Tunisia and Libya take on Ansar al-Sharia Militants

Clashes broke out on Sunday in a western suburb of Tunis and in the city of Kairouan at the Mosque of the Martyrs between Tunisian police and militants of the proscribed Ansar al-Sharia cell. Although the movement makes exaggerated claims for its adherents, I shouldn’t imagine they amount to more than a couple thousand core members, though the broader Salafi movement sometimes sympathizes with Ansar. It is especially strong in Ettadhamen and Intilaqa, western slums on the outskirts of the capital of Tunis.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 unleashed many energies, as with all revolutions, both positive and negative. In France, 1789 gave us both the declaration of the Rights of Man and the bloody Vendee peasant revolt in favor of the king, which left perhaps 40,000 dead.

In Tunisia and Libya, most social forces have favored a turn to parliamentary government and free and fair elections. The outcomes differed, though. In Tunisia, the religious Right party, al-Nahda, got 37% of the vote and was able to form a government in coalition with small secular parties. In Libya, the vote was conducted 90% on a non-party basis. Among the 30% of seats awarded by party, relatively few went to the Muslim Brotherhood, with nationalists taking the majority. Many of the independents have religious commitments, but don’t appear to be partisans of a hard line fundamentalist ideology.

But in addition to the vast majority of organizations and parties that support parliamentary rule, the revolutions freed small extremist parties, collectively known as Ansar al-Sharia, to act out and engage in terrorism in a way that the former authoritarian regimes would not have permitted.

The Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia announced it was holding an annual conference in the old central Islamic city of Kairouan in Tunisia on Sunday. Since members have been accused of involvement in attacks on the US embassies in Tunisia and Libya, the Tunisian government banned the meeting. The organization is led by the fugitive Abu Ayad (Saif Allah Ben Hussein), a former American ally who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and who has been in hiding since he was implicated in the Benghazi consulate attack. The radicals, defiant, insisted they would hold their conference.

The al-Nahda government has been reluctant to move against Muslim religious groups, even radical ones, for fear of alienating elements of their own base. But after the assassination in February of leftist leader Chokry Belaid, probably by an Ansar sympathizer, the new prime minister Ali Lareyedh, appears to feel it necessary to take a stand somewhere. Belaid’s killing resulted in a massive protest in Tunis in the hundreds of thousands, and shook the al-Nahda government, which will face polls sometime in the next 8 months. Former al-Nahda PM Hamadi Jebali had wanted to form a government of national unity after the assassination, but was forced out when his party refused to give up power. Lareyedh, the former Interior Minister on whose watch Belaid was killed, therefore faces the challenge of justifying continued al-Nahda rule, including provision of better security. (I heard Lareyedh speak at a conference in Tunis on March 31).

Tunisia benefits from the fact that its army was not dissolved in the course of its brief revolution, and ordinary police forces likewise survived the revolution. It did have to disband or reorganize its STASI-like secret police, but on the whole the country’s security capacity is not insignificant compared to that of Libya to its east, where the old Gaddafi cadres largely collapsed and the army is weak and demoralized.

A rash of bombings and attacks in Benghazi has been shaken by a series of attacks on police stations and small gelatino bombings that caused no deaths and little damage, but have rattled nerves in the city. On Friday, crowds gathered outside the city’s major five-star hotel, protesting the continued insecurity. After the September 11, 2012, attack on the US consulate in the city, large angry crowds forced militant fundamentalist militiamen out of the city. But the cells, collectively called ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ or Helpers of Religious Law, have safe houses 10 km. out from Benghazi and are able to come in and attack clinics and other soft targets.

USG Open Source Center quotes “Benghazi Al-Tadamun Online in Arabic on 15 May carries a 60-word report saying that commando forces, Libyan Army forces, police officers, and elements of the Supreme Security Commission were deployed to secure Benghazi city.”

The government security forces are still not very good, and contain large numbers of militiamen of questionable discipline and questionable loyalty to the elected government.

Maybe the US Congressmen on the Hill could devote some energy to actually helping the situation in contemporary Benghazi by offering the Libyan government more help with training up a new professional army and police force.

