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Hanging Out with Renegade Gunmen at the Libyan Justice Ministry

They don't want Gaddafi's mates getting back into power.

by Wil Crisp, Photos: Matthew Barton
03 May 2013, 8:50am

Standing outside Libya's occupied Ministry of Justice in Tripoli, the armed occupiers crowding around me look a little confused. "All we wanted to do was talk to the justice minister and tell him our demands, but he jumped in his car and sped off," says Ali, looking perplexed. "They all just ran away."

"Maybe it was something to do with all the guns," I suggest, gesturing towards the fleet of heavily-armed pick-up trucks lined up outside that the men arrived in.

"We brought the trucks for two reasons," Ali explains. "First, because we're afraid we might be attacked by government troops and we want to ensure a peaceful protest. Second, they are a symbol – something to remind everyone of all the people who died in the revolution."

That might sound like strange reasoning – it's relatively uncommon to bring weaponised trucks to peaceful protests – but everything in Tripoli is starting to make less and less sense these days. There are new reports every day of official buildings being raided by militias, and when you pass by shisha bars or cigarette stalls it's hard not to pick up on the worried murmurs of military coups and brewing violence. It's not just the future that's a worry; the present is already pretty fucked. Over the past few days, gunmen – just like the ones I'm standing with – have laid siege to the foreign ministry, ransacked the interior ministry, stormed the state TV station and now taken over the justice ministry.

The gunmen are calling for strict implementation of a new law that’s designed to keep those who worked with Gaddafi out of positions of power. It's due to be debated by Libya’s congress on Sunday. "We want to totally cleanse the government," Ali explains. "We need to get rid of the corruption and bring in a proper democracy. We’ve got to make sure the martyrs didn’t die in vain."

Suddenly, we’re interrupted by a camouflage pick-up that pulls up and starts unloading dates and bananas. Everyone plunges in and starts passing around food, before one of the guys dressed in camouflage – the guy guarding the entrance – asks us if we’d like a tour of the building.

As we walk through the main entrance we shake hands with a couple more camouflaged men holding Kalashnikovs and lounging around in the foyer. Ali shows us up to the justice minister’s office, but it’s locked and no one has the key. I rattle the door handle for a bit, then we wander around with Ali and another guy, eating bananas in the empty corridors. The other guy is older and dressed in khaki, so I ask him whether he's a militia leader. He says he isn’t and tells me he’s a retired engineer and used to work for the Occidental Petroleum Corporation.

When we get back outside I try to find someone who really is a militia leader. After a while, I come across a guy who’s got a camouflage suit on and looks pretty important, but when I track down a translator I discover that he’s a computer technician and has donned the camouflage suit especially to attend the demonstration.

Talking to all the variously-camouflaged demonstrators, I find out that they've flocked in from all over the country, including cities like Benghazi, Mabruk, Zawiya, Zintan and Gharyan. And they’re not all militiamen. Some are unarmed civilians and others say they’re fully-fledged members of the military, but each person gives a different reason for coming to Tripoli to support the implementation of the new law.

Even with all the guns around, the atmosphere outside the justice ministry is pretty relaxed. Guys dressed in plain clothes and holding machine guns smile at passers-by as they wave cars through on the road and militiamen ask us to tag them on Facebook when we take their photo. Watching everyone munch through the food that's been handed out, it feels more like a picnic with a particularly dedicated group of paintballers than an armed protest in a politically restive country.

However, when conversation shifts to those politics, the atmosphere immediately changes. The formerly docile banana eaters suddenly become agitated, standing up to make long speeches about corruption and the revolution.

One man, who describes himself as being in "100 percent political isolation" tells me that Mahmoud Jabril, the leader of the liberal National Forces Alliance party, is "a second Gaddafi". "This guy is hideous," he says. "He’s filling the government with his cronies."

"This isn’t a democracy; there’s no freedom, no transparency, no justice!" chimes another gunman, slapping the wall of the justice ministry with his open hand. "We protest all the time, but until now the revolution hasn’t penetrated the walls of this building."

In a way, the armed invasion of Libya’s ministries seems like a grassroots protest. Most of the militiamen have made genuine sacrifices to get the country where it is today, and they believe that the revolution won’t be complete until people like Mahmoud Jabril are barred from positions of power.

Some say, however, that the armed protests are too well organised and too well funded, and believe shadowy figures are pulling the strings from behind the scenes. After visiting the justice ministry, we swing past a counter demonstration in Tripoli’s Algeria Square, where some of the protesters tell us the militiamen are being paid to siege the ministries. They say the militia leaders want to destabilise the country to prevent an effective crackdown on their own organisations.

Others point out that strict implementation of the political exclusion law would turf out a lot of the more liberal members of Libya’s congress, clearing the way for political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which were marginalised under Gaddafi.

"It’s not their fault," says a student protester, with a sense of resignation. "Most of the guys who are standing outside the ministries are angry and unemployed and they’re upset that the country is seeing such slow progress. But ultimately they’re being manipulated by those who really stand to gain from the political exclusion law, and by taking part in armed protest they are helping to create a situation that helps a small minority and threatens to plunge the country back into chaos." 

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

More from Libya:

Hanging Out in Benghazi's Car Boot Arms Market

Paddling in the Aftermath of Libya's French Embassy Bombing

Back Behind Bars with Gaddafi's Would-Be Assassin

Celebrating Gaddafi's Death with a Libyan On a Segway