In an event that arguably highlights the interim government’s lack of authority in Libya, the National Transitional Council (NTC) appeared to have lost control of Bani Walid on 24 January 2012, amid reports of a series of attacks by alleged “pro-Gaddafi” forces across several cities, including the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern city of Benghazi. Meanwhile, Bani Walid elders have announced they will begin appointing their own local government, and say they will no longer be dictated to by authorities in Tripoli. It is unclear at time of publication if the attacks across Libya were coordinated. However, one thing is certain: the situation in Libya is far more complicated than simply a case of NTC forces battling Gaddafi loyalists.
What Actually Happened
Violence began on 23 January 2012, in Bani Walid, considered the last pro-Gaddafi stronghold, where reports indicate that 150 forces “loyal to Gaddafi” launched an attack using rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s against NTC fighters, in an event that left at least five dead and twenty injured. Mahmoud al-Warfali, a spokesperson for the revolutionary brigade in Bani Walid, said at least four of his fighters were killed in the clashes, adding that his troops raised the green Libyan flag of Gaddafi’s regime. However, the details surrounding the attack have been met with conflicting reports. The attacks apparently began after militia groups loyal to the NTC arrested armed men who were allegedly pro-Gaddafi fighters. Following a violent response from members of the Bani Walid brigade, armoured NTC units were deployed from Misrata, tasked with cutting off all roads out of the city.
Libyan officials have each offered a different view of what actually took place. Anes Elsharif, a former military council spokesman, said that pro-Gaddafi fighters had stormed the NTC base, but that they did not control the city. However, Mohamed Bashir, mayor of Bani Walid, stated that Gaddafi loyalists have seized control of the city and that NTC fighters involved in the fighting were forced to retreat, adding that at least twenty-five fighters were killed in the clashes. Meanwhile, Libyan defence minister, Osama Juwali, said that while fighting has taken place, he could not confirm that Gaddafi loyalists were involved in the battle. Libyan Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelali, also denied claims that Gaddafi loyalists were involved in the fighting, saying that the battle was simply the result of “internal problems”. Abdelali also denied reports that the green flag of Gaddafi was raised.
Bani Walid Uprising: An Expected Outcome
The situation in Bani Walid should come as no surprise, as the citizens of the city have been promising for months that they would revolt against the NTC if their voices were not heard. Additionally, Bani Walid’s situation is far more complicated than the media portrays it to be. It is not simply a case of pro-Gaddafi forces battling NTC forces. Whilst there are those in Bani Walid who prefered life under Gaddafi than life led by the unelected NTC (perhaps the majority of the citizens in the city would favour this), the reality is that the NTC has done little to garner support given that it has not addressed the underlying issues which affect Bani Walid, or in other cities across Libya for that matter, thus resulting in clashes.
The people of Bani Walid are upset with the NTC for a variety of reasons, namely due to the lack of reconciliation efforts on behalf the interim government as well as the slow progression in cleaning up the city which was completely destroyed by NTC forces during the uprising. Bani Walid residents are also angered by revenge attacks on their city by NTC militia, with many members of the interim government forces having reportedly “shot at dogs and houses” as well as burned apartments and public buildings. Such resentment led many citizens of Bani Walid to promise that they would take up arms in retaliation.
The uprising in Bani Walid is likely led by the Warfalla tribe, considered the largest and one of the most powerful groups in Libya, which stands at a population of one million. This is a considerable number given that the total population of Libya is six million. The Warfalla has historically inhabited the area bounded by the towns of Bani Walid, Sirte, Sabha, and Benghazi, along the eastern Cyrenaica region. The Warfalla, together with the Qaddafa and the Magarha, were traditionally considered the pillars of Gaddafi’s rule, dominating the security services and the ranks of the military. However, like the rest of the citizens in Bani Walid, members of the Warfalla tribe are angered about the treatment that they have received during the conflict and in the months following the toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. They are upset because they believe the NTC refuses to recognise their plight, which includes having NTC forces and the rest of Libya paint all of its members with the same pro-Gaddafi stroke. In reality, Gaddafi’s relationship with the Warfalla was far more complicated than has been portrayed by the media. At first glance it appears that Gaddafi favoured the group, however, he also pitted members against each other, playing out the tribe’s internal divisions for his own gain. Such manipulation resulted in a disastrous coup attempt by Warfalla members against Gaddafi’s regime in 1993. The failed coup led to the temporary decline of the Warfalla tribe’s influence in Libya’s government, and cumulated in the execution of seven tribal officers. Gaddafi didn’t just stop at ordering the execution of coup generals, he also forbade Libyans from employing or helping coup plotters’ families, leaving many in the Warfalla tribe impoverished. Underscoring the muddled allegiances within Warfalla and thus the city of Bani Walid, Akram al-Warfelli, a leading figure of the tribe, called for Gaddafi to be removed in February 2011, saying “We tell the brother, he’s no longer a brother, we tell him to leave the country”.
The Way Ahead
The situation in Bani Walid also shows the difficulties the NTC has with regards to controlling the country’s numerous militias and tribes. Many rebel group leaders, including those within Warfalla, say they fear giving up their arms to the NTC, which some feel is an unelected central authority that has simply replaced a previous unelected central authority: the Gaddafi regime. Many militia groups fear the establishment of another dictator and believe weapons are their only means for protection. The NTC, for its part, believes that the security will not prevail unless these militias give up their guns. With neither side trusting the other, the situation in Libya remains fluid. Going forward, the NTC must compensate the people who lost relatives in the war, as well as work on reconciliation efforts and clean up the towns which have been looted and ravaged from the war. The NTC must also convince the citizens of Bani Walid that democracy is better than Gaddafi’s regime, despite the favouritism that Gaddafi generally bestowed on the city. Excluding those who were favoured by Gaddafi will only hamper the democratisation efforts led by the NTC, as a number of those in the interim government’s ranks had ties to Gaddafi in some form. If the NTC fails to do this, Libya risks sliding into a full-blown civil war.
(Image: The Chicago Tribune)