TRIPOLI — As the sun sets on the Libyan capital, the sky takes on an ochre shade over the old city walls surrounding Martyr’s Square. Children play on carousels and the muezzin’s call to prayer fills the air, booming from loudspeakers in the streets. It’s an arresting scene that — for a moment — makes you forget the political chaos that bedevils this country on the Mediterranean Sea.
The calm is shattered by the wailing of sirens that emanates from pickup trucks loaded with light artillery and machine guns and manned by Kalashnikov-wielding men in army fatigues. A trickle at first, the trucks grow in number until 50 or so stream across the square accompanied by other pickups that are painted white. They all display the same symbol: the name "Libyan National Guard" (LNG) superimposed on a map of the Gulf of Sirte.
This new addition to the kaleidoscope of armed factions in Libya attempted to recently seize power in the capital, when it staged the city’s umpteenth show of force in the six years since former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a civil war. The security forces of the national unity government, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, have undertaken a complex operation in recent days to restore “law and order" to the streets of Tripoli.
The LNG is primarily composed of veterans from battles in Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and, until recently, a stronghold of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Largely hailing from the coastal city of Misrata, these fighters seek a greater share of power in government in return for their central role in dislodging ISIS from Sirte. They plan to meet and organize in Tripoli on the symbolic date of Feb. 17, which will mark the sixth anniversary of the revolt against Gaddafi’s rule.
Mahmoud Al-Zigal announcing the establishment of the Libyan National Guard — Source: The Libya Observer
"We don’t have any political patrons or links," said Mahmoud al-Ziga, commander of LNG, in a news conference. "The Libyan National Guard will fight against all criminal and terrorist acts, provide support to all state institutions, and protect them from any coup or terror attack.”
Al-Ziga’s plea to Libyans to cooperate with his force highlighted his determination to work for all citizens regardless of political, tribal, and regional differences.
In reality, Al-Ziga’s statement precludes any collaboration with the UN-recognized unity government headed by Al-Sarraj. The LNG commander seemed to threaten the government with possible confrontation when he asserted his group would seize control of strategic border posts as well as maritime and land bases. Al-Ziga plans to build a new army that will conform to "technical standards" rather than political whims.
LNG doesn’t want to be limited by Libya’s borders. Al-Ziga pledged to "fight illegal immigration and protect foreign embassies" in a nod to the country’s international partners, namely Italy, which recently signed an accord with Al-Sarraj. The LNG’s true intentions are still unclear although some analysts see the hand of Khalifa Ghwell — a former prime minister and leader of a rival government in Tripoli — behind the group’s formation.
Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli on March 2016 — Photo: Hamza Turkia
The National Guard was established by the General National Congress, Libya’s post-revolution parliament, in 2015. The group’s members describe themselves as "guardians of the revolution" intent on protecting it from the perceived menaces of General Khalifa Haftar in the eastern region of Cyrenaica and petty politicking in the capital that lies on the western side.
Sources close to Al-Sarraj’s Presidential Council say these claims are overblown, pointing out that Rada Special Deterrence Forces — a military police unit tasked with maintaining security in Tripoli — allowed LNG to traipse harmlessly down the waterfront but kept the city on high alert. Regardless, LNG’s arrival on the scene adds to the litany of problems facing Al-Sarraj.
After signing a migration agreement with Italy and the European Union, and surviving electricity blackouts early this year, Al-Sarraj is working to restore order to the capital. The city continues to be riven by internal conflicts, exemplified by the recent fighting between militias from the working-class district of Abu Salim and criminal gangs.
Sounds of mortar fire ring out on the highway leading to the airport. The sunset is a reminder that Libya is one day closer to the anniversary of the revolution on Feb. 17. It’s a revolution that is still very much in progress.