Aljazeera reports on the situation in Benghazi:

The USG Open Source center translates snippets from the Libyan Arabic press from these past few days of violence:

“Benghazi Al-Tadamun Online in Arabic on 15 May carries a 100-word report citing Ali al-Shaykhi, official spokesperson for the Libyan Army General Staff, as saying that “the security situation in Benghazi city became stable following the attack on the national security center in the Al-Hada’iq neighborhood on 14 May.”

Benghazi Al-Tadamun Online in Arabic on 15 May carries a 35-word report on a graduation ceremony held yesterday in Al-Zawiyah city for 600 individuals affiliated with the national security.

Benghazi Quryna al-Jadidah Online in Arabic — Website of privately owned weekly independent newspaper… http://www.qurynanew.com/ –on 15 May carries a 125-word report saying that the police station in the Al-Hada’iq neighborhood of Benghazi city was attacked by “an subversive group, resulting in structural damage to the building.” The report adds that “the commando forces thwarted the attack and exchanged fire with the assailants, killing one of them.”

Tripoli Al-Watan Online in Arabic on 16 May carries a 950-word commentary saying: “How can the Libyan intelligence chief be unaware of what is happening in Libya?” The commentary adds that “this incident has shown that the Libyan Government and the GNC do not deserve to govern Libya, given the fact that the country under their power is moving backward.” The commentary goes on to say: “The Libyan Government and members of the GNC should acknowledge their dereliction of duty.” The commentary concludes by saying that “the money of Libyan people must be spent on the establishment of a strong civilized army and police governed by a law that applies to everyone,” and the GNC should shoulder its responsibility in finishing drafting the new constitution.”

Tripoli Al-Watan Online in Arabic on 16 May carries a 1,600-word commentary by Muhammad Iqmiya. The commentary says that “the Arab Spring in Libya was under the auspices of Gulf countries, particularly Qatar, which deliberately shifted the political mobility in Libya to become tribally-oriented.” The commentary adds that “Qatar adopted the principle of tribal quotas since the formation of the first Libyan political entity; namely, the National Transitional Council, NTC, in addition to the political parties’ adoption of the tribal dimension in creating their popularity, as is in the Muslim Brotherhood’s case.” The commentary goes on to say that “armed militias, whether tribal or religious, undermine the authority and sovereignty of the nascent state in Libya.” The commentary adds: “When the emir of Qatar announced, in a news conference at the end of the war (that toppled Al-Qadhafi), that ‘revolutionaries are not going to hand over their weapons,’ he was not concerned about the revolutionaries or Libya.” The commentary concludes by saying that “a comprehensive national reconciliation and the issuance of a law for transitional justice is the solution to save Libya.”

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11 Responses

    • Comments such as this come up every now and again, they tend to rest on a false premise. That those in favour of the libyan intervention somehow believed that if it went ahead everything would turn out perfect and that libyas problems would then become a thing of the past.

      The truth, which in turn has been pointed out before, is that those in favour of the intervention recognised that libya would face many issues afterwards, but that nevertheless it would be better than the alternative which involved gaddafi staying in power.

      Libyans themselves have shown this to be true when asked time and time again.

      >link to orb-international.com

      link to gallup.com

      • It really is depressing to see people who purport to be leftists buy into Henry Kissinger’s theories about the need for dictators to provide stability (as if Gadhaffi’s history of exporting instability and weaponry to the rest of Africa could really be considered stability.)

        I spent the entire Iraq War insisting to the war’s supporters that people like J Wolsch didn’t exist, and that the claim that there were liberals and leftists who didn’t think Arabs were capable of sustaining a democracy was nonsense.

        The response to Arab Spring by so-called anti-imperialists has been quite enlightening to me.

    • You told us that Gadaffi would be better. He was increasingly stealing everything from every province that didn’t support him. Was the Philippines better off with Marcos completing his ransacking of the country? How about Egypt and Musharraf? Thus what you must prove is that the bankrupt Libya that Gadaffi was inexorably creating would be better. How would that not have been violent and cursed by Islamist uprisings?

  1. The Libyan intervention is probably Obama’s unique foreign policy success, thought Obama was a reluctant actor of an action initiated by Britain and France.

    The Obama administration is given little credit for this transformation from a totalitarian dictator to a liberal democracy by the Republican right who on only looking for scandals, nor by the liberal left wing who believe any American action in foreign affairs is an act of imperialism, or the capture of oil resources, if the action happens to be in the Middle East.

