By Joseph Franco
On 22 September 2012, a crowd of protesters chased away members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia from their headquarters in the Libyan city of Benghazi. The event highlighted an obvious yet oft-ignored contestation on the appropriate narrative to describe post-Gaddafi Libya. Too often, mainstream media have espoused the narrative of how Islamists have “hijacked” the Arab Spring. This September scrimmage between mobs and militia not only questions this dominant paradigm but also highlights the potential role of anger in rebuilding the Libyan state.
Confluence and confusion in Libya’s September scrimmage
Confused reporting in the aftermath of the 11 September 2012 killing of the US Ambassador to Libya immediately had pundits pointing to the incident as illustrative of the ascent of Islamist militias, such as the Ansar al-Sharia in post-Gaddafi Libya. The prevailing narrative was Islamists were seizing upon a power vacuum in Libya to channel diffused societal tensions to serve their partisan interests—a hijacking of the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding the 21 September 2012 statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the Benghazi incident as a ‘terrorist attack’, it was apparent that the “militant ascendancy” paradigm can still persist.
It took just a day for events to materialize that have cast doubt, if not a counter-narrative, to this paradigm. A group of 30,000 protestors, at the close of Friday evening prayers, marched on the Ansar al-Sharia’s headquarters in Benghazi. By 22 September 2012, the Ansar al-Sharia could do nothing but futilely try to disperse the crowd by firing shots in the air, before they fled the scene. In the words of a protestor, the action was motivated by their desire to prevent the emergence of a repressive and anachronistic Afghan Taliban-like regime, buttressed by the militant’s use of illegitimate force.
Nonetheless, the protests were generally peaceful, it took place with more than the tacit support of Libyan state security forces—with law enforcement and military units hovering on the tails of the march. Here an apparent confluence of interests emerged, of various actors in the political scene taking unified steps towards a relatively less sectarian security sector. Yet it must also be recognized in this emerging narrative, the persistence of confusion in Libya. On the day Ansar al-Sharia high-tailed it into the desert, the same angry crowds lay siege and drove away the Rafallah al-Sahati—one of Benghazi’s most prominent Islamist battalions, which is aligned to the Libyan Defence Ministry.
Mass still matters
There is no doubt that mass movements will not dissipate in post-conflict areas, especially one which has demonstrated its efficacy. The imagery of unarmed masses taking on Kalashnikov-armed militias is a powerful message. Admittedly, while the events are not exactly comparable to the peaceful protest sit-in in Tahrir Square in Egypt—with the angry Libyan marchers burning the Ansar al-Sharia compound, it was surprisingly restrained. But as the above has shown, the formally inchoate anger of these movements can shift without warning.
What is important to take note nonetheless is the potential ability of mass movements in a tense and often violent milieu, to leverage upon the assumed legitimacy of “the crowd”. Once the narrative of spontaneous, grassroots-based, and peaceful critical mass movement is achieved, political efficacy can only be all but expected. In turn, this sense of empowerment is a keystone in any state-building project in a post-conflict society.
Of course, hijacking the masses can also be perpetrated by the actors from the nascent Libyan government as much as the much-maligned Islamist militias. The most difficult part is to ensure that tacit support by the Libyan security sector does not overshadow the legitimacy of the mass protests. An emboldened Libyan government has in fact issued a 48-hour deadline for militias not under direct command to leave their positions in the capital, Tripoli. It remains to be seen of course if Brigadier General Hamed Belkhair’s (commander of the Benghazi garrison) statement that the Ansar al-Sharia is “finished” was too forthcoming. It may be even seen as the common Libyan as unwarranted goading by state actors.
Foreign actors outside of Libya can also fall into the same trap of inadvertently diminishing the potency of mass movements by trying to fit a fluid, secular mass movement into a formal organizational “bottle”. States with may find it too convenient to infuse political, financial, and even military support to erstwhile leaders in a bid to institutionalise mass movements into more formal arrangements. Given the tangled affiliations and alliances in Libya, this unintended consequence is very much likely. It is quite certain that influential individuals would act opportunistically to elicit resources for partisan purposes.
Overall, it remains too early in the game to see whether the mobs of 22 September would remain angry and more importantly, political efficacious. The key challenge nonetheless, is to channel this release of pent-up anger towards state-building.
Joseph Franco is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.