Last week I organized the visit to Tripoli of our Minister for the Middle East. The second day of the programme was thrown off course when a demonstration in the centre of town snarled up the traffic. Thousands of people had gathered to protest against the militias.
These groups of young men defy easy categorization. They are mostly brigades of revolutionary fighters associated with a particular commander or region. Some of them are looking to ensure their region or tribe has a proper say in the new government. Many more are angling for a job when the new national army is reformed. It seems that the demonstrators were not out to deny them either of these things: as a couple of women explained to me, the main demand was that the militias stop behaving like louts driving around the streets and firing their guns in the air.
This “celebratory” fire is a huge problem. Almost every night I’ve been here I’ve heard it. The bullets can come down up to two kilometres away and people in Tripoli have clearly had enough of kids being injured and killed as they play outside, not to mention the alarm the noise of shooting causes for those trying to sleep. A very small number of these young men have also been carrying out robberies or attempting to stop the police from going about their business, they clash with each other and recently there was a serious fire fight that caused the airport to shut for a few hours. Preventing Libya’s young men turning from heroes into gangsters is one of the chief concerns of the new government.
I caught my first sight of a militia when we took our visiting minister to see a community project in a neighbourhood in the south of the city. There, some teenagers had pulled together to build a garden and paint some murals as a way of signalling a fresh start in their neighbourhood. A group of what my granny would have called ‘well brought up young men’ showed the Minister around, chatting easily with him and enthusing about their project. Just as we were leaving a white pick up truck with a mounted machine gun on the back rolled up. There were three men a few years older than our hosts inside and they were a picture of studied cool. The driver had on a pair of aviators and his passenger lolled out of the side window with a cigarette. The guy on the back seemed to be wearing a ski visor and had on a tight white tee and American GI style dog tags around his neck. They weren’t particularly threatening but they revved their engine, shouted some nonsense at us and made our police escort look embarrassed. It was just about time for us to move on anyway but I felt a kind of matronly anger that the yobs had spoiled the party.
Later that night, when I heard the machine gun fire again, I wondered how these boys were going to be persuaded to hand in their guns. Where they really going to give up the glamour and the fun for a return to hum-drum civilian life? Many are genuine heroes. They have paid a heavy price for victory and they have to feel reassured that their revolution has succeeded and their struggle recognized before they can be persuaded to go back to the lives they had before. It’s also important to remember that this revolution has given them status and power for the first time in their lives and curbing it now has to be be done with great sensitivity and with real opportunity to achieve both through other means. The Libyan government is seized by the matter and is making progress towards a solution: taking forward the political process, setting up a national army and other security structures, rejuvenating the economy, providing opportunities to study abroad, establishing new businesses and so on.
There are a number of ways the UK can be part of the solution. The British army and police have a lot of experience to pass on when it comes to setting up established security forces and already we are providing communications and logistics support for Libya’s new police force and deploying a British policing adviser. Regarding disarmament, we are supporting attempts to locate missing anti-aircraft weapons.
When it comes to creating opportunities for young people, UK companies are already returning, helping to build up the economy and provide jobs for young Libyans. A group of British companies involved in healthcare has just arrived to talk through with the Minister of Health how they can help her immediately improve health services. Also, we can provide vocational training, including English language classes, and the possibility of studying in the UK. Our visiting Minister, Alistair Burt re-launched the British Council in Tripoli when he was here. Staff are back at work, many programmes have resumed already and the prestigious Chevening scholarship programme is also currently open. We will also soon be able to provide a visa service. This will inevitably be limited at first, but next year we hope to be able to widen the criteria so that young Libyans can start to travel to the UK again for their studies.
These opportunities are of course as much for young people like the boys we met who were building the garden and painting the murals as they are for the former fighters. And to my mind, sprucing up a neighbourhood is a great example of a project where patriotism and young energy can be channelled constructively during peace time. These young boys may have been too young to become national heroes during the conflict but they have certainly become local heroes to their neighbours.