    • Just curious: is Libya now a “liberal democracy?” People all over the political spectrum in the US have good reasons to suspect the motives and competence of the people who make and implement “policy.” “Muscular apologism” for a “muscular” set of behaviors that foe some reason only seem to favor a very narrow set of persons and interests, and too often seem to demonstrate little but horribly expensive (PUBLIC expense, that is) naivete and incompetence, is another common text in bloggery and other political discourse.

      And it’s not limited to the Middle East, or Near Mideast, or Far East, or AFRICOM or EURCOM or now, as we go forth to subdue and subdivide the “Arctic riches” made accessible by “human-induced climate change or what-ever,” exclusive of the polar regions either.

      Got any good examples (maybe excepting Libya or bombing the heck out of former Soviet Central European countries doing “ethnic cleansing,” of US behaviors that are something other than imperialism, whatever you or I might mean by that term?

      • Just curious: is Libya now a “liberal democracy?”


        I wonder how legitimately curious you could possibly be, if you don’t know this by now.

      • Libya is now governed by an elected Parliament.

        Obama’s is not a muscular foreign policy. Obama is essentially an isolationist with little background, interest, or expertise in foreign policy and whose worse nightmare is being dragged into Syria.

        Obama may sing the praises of Israel and genuflect to Israel’s supernatural assertion that Jews have a God given dead to Palestine, but he has resisted, pretty well, the muscular Israeli-centric foreign adventures advocated by the Neocons.

        Obama’s passions are confined to domestic issues, reflecting, I feel, the community organizer that he was.

      • I have agreed with you about many things, JT, but at this point I must ask you, in your curdled perspective is any government better than any other government? Because if you think that people who prefer a messy, violent life under rickety elected governments are suckers, you imply that the ones who love their inherited tyrants are better, or at least no worse. Which absolves ordinary people from any responsibility for, say, the rise of the Third Reich. Or the difference between what the American Revolution produced and what the French Revolution produced. Now that sequence of events from 1775 to 1815 was packed as full of cynical power plays, interventions, corruption, and atrocities as the Cold War or the wars for oil, but as a result we certainly do not live in the manner of people before that time, and very few of us would want to go back. Defining everything using conspiracy theories is a way to pretend to oppose the system while giving oneself an excuse to hide in one’s apartment and embrace helplessness.

        • Super, do I really come across as just a “curdled” CT? That’s strong, coming from someone as gifted and informed as you are. You sure seem to extract a lot from my little 1:02 post (as “amended” by attributions from others) and other stuff I write that actually gets posted here that ain’t there, far as I’m concerned.

          Yes, some governments are better than others — even the Gilded Age was likely better for most non-elite folks than life under the things we shorthand as “Stalin” and Gaddaffyduck and Idi Amin and various dictators including the ones the US and other Cold War and Dead Empire players installed or fostered, past or present tense. And people acting together, often out of oppressed desperation, were able to foment the New Deal, now under massive pressure itself.

          My reply to the latest mendacious Joepeachment, redacted by our host, pointed out only that maybe WJM’s claim that there’s an accomplished Libyan transition from dictatorship to “liberal democracy” was maybe overstated, and that the jostling and clubbing for pre-eminence was still in flux and the shape of things sort of undecided. With a string cite to articles from various sources that noted the same thing. Here’s just two:
          link to aljazeera.com
          link to thenational.ae

          You impute to me a belief that I think a significant set of people prefer, or prefer to suffer under, dictatorships, or “love their tyrants,” to being able to take effective part in the endless political-economic-social struggle. That’s just wrong. Dare I ask, of course, how much of an effective part ordinary people who just want to live and let live can have in shaping their government, in Libya, or in the “liberal democracy” that some presume the US to be?

          Also wrong is your last sentence, a cheap and pretty misdirected shot, especially from someone who seems as aware of and jaundiced and distressed about the details of history and what really goes on as you are — it’s not “CT,” it’s more an effort to open the curtains, and shine lights on the roaches and rodents in the dark corners. Cheap and wrong, especially, in regard to my level of public participation. (FWIW, I live on a sailboat, with a goal of “living simply that others may simply live.”)

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