In a secret jail in the toilets of an Islamist militia base in the Libyan city of Benghazi, a detainee scratched the number of days he was held illegally into the white plaster of the wall.
The tally, a sequence of numbers ending in 147, was discovered when the army’s Thunderbolt Brigade stormed the Libya Shield base on June 8. The militiamen had welded metal grills to the top of the six lavatory stalls and added locks to the doors to create their make-shift prison.
Two years after the war that removed Muammar Qaddafi from power, a patchwork of armed fiefdoms, some controlled by regular forces and others by Islamists, dominate Benghazi in Libya's east, which accounts for three quarters of its oil production. Frustration with increasing violence sent anti-militia protesters into the streets last week, and 31 people died when Libya Shield forces responded with gunfire.
“I don’t know what happened to the detainees,” said First Officer Basim Omran, commander of riot police deployed to guard the base, as he toured the site. He said he didn’t have details on how many people were held there. Burnt-out cars now lie amid shell casings and rubble after the hours-long battle for the base, and blood spatters the walls of the entrance where a car laden with explosives ignited.
“The local council has no power, no-one is in control,” said Ibrahim Swalem, an oil engineer who worked for five years in Madison, Wisconsin, in an interview in Benghazi. He compared events since the uprising to drinking water too quickly in the desert, saying “too much freedom can kill.”
Libya Shield and the Thunderbolt Brigade, the army’s elite fighting force, both played key roles on the same side during the war, shelving past hostilities.
The Islamist militias were formed from a core of survivors of a failed Islamist uprising in the 1990s, and helped stop Qaddafi’s forces from advancing on Benghazi. Thunderbolt was used by the former government to battle those Islamists in the Green Mountains east of Benghazi. Its men joined rebels in the early days of the war, and are seen as reliable by authorities - Prime Minister Ali Zaidan chose the brigade to host the Joint Operations Room, set up last month to battle rogue militias.
The widening divide between the two groups highlights difficulties faced by authorities in moving ahead with reconciliation, just as the country waits for the controversial May 5 Isolation Law to be implemented. The legislation, which was backed by the Islamist militias, may see thousands of people who served under Qaddafi barred from office.
Black and White Flags
In the streets of Benghazi, tan jeeps of the regular army whiz past white vehicles bearing the black and white flag of Ansar Al Sharia, the Islamist militia blamed by some for the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in September.
Army chief of staff Yousef Mangoush, who has been accused by opponents of backing Islamist militias, resigned the day after the attack on the base. His replacement, Salem el-Gnaidy, says a full probe will be held into the events of June 8.
All four Libya Shield militia bases are now under the control of police, army, navy and air force units, el-Gnaidy said during a news conference in Benghazi on June 11.
He displayed a home-made bomb made from an anti-tank mine with nails taped over it and a cellphone taped to a detonator, which he said was found in the former Libya Shield base. Similar devices have exploded outside Benghazi police stations in recent months and one reportedly detonated, possibly by accident, near the Jala hospital in May, killing three people.
On June 10, the Thunderbolt Brigade buried the fourth of their soldiers to have died after the battle with Libya Shield, saluting him at the dusty El Harawi cemetery with volleys of fire from anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks.
A Move to Tripoli
Soldiers at the funeral accused Qatar of backing the Islamists, a complaint echoed across Benghazi where last month a Qatari flag and an effigy of the Emir were burnt by protesters. Qatar’s embassy in Tripoli says it takes no role in Libyan politics.
Libyan Islamists have performed badly at the ballot box. Last July, in the first free elections since Qaddafi, the main Islamist grouping, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, came second after the center right National Forces Alliance, with less than half the seats.
Now, some Islamists are trying to get power through force, says Fathi Baja, a professor and local human rights activist, waiting to take up his post of Libyan ambassador to Canada.
In March, militias stormed Libya’s general national congress in Tripoli. In April, they blockaded government ministries demanding the ministers be sacked and replaced with “revolutionaries.” Libya Shield’s commanders moved to Tripoli after the violence of this past weekend.
Control of Libya
“They want the interior ministry, defence ministry, foreign ministry and justice ministry,” Baja said. “Once they control these ministries they control Libya.”
In Benghazi, some Libya Shield militiamen insist they aren’t anti-democratic.
“I joined the Shield to protect Libya,” said Mohamed Gihani. He said he was not at the battle, having delayed a shift at the base to play football. He said he worked part time for them, and that only a small number were committed Islamists.
For the government, the stakes are high, and bringing Benghazi under its control is key.
“Our enemies are still working and we admit we made lots of mistakes,” el-Gnaidy said in an interview. “Benghazi is the key for Libya - if Benghazi is down, all Libya is down.”
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