Libya’s Flawed Attempt to Soak Up a Flood of Weaponry

The country puts up a good show of collecting arms that have circulated since the fall of Gaddafi. But the groups that hold the most weapons aren't joining in

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Ismail Zitouny / Reuters

Members of the Libyan military hold weapons and ammunition handed over to them by civilians in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square, Sept. 29, 2012.

When a revolution erupted in Libya last year and civilians overran military bases, Khalid Muhammad was one of thousands who plundered the unguarded weapons depots. He picked out a shiny new Kalashnikov rifle as others carted off RPGs and anti-tank canons. Though the revolution ended last October with the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Muhammad never thought of relinquishing his revolutionary souvenir. But on Saturday, he turned in his rifle for a raffle ticket in Benghazi.

In Libya’s largest cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, more than a thousand people responded to a televised appeal to turn in their weapons. The Libya al-Hurra television station promised participants the chance to win iPads and flat screen televisions. But the Libyans who showed up said that they were moved by a patriotic duty rather than material compensation. However, though the drive netted a number of heavy weapons, the militias that control most of the country’s arms stayed away from the festivities.

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In front of the seaside courthouse where protests sparked the revolution, three members of Libya’s Special Forces sitting at a table scribbled the names of the owners of the weapons turned over. In return the officers gave civilians a receipt, noting which arms were surrendered. As they did, two men lined up dozens of bullets used by anti-aircraft guns known as Dushkas. “I turned in several rifles because I don’t need them anymore,” says Omar Ali as the bullets tumbled like dominoes. Twenty-five boxes containing new flat screen televisions were stacked behind him along with more than 10 iPads. But Ali was not lured to turn over his guns for a new electronic toy. “It’s our responsibility to help build Libya. We don’t want new iPads. We want a new government that will help us build our country.”

Libya al-Hurra began the drive in August, making frequent appeals to citizens to turn in their weapons which featured senior military figures such as Chief of Staff Yusuf Manqush. It was initially scheduled for Sept. 16, but was postponed. Libya al-Hurra convinced a number of state companies such as cellular phone providers Libyana and Madar to sponsor the event. They even persuaded a car dealership to donate a pair of Hyundai.

“This is an event started by the Libyan people to serve the Libyan people. There is no government participation,” says Ahmad Salam, a Libya al-Hurra employee who spearheaded the campaign. “We are happy with the turnout.”

(PHOTOS: Libya’s New Regime: The Fight for Gaddafi’s Hometown)

One man who was especially pleased was Colonel Amran al-Warfalli, the military officer in charge of the weapons collection. “The people are eager to participate,” he says as a man showed him a rocket launcher. “We have had far more than I expected. We had to bring in more receipt books since we did not expect so many people. We have five full truckloads of weapons.”

Salam, the Libya al-Hurra organizer, says that more than a thousand people turned in weapons ranging from rifle bullets to land mines and even heat seeking missiles. When one man turned in a small armored personnel carrier, onlookers whooped with approval. “We have more than 2,000 grenades, one hundred (medium range) GRAD missile launchers and 20,000 bullets,” Salam notes. “We made a lot of progress.” It was a sentiment echoed by the politicians who showed up to lend their support. “This shows the revolution is still alive,” says former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni. “This city started the revolution and it is showing it is still the heart of it.”

In Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, the crowds were smaller but the weapons were just as diverse. The Tariq Asur Brigade turned over two tanks as Chief of Staff Manqush supervised the campaign. “When weapons were necessary, everyone brought them out to defend their freedom,” he said. “But when their role was done, we show the world once more that we are a people who want to live in democracy, civilization and security.”

(MORE: Gaddafi’s Fleeing Mercenaries Describe the Collapse of the Regime)

Nevertheless, journalists who covered the rally said that it was more of a staged media event than a sincere drive to get the country’s weapons off the streets and into military barracks. “It looked like a party,” says Abdel Sattar Hetieta, a journalist for al-Sharq al-Awsat, an Arabic daily published in London. “I was surprised how small it was. I expected more than five thousand. Tripoli is full of people who have many weapons. Some people I spoke with had lots of weapons and they only registered a few.”

Notably absent from the two rallies were the militias that hold most of the country’s arms. Brigades such as February 17th, Libya Shield, and Refallah al-Sehati possess heavy weaponry that include surface to air missiles that American contractors have been trying to collect since the end of the revolution. “We don’t have to turn in our weapons,” says a leader of one of Benghazi’s biggest brigades. “We are under the supervision of the army.” And as long as they don’t, the drive to collect the country’s weapons will be a stalled one.

VIDEO: Libya to Citizens: Give Up Your Guns