Libya: Nafusa militias defy NTC; Sufis defy Salafists

On the one-year anniversary of the start of the Libyan revolution, the NTC seems to have just lost control of Libya’s west to a new federation of militias. From AP, Feb. 13:

Representatives of about 100 militias from western Libya said Monday they had formed a new federation to prevent infighting and allow them to press the country’s new government for further reform. The move was a blow to the Transitional National Council, which helped lead the eight-month uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and has sought to govern Libya since. The council has largely failed to decommission or bring under its control the hundreds of militias that fought in the war. The leader of the new federation, Col. Mokhtar Fernana, said the council’s committee in charge of integrating revolutionary fighters was taking in men who had fought for Colonel Qaddafi. “This committee is an attempt to hijack the revolution,” Colonel Fernana said. One militia commander, Ibrahim al-Madani, said the fighters would not give up their arms to a corrupt government.” [Sic]

Maddeningly, this sketchy account (and we found no others online) failed to make clear if these breakaway militias are Arab or Berber, or both—a critical issue, which has been the source of recent violence in Libya’s west. Wikipedia will only tell us that Col. Mokhtar Fernana was “overall commander” of the rebels’ Nafusa Mountains Campaign. The split comes at a sensitive time:

Libya is set to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Gadhafi uprising on Feb. 17. NTC Interior Minister Fawzy Abdel-Al told reporters Sunday that the country is on high alert because of a statement by one of Gadhafi’s sons calling for a new uprising.

The son, Al-Saadi, fled to neighboring Niger near the end of the war. Niger has refused Libyan requests that he be extradited to stand trial.

In another sign of the precarious security situation since Gadhafi’s fall, 11 people were killed in tribal fighting in the desert area of Kufra Monday, said Farag Saad of the local hospital. Most of the dead were civilians, he said. Kufra area lies about 500 miles (804 kilometers) south of the early coastal city of Derna, deep in the desert.

Last week, Sufis staged what Rueters called a “joyous parade” through the heart of Tripoli to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday—in defiance of demands from Salafists that the ritual be suppressed. This conflict, also, has come to violence:

One night last month, extremists bulldozed through a wall of an old cemetery in the eastern city of Benghazi, destroyed its tombs and carried off 29 bodies of respected sages and scholars. They also demolished a nearby Sufi school.

“The extremists have taken advantage of the lack of order,” said Jamel Abdul Muhi, a Sufi in Tripoli. “Those who work in the dark are either bats or thieves. They are cowards.”

In Benghazi, hundreds of Sufis marched to a main square flanked by 30 armed militiamen for security. Jumaa Mohammad Al-Sharif, an Islamic school teacher, said the procession was also a protest against last month’s grave desecrations.

“We caught some people who destroyed the zawiya (Islamic school) and disrespected the graves and handed them over to the authorities, but we were surprised when we later learned they had been released,” he said.

Hisham Krekshi, deputy chairman of the Tripoli Local Council, expressed satisfaction the march was taking place peacefully despite concerns about reprisals from hardliners, who spread pamphlets in recent days urging people to shun the event.

“This has been around for 14 centuries, you can’t stop it,” he said in one of the main souks, where the gold traders and cloth merchants had shut their shops for the day.

We hope not. Emhemed Elashhab, the sheikh at one Islamic school where marchers assembled in Tripoli, estimated there were fewer than 2,000 Salafist militants in Libya. “All normal people are against their ideas,” he said.

See our last posts on Libya, the Arab revolutions and the struggle within Islam.