The First Brigade of the Libya Shield Force, one of the most prominent militia brigades in a quasi-official status with the Ministry of Defense, was involved on Saturday in a shooting that left at least 31 people dead when protests calling for the brigade’s dismantlement turned violent. It should be pointed out that despite having been nominally under direct control of the Ministry of Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Yousef Mangoush, this brigade and others with the Libya Shield name have never been officially transformed into military units. This sad incident is yet another reminder of the dangers inherent in the claim by a number of brigades and former revolutionary fighters that public security needs are best served by self-appointed protectors of the revolution, rather than official government institutions.
As the Christian Science Monitor wrote of Libya Shield Force Commander Wisam Ben Hamid back in October 2012:
‘For Ben Hamid, the LSF retains a grassroots legitimacy that national institutions currently lack. While Libya’s national police and army predate last year’s revolution, and served Qaddafi, LSF brigades have sprung from the fight to change the country. “The army and police don’t have a relationship with the people,” Ben Hamid says. “We’re of the people.” ‘
This type of mentality arguably led to the April 2013 militia blockades of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and other central government entities that prompted the General National Congress to pass a broad political isolation law barring certain levels of former Qadhafi regime officials from future public service. The ministry blockade and their aftermath demonstrated that armed brigades, when sufficiently motivated, have the power to affect the highest levels of government outside legitimate democratic processes, while the elected government does not have sufficient trained forces to counter these armed groups.
Perhaps the largest question in Libya right now is whether brigades bent on maintaining their own power by resisting dismantlement or official integration into the military or police would overthrow the government at some future point before the as many as 10 years needed to build a viable armed forces. In one possible answer to that billion dinar question, founder of Libya’s Sadeq Institute think tank Anas El Gomati told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story that Libya’s militias are too disorganized to truly create parallel institutions that would overthrow the existing state. In his assessment, “they may wear uniforms but effectively there is no sincere command or control … they are ill-disciplined, in terms of money there are many disputes … and for that reason security is weak at best.” Brigades have so far largely used the threat of force rather than outright attacks, but that could change if Libya’s militia groups representing a wide variety of interests from Islamists to federalists to specific towns or tribes ever decided to cooperate once more in a common purpose to replace a government they deemed illegitimate.