It’s a cynical arrangement, many here say. But as Benghazi commemorates the two-year anniversary of its revolution this weekend amid heightened fears of violence, some residents suggested that the government in Tripoli may have called on the militias to maintain order.
“The people attacked Ansar al-Sharia a few months ago because they were angry. But now they’re asking them to come back because there is no police and no real military,” said Essam al-Zubeir, a government spokesman in Tripoli. “All of this needs time. Until the country is able to rebuild the police and military, the people prefer to be protected by their own people.”
But not all is as it was. If the residents of this city have learned a hard lesson about security and the capabilities of their weak central government, so, too, have the militias learned from the people, many said.
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens “was a great friend of the revolution and his death was a great blow. But what came out of it was the toning down of the extremists,” said Essam Gheriani, a businessman and activist. “Everyone is keeping an eye on them now. Benghazi has always been a city that is quite volatile, but now they know what they can do and what they can’t do.”
A taboo affiliation
On the street, Ansar al-Sharia remains a taboo affiliation, even thought many residents say they admired the group’s work.
Bearded “volunteers” in military fatigues manning a checkpoint at Benghazi’s western entrance said Ansar al-Sharia had recently taken up position there to help secure the road. They told earlier visitors that they were members of the group, but none would admit that on Saturday. Their white Toyotas, mounted with machine guns, were anonymous too; rectangles of dirt surrounded the spot where their identifying labels once stuck.
Rafallah al-Sahati has recoiled, too.In September, the group’s commanders bragged about the militia’s role on the rescue team that assisted the American evacuation from the mission on the night of the attack. But the group largely disappeared from the public eye in the months since.
The group recently resumed command of checkpoints on the city’s perimeter, but it has changed its name to “Libyan Shield 3” because it now falls under the command of the Defense Ministry, said one of the group’s fighters, Basit Mohamed, who was wounded in the September assault on the group’s base.
“They are much more restrained. They understand that the spotlight has been put on them,” al-Gallal said of the militia.
No one in Benghazi ever went on trial for the attack. But whether Ansar al-Sharia carried it out — or a more recent string of assassinations and disappearances of local police officials believed to be ex-regime loyalists — has become largely irrelevant here.
“People care, people do understand that you need to have due process,” al-Gallal said. “But they also understand that there is an absolute absence of central government.”