Here’s a quick and relatively accurate description of what happened:
The popular demonstrations that took place in Benghazi recently were not haphazard and not a reaction to any single incident or event. Since the killing of Libya’s tyrant and official declaration of liberation, the Libyan people began calling for the next stage in their revolution which is state building.
Naturally, the first step in state building is free, democratic elections to choose a government that represents the will of the people and building a strong army and police. After a long struggle and despite the hardships, Libyans were able to coalesce around each other and pull off successful and unprecedented parliamentary elections.
After the elections, people began calling for the dismantling of the many rogue brigades still not under government control and merging them with the newly formed military and police. During the revolution, there was an estimated 50,000 revolutionary fighters, but after the official end of the war and due to the abundance of weapons, that number skyrocketed to over a 100,000, most of whom never saw battle. These additional armed individuals formed countless militias taking advantage of the security vacuum left by the war. A lot of these groups harbored criminals, drug dealers, and kidnapping gangs that reaped havoc on locals. After months of this dire situation, people became increasingly anxious and frustration was constantly being voiced to the government. The weakness of the government, however, and its inability to make decisions, meant no solutions to the crisis.
The attack on the U.S. consulate and the passing of the late Chris Stevens was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Being the first to be liberated, Benghazi saw the longest presence for these brigades and was the first to move toward putting an end to this reality. The big demonstration on September 21, 2012 did just that.
It was a peaceful demonstration calling for the dismantling of all brigades who had not joined the army and police and asked them to leave city. By sundown, most demonstrators and their families returned to their homes but some of the anxious youth decided to take matters into their hands and physically force the brigades out of their compounds. The biggest former revolutionary brigade that refused to be part of the new state was “Ansar Al-Sharia” (which is also rumored to have been involved in the U.S. consulate attack) was the first to be approached by demonstrators. The brigade, knowing that it was a target of the wrath of the protesters and to prevent bloodshed, quickly packed up its gear; by the time the protesters arrived, its members had left the city. Feeling the power of the crowds, the protesters quickly moved to another brigade called “Abu-Salim Martyrs Brigade” which, after little resistance, also left the city.
By this time, the protesters had achieved their goals and the city of Benghazi was clear of all brigades not under government control.
At this point, the protesters should have gone home but it seems that the demonstration took a political tone, with many of the lads praising the former liberal presidential candidate Mahmoud Jibril and chanting slogans against his opponents from religious-leaning groups. One of the latter individuals is Isma’el Sallabi and he commands the biggest and most powerful brigade in Benghazi called the “Rafallah Shati Brigade”. This brigade played a very significant role in defending Benghazi against Ghadafi’s “convoy of death” and gave many martyrs in the fight for liberation. This brigade had long been integrated in the Libyan National Army and, unlike the brigades mentioned earlier, it believes in the democratic state and the choices of the Libyan people. For this reason, the brigade never expected that the crowds would turn on it and thus never made arrangements to leave their compound.
As the crowd neared, the head of the army and president of Libya urged the demonstrators not to approach the brigade, as it is a legitimate state entity and a major bastion of stability in the city. The crowd, now including many armed individuals, ignored all warnings and continued toward the compound. As the crowd began throwing stones and setting fires near the building, the besieged brigade members began shooting in the air in attempt to disperse them. Instead of dispersing, however, armed individuals within the crowd (some of whom were former Ghadafi military and security personnel) began firing into the compound and a clash broke out that resulted in a several fatalities and a few dozen injuries.
To prevent further bloodshed, Rafallah Shati brigade members packed up whatever heavy weapons they had and left the building. They returned the next morning only to find that thousands of arms and loads of ammunition belonging the National Army were looted. They arrested those found in the compound and setup checkpoints in the perimeter of the building to try recover what weapons they could.
As unfortunate as the ending to this event was, we as Libyans see this demonstration as a direct reflection of the mood on the street. The government needs to take immediate action to disband the remainder of rogue militias in the country and build a strong national army a strong police force.