On Tuesday, someone set up a Soviet-vintage 107 mortar launcher in a car outside the five-star Corinthia hotel in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and lobbed a mortar from it, apparently by remote control. The launch caused the car to catch on fire. The mortar shell hit a residential apartment building and put a hole in the wall in an elderly couple’s residence. They were unharmed, if startled, and a fire brigade came to extinguish the resulting fire as well as the one in the car.
It is possible that the mortar was intended for the Corinthia. Prime Minister Ali Zidan, who was selected by parliament after last year’s elections and has served ever since, has an office in an upper floor of the Corinthia. I’ve been to the hotel, in search of a fast wifi connection when I was in Tripoli last summer, and it deserves the five star rating. What few foreign journalists and businessmen there are in Tripoli often stay there.
Zidan had been in exile in Geneva in the Gaddafi period, where he was a lionized human rights activist. He says he wants to do something serious about post-revolution Libya’s militia problem. The Libyan military was a small elite force made up of officers loyal to Gaddafi because of regional or tribal considerations, along with hired mercenaries. It collapsed during the 2011 revolution, and still has not been significantly rebuilt. As a result, many security duties are still in the hands of popular militias that were thrown up by the revolution. Zidan says he wants to do something serious about this problem, and has repeatedly angered militia leaders by talking this way.
Bombs are still rare in the capital, Tripoli, unlike in the second city, Benghazi, which has been plagued by attacks on police stations, clinics and Western embassies. But there is occasionally a violent incident of this sort, because militiamen are unhappy about something (low pay, late pay, no pay, prospect of being forcibly disbanded and rendered penniless).
The G8 at their summit in June obtained an agreement from member nations to train some 7,000 Libyan troops, and 2,000 are scheduled to go to Britain soon. Libya, with only 6.5 million people, doesn’t need a huge army. Tunisia is a bigger country, and its is 35,000 strong. However, it will take a long time to produce even 25,000 well-trained and disciplined Libyan troops at this rate. Moreover, many of the militias were given weaponry by Qatar and France and are quite formidable, so demobilizing them by force is likely to produce substantial fireworks. Libya should, of course, integrate those militiamen into the regular army who seem suited to it, but they should be split up into mixed regiments and trained away from their original militia commitments. If there are too many militiamen to absorb, the rest should be given cushy desk jobs in return for turning in their weapons. Libya’s government is very wealthy and could afford to take these steps.
Some of the problem, especially in Benghazi, derives not from militiamen but from radical Muslim fighters who cut their teeth in Afghanistan or another jihad battleground. These will eventually need to be taken on, because they are not assimilable into state institutions and they are a major source of violence.
In any case, Prime Minister Zidan needs to get hold of the security situation gradually, deploying the newly trained troops and newly bought military equipment. Libya has
made some steps lately toward forming a parliamentary sub-body of 60 members to draft a new constitution. This process will eventually allow elections for a new parliament that might be more respected and stable than the interim government. But the main problem as far as I can see is finding ways to demobilize the militias. (And no, the security problems wouldn’t justify keeping Gaddafi in power. Libya is going through hard times, but there is space to learn. That wasn’t true 3 years ago).
Libya’s mortar shell fell because the country doesn’t have much of an army and its state is woefully weak.
On Wednesday morning, a bomb went off in the Delta depot city of Mansoura, in front of the offices of the state security police, killing one person and wounding 19, mostly innocent bystanders. Such bombings are rare in the Nile Valley and the Delta, though common in the lawless Sinai Peninsula.
The last time Egypt had a wave of bombings and other terrorism violence was in the 1990s, when the Islamic Grouping (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya) and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri (an al-Qaeda component) were active.
The hard line fundamentalist wing of the believers in political Islam contained former terrorists or people who declared their willingness to turn to violence if Muhammad Morsi was deposed. He was in fact overthrown by a coalition that included millions of youth in the streets and the military high command. Mansoura’s bombing is an indication that Muslim fundamentalists may not go quietly, and that we could be in for another iteration of the 1990s.
The bombing comes after a Monday when armed Muslim Brothers are accused of mounting an attack on left-liberal youth protesters in Tahrir Square, leaving several people dead. Pro-Morsi marchers claim that two of their members were killed in sniping.
If Libya’s bombing came about because of a weak state and strong militias, the explosion in Mansoura was, in contrast, an expression of frustration by Muslim fundamentalists angry that the Egyptian military was strong enough to overthrow Morsi, in conjunction with the massive street crowds. Although Morsi was engaged in a slow-motion coup of his own against liberal institutions in Egypt, simply removing a duly elected president of a major country was very dangerous for security in Egypt and risks throwing the country into Algeria-style civil strife.
Egypt doesn’t need troop training or military equipment. It has the biggest and best Arab army. What it needs is democracy training, both for the Muslim Brotherhood and for those anti-Morsi political forces who don’t seem to understand human rights law. Some now want to ban religious parties, pushing the Brotherhood back underground.
Folks, the way you keep the Egyptian state secular is put it in the constitution and then make changing the constitution very, very hard. You don’t ban parties or party platforms, you create the framework within which they have to act. But there are no guarantees in life, and getting used to that is also part of democracy.