Hanging Out in Benghazi's Makeshift Arms Market

By Wil Crisp, Photos: Matthew Barton and Emad Salem Bkkar

As you walk through Souk Ashia in Benghazi’s El Fonduc district, the transition from flea market to arms fair is gradual. First come small pistols, then shotguns, then the pure-blooded weapons of war: the grenades, the Kalashnikovs, and the large black machine guns that look like they should be mounted on the back of a vehicle and firing off 10,000 rounds a minute.

The customers in this section of the market are mostly young men, many of whom wear mix-and-match camouflage outfits. Behind the stalls selling assault rifles there's a makeshift firing range, where a couple of guys are strolling about smoking cigarettes. Well, I say it's a firing range, but there aren't actually any targets—just people letting off sporadic rounds in seemingly random directions.

As we browse the goods on offer, we’re given our fair share of stony looks and surrounded by a frenzy of clicking noises as prospective buyers slide clips in and out of guns and dry fire weapons. There’s a familiarity to the scene, with people moving between stalls intently hunting bargains, but—on top of the normal flea market murmers—there's a hard edge of paranoia. Which isn't exactly much of a surprise, considering there are very powerful weapons everywhere you look.  

It's legal to buy guns under Libyan law, but only if you buy them from a state-owned entity, you’ve got a license, and you register the weapon. However, since the beginning of the revolution, this law—like many others—has proved impossible to enforce, meaning people are free to stroll through Souk Ashia and pick up any amount of automatic weaponry at their own leisure.

Over the last two years, Souk Ashia has been raided on a number of occasions by government forces. A vicious battle has taken place every time, but the gun sellers always return. These days, police and official security forces are absent in the area—a stark contrast to the highly visible police presence in the relatively safe and wealthy areas around Dubai Street and Twenty Street, just minutes away from El Fonduc.

As we walk around the market, Benghazi local Emad Salem Bkkar explains that government officials are biding their time.

"When the gun market was attacked in the past it caused massive upheaval. Local businesses had to close and it created a dangerous situation for people in the area. The city is now concentrating on building up its forces so that the next time they attack they can continue to police the area afterwards and prevent the gun sellers from returning."

Despite the lack of security forces, Emad is adamant that this lawless area five minutes from the center of the city isn’t a cause for concern. "Tripoli is big, but Benghazi is small. If someone commits a serious crime here it’s easy to find out who they are and catch them. And, even though there are no police, the government has asked the big tribal families who live in this area to keep order. They make sure anyone who causes problems gets punished. The whole of Libya was like this after the revolution, but the government is taking control of more land every day."

"The gun market is tolerated," says Ahmed, another local resident. "It doesn’t cause many problems and the previous raids have been mainly about the illegal liquor and narcotics also sold by the traders." According to Ahmed, the area isn’t supervised by any single militia. "It’s too hot for anyone to really control, although there are a number of armed groups involved in the business that goes on there."

While local residents say the gun market itself isn’t much of a problem, the proliferation of weapons that it represents is proving to be a headache for the government. Over the last seven months, the French embassy has been bombed, the head of Libya’s congress survived an assassination attempt, an array of security officials have been assassinated, and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff was abducted for eight days by gunmen. The abduction forced the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to make a statement saying that security was still weak, blaming the situation on the illegal circulation of firearms.

And, despite a UN embargo on movement of arms to and from Libya, the illegal circulation of firearms isn’t just taking place within the country's borders. In April, UN experts warned that Libyan weapons were spreading "at an alarming rate" to countries including Egypt and Mali and throughout the Gaza Strip. They also warned arms transfers to Syria had been organized from a number of locations in Libya, including Misrata and Benghazi. According to the report, the size and complexity of the deals indicates that representatives from Libyan local authorities "might have at least been aware of the transfers, if not actually directly involved."

Feeling the strain of being around so many men pointing so many guns in so many different directions, I suggested we head back to the other side of the market and spend some time looking at the t-shirts and herbs.

"For you, guns are something that are unusual and associated with violence," Emad says, correctly. "But guns are part of everyday life here. We keep them in our cars, we shoot them in the air when we celebrate at weddings. This is really very normal." He’s got a point. Throughout our stay, the sound of machine gun fire has regularly punctuated Benghazi’s normal busy bustle. Taxi drivers have casually offered to show us their pistols and we’ve found spent cartridges littering the streets all over town.

But, to the outside observer, the most troubling aspect isn’t the ease with which guns can be obtained or the casual way they are used. The scariest thing is the way the market illustrates the failure of government security forces to enforce the rule of law in the heart of Libya’s second city.

Driving away from El Fonduc, Emad points out a billboard that has been put up by the government that reads, "Respect the Police."

"It’s always been hard to keep order in Benghazi, but that’s what makes the city great," he says. "Our spirit of resistance means there will never be another dictator like Gaddafi. People say that if you control Benghazi you can control the whole of Libya, and that is true. But the fact is Benghazi is not something that can be controlled."

Follow Wil (@bilgribs) and Matthew (@MATTHEW_BARTON_) on Twitter.

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