The militia tentatively resumed its role as guardian of Benghazi’s two main hospitals last week. Its fighters have staked out positions at the western entrance to the city. They have also moved back onto their base, and residents say the group has been participating in community cleanup and charity work.
Its resurgence — and that of Rafallah al-Sahati, another Islamist militia — underscores the city’s reckoning with a harsh reality, residents said. No one else is capable of securing volatile Benghazi.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Jalal al-Gallal, a prominent political activist in the city and a former member of Libya’s transitional government. Ansar al-Sharia has some “hard-liners,” he said, “but they do actually carry out a lot of good work, whether we like it or not.”
The eight-month war that toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in 2011 left the country awash with weapons and brigades of former revolutionary fighters, many of whom now operate as militias loosely allied with the government and determined to play a security role in the new Libya.
Thousands of Benghazi residents protested against the militias and the prevailing lawlessness in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission, and some locals assisted by government-allied militias eventually overran bases belonging to Ansar al-Sharia, Rafallah al-Sahati and two other groups.
But the country’s police force, much of it still stocked with men who served under the ousted regime, remains weak and has continued to face opposition from the militias.
‘The only realistic option’
After Ansar al-Sharia left its post as the self-appointed guardian of Jelaa Hospital in Benghazi, security rapidly deteriorated there, health officials said.
Feuds between families carried from the streets into the emergency room, as angry relatives followed gurneys taking victims of the fighting into the hospital. Patients sold drugs in the hallways and stole hospital equipment.
Doctors were sometimes threatened at gunpoint, said Mohamed Khamis, an emergency room surgeon. Last month, a militia member walked into the emergency room and shot his rival dead on the operating table, he said.
“After that, we closed for two weeks. We called for help. We reached out to the Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry, but all they’ve done is make promises,” Khamis said.
Last week, the hospital finally reopened its doors — but only after a security force made up of Ansar al-Sharia alumni and neighborhood fighters took up position outside. Ansar al-Sharia’s black flag flies above the main entrance. Two of its tan gun trucks — their identifying stickers replaced with a new title, “The Selmani Youth Forum” — stand outside.