HOW THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR EXPLAINS TODAY’S LIBYA

These are the stories of revolutions, or rather, their fallout. Although the path leading up to an uprising that ends in the deposing of a despised dictator is filled with idealism and bloody confrontation, the months and years following the official end of a revolution are perhaps more delicate. As is seen in both the American Revolution and in the current fallout from the 2011 Libyan uprising, dreaming of democracy is one thing, seeing democracy actually come to fruition is an entirely different story. The United States and Libya have undergone such dramatic democratic upheavals, each underpinned by their own history and cultural values, and despite their vast differences, the two countries have dealt with a similar set of circumstances in the wake of their respective revolutions: Both have had to deal with powerful militias whilst balancing the need for a central authority without neglecting the calls for a locally elected government. In the first part of this series, we will look at the how Libya is currently working towards amalgamating its militias in order to create a stronger, united country, an issue which the United States also had to take a deep look at in the aftermath of its Revolutionary War.

Reigning in Libya’s Militias

As post-conflict Libya remains awash in arms, the country’s twenty-eight or so militia groups still pose a threat to Libya’s security as witnesses still report hearing gun battles between rival militias almost every night in Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi, with groups often engaging in turf battles. Misrata, in particular, has become a haven for militia groups. At first glance, there seems to be a turn toward a degree of normalcy as shops and schools have reopened, whilst other buildings that were earlier damaged by the war are being rebuilt. However, unemployment is rampant and tens of thousands of armed, jobless rebel fighters, many of whom are clad in Che Guevara-style berets, are still operating in militia groups. Some former rebels have sporadically blocked the main roads with missile-laden trucks and have been engaging in races with other drivers, whilst simultaneously going after those they believe were “pro-Gaddafi” fighters. Misrata-based militias have also made a name for themselves, a not for positive reasons, for driving out the entire 30,000-member population of Tawargha, by forcefully evicting people from their homes, destroying their property and initiating revenge attacks for the Tawargha’s alleged support for the now deceased and reviled former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Not stopping there, some Misrata-based groups also continue to this very day to attack dark skinned Africans, due to their assumption that all Sub-Saharan Africans served as mercenaries for Gaddafi. Again indicating the apparent ineffectiveness of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to reign in its militia base, armed groups from Zintan, in the Nafusa Mountains, also drove thousands of members of the Mashashya tribe out of their village. In Tripoli, most ignored the call from the NTC to disarm by 31 December 2012. Although in the months since, most Tripoli militias have relinquished their arms, elsewhere across the country remains a different story. Many rebel group leaders 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. Despite such problems, the militias remain, overall, respected. As was the case in American Revolutionary War, which took place between 1775-1783, militias were essential for the country’s victory. For many Libyans, despite the fact that they are increasingly growing weary of their presence, the militias represent the catalyst for the country’s democracy. A rag tag team of mostly young men, the militias provided the backbone for Libya’s wider NTC forces that ultimately helped take down Libya’s infamous bogeyman.

America’s Revolutionary Militias

Libya’s current situation is not unlike that of 18th century America. In 1775 during the early stages of the American Revolution, the British forces and those loyal to the crown attempted to disarm the various American militias, only further enraging the colonists who declared that such attempts were in direct violation of their right to self-defence, and under the Declaration of Rights, they could remain armed. Echoing today’s Libya, the colonists had a long-established system of local militia, which were sponsored by the thirteen original colonies. Like the twenty-eight odd Libyan militia groups, each American militia lacked professional army or naval training, as well as uniforms. The American militia were simply a hodgepodge of men, mainly males between sixteen and sixty, who came from various employment backgrounds: they were farmers, common labourers, lawyers, and carpenters. As was the case in the Libyan uprising, the American militias were eventually used to compliment the burgeoning country’s Continental Army and whilst they proved effective in taking on the British military, the militia groups were rather undisciplined and often ignored the command of their supervisors, with some feeling that George Washington had no more authority then Great Britain’s King George III. Such lack of commitment to the central government forced Washington to write of the New England militia, “their officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of people I ever saw”. Like that of Libya’s militias, the American militias were also not keen on those that they believed would seek to destroy the dream of democracy. In Virginia for example, militia groups refused to allow Roman Catholics to serve in their brigades for fear that they would see any revolt against the head of the Church of England as prime cause to institute the authority of the Pope. Additionally, militias frequently denied freed African slaves the opportunity to join in the revolution. However, as in the case of Libya, America’s militias proved necessary, and helped solidify the fledgling democracy’s victory in its revolution. Likewise, their hesitance to lay down their arms also laid the foundation for the establishment of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. And although the militias of the Revolutionary period have long since been disbanded, the right to bear arms is a topic that to this very day remains a hot button issue.

Democracy Libyan Style

It must be understood that both the United States and Libya, are of course, completely separate countries, each with their own unique history and religious background, with Libya having a rich Islamic heritage, whilst the US is a secular state of predominantly Judeo-Christian tradition (it is interesting to note that under Article 11 of Treaty of Tripoli, which was signed in 1796 between Tripolitania and the American Government, the US was officially declared a “secular state”). Nevertheless, the two share common ground, as both countries have had to deal with the fallout of an uprising, and both of had their fare share of detractors on their way to implementation democracy. Libya, especially, has had to suffer the critical eye of the Western media which has been quick to paint the situation as another Iraq, with many journalists forecasting that the country will complete tear itself apart due to the conflicts among various militia groups. However, there are indications that Libya has a more positive future, as Libyans for the most part, feel a collective responsibility toward heir country after taking down Gaddafi. Militias, too, are not as “bad” as they appear to be. As in the early days of the American Revolution, there is still respect for many militia groups, as they, after all, are largely responsible for Libya’s 2011 success. However, Libyans would like to move forward, and they are pressing rebel fighters to lay down their weapons and join the wider community. So far, this has been happening, albeit slowly. On 04 March 2012, for example, 225 soldiers from Tripoli graduated and are now serving in the National Army, and Libya now has 10,000 armed men in its National Army and police forces. Additionally, on 11 March 2012, the Suq Al-Juma Brigade relinquished control of Tripoli’s Mitiga Airbase to the Libyan Air force. The handover occurred within twenty-four hours after a National Transitional Council (NTC)-led conference in Misrata ordered brigades across the country to hand over all critical areas to the interim government, including airports, bases, border check points, military camps, government buildings, hotels, and ports. However, as of 11 March 2012, part of Mitiga is still under the control of Abdul Hakim Belhaj’s Tripoli Military Council. Nevertheless, reports indicate that during the Misrata agreement, all brigades did sign up to relinquish control of ports, air bases, etc. In the end, winning a war is one thing, seeing democracy come to fruition is an entirely different story. Aside from reigning in militias and controlling the wave of weaponry in the wake of the uprising, today’s Libyans, like the 18th century Americans, still have one central problem: to decide whether Libya will become a loose confederation of states, or become a unified and democratic force to be reckoned with. This will be the subject of Part 2 of our series which will be published on 14 March 2012.

(Image: images.ctv.ca)

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