is still finding its feet. At the time of the attacks, Congressmen were still wrangling over the terms of their internal procedures and by-laws, and it is in any event only a legislative, not an executive body.
That, however, does not constitute a legitimate excuse. Back in June, the government successfully mobilised 3,000 men to retake control of Tripoli international airport in just a few hours, after it had been seized by an errant brigade armed with heavy machine guns and a tank.
Here, all that was required was for the government to put a stop to a demolition job by two-dozen men and a digger.
Unfortunately, what is now becoming clear is that short of rolling up their shirt-sleeves, dusting off their Kalashnikovs and heading down there personally, Libya’s government ministers could no more have put a stop to the destruction than could you or I.
The reason for this is now increasingly clear: the government had quite simply lost control. The body tasked with maintaining internal security in Libya, the notionally Interior Ministry-controlled Supreme Security Committee, had either refused point-blank to stop the attacks, or else had been complicit in authorising them in the first place.
This body of 100,000 former revolutionaries, which likes to call itself the ‘guardian of the revolution’, had not so much become a law unto itself as it had become the law.
Evidence of the SSC’s complicity in the attacks, and of its defiance of the government, is more than incidental.
On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Abushagur had demanded a stop to the demolitions, but to no avail.
On Saturday, National Congress Speaker Mohammed Magarief suggested official collusion in the desecrations when he said that those responsible “are unfortunately aligned with some in the Supreme Security Committee and some ex-revolutionaries”.
On Sunday, Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelal tendered his resignation following intense criticism from the Congress over his handling of the situation, although he reversed this decision two days later on the grounds that it would “further complicate security”.
Earlier on Sunday, his undersecretary Omar Khadrawi had denied allegations that the Interior Ministry had authorised the shrine demolitions, proffering the feeble excuse that action had not been taken because the ministry did not wish to risk violence by intervening.
Throughout the demolition of the Al-Sha’ab shrine in Tripoli, SSC personnel were on hand to ‘maintain order’, which turned out to mean stopping protesters from disrupting the Salafists in finishing the job.
Although a group of protesters did succeed in holding up work for several hours, this was followed by brawl in which an Imam trying to reason with the Salafists was temporarily abducted along with two protesters. The previous day, three journalists from a local TV station were called into the SSC for interrogation for their coverage of the events.
This then begs the obvious question of why the SSC chose not only to allow the attacks to take place, but to defy the government in doing so. The first part of the answer is that the SSC has, since its inception, been controlled by powerful Islamist personalities, many of whom share the Salafists’ puritanical worldview. Second, these individuals appear to believe, rightly as it turns out, that they have the power to defy the government if they so choose.
Needless to say, the SSC vigorously denies that the charges now being leveled against it. In the wake of criticism over its handling of the affair, it issued a statement affirming its loyalty both to the government and the National Congress. But the very fact that it felt the need to make such a declaration is in itself revealing.
The growth of the SSC has dwarfed – and some would say actively impeded – the development of a regular army and police force in Libya. Few if any meaningful laws exist to regulate this conglomerate of former revolutionary brigades and define its parameters.
As far back as last December, the National Transitional Council passed a law to dissolve the SSC, reasoning that it was a temporary body borne of the expediencies of the revolution, which needed to be replaced by regular security forces. This legislation was ignored.
On the face of it, these developments pose a very real threat to Libya’s democratic future, but they also present an important opportunity that the country’s rulers must now seize with both hands.
The SSC has affirmed its loyalty to the Congress and the government, and it must be daily reminded of that fact in the form of laws which do not yet exist. In any society, the most powerful weapon against arbitrary power is the rule of law, but it is a weapon Libya has yet to fully harness.
Neither the NTC nor the interim government were able to bring forward the needed legislation, for reasons already highlighted, but Libya’s democratically elected rulers now possess the mandate to do so.
Ultimately, a properly regulated security sector will most likely require the abolition of a quasi-official body like the SSC. The government will have to tread gently here, but it can sweeten the pill with generous incentives to existing SSC members to integrate with the regular army and police, the development of which must be attended to with urgency.
In this endeavour, the government will need to bring public opinion along with it, and this is where the SSC’s behaviour may in fact prove to be an own-goal.
Both on the street and online, condemnation of these events has been near-universal. Even if Libyans felt that the shrines were undesirable in principle, very few supported the manner of their demise in practice.
Moreover, the SSC’s role in the attacks represented a dangerous subversion of legitimate authority, the significance of which appears to have been lost on almost nobody. The consensus amongst the majority of Libyans seems to be that if anyone was to have authorised the removal of these shrines it should have been the government or the official religious authorities headed by the Grand Mufti.
When Libyans went to the polls in July, they gave clear expression to a fact that most of us who live here have recognised for some time, namely that this is a moderate country in which the socially authoritarian tendencies of hardline Islamists win little popular support.
Consequently, when the pragmatic National Forces Alliance won more than twice as many votes as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice & Construction Party, there was little to be surprised about.
Voter after voter had told me personally that they wanted a government which would focus on the practical issues of growing the economy and building Libya’s shattered infrastructure, not telling them how to be Muslims.
The events of the past week stand decisively against all of that, but that is precisely what gives Libya’s leaders the chance to turn this disaster to their advantage. The SSC has overstepped the mark in the most brazen fashion; it is down to the Congress, together with the new government once it is appointed, to ensure it never does so again.
George Grant is Deputy Editor of the Libya Herald. [/restrict]