TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Almost 6,000 gunmen have begun training to be policemen under a drive to disarm militias hindering Libya’s democratic transition although many others cling to street powers won in toppling Muammar Gaddafi, the new interior minister said in an interview.
Ashour Shuail, a soft-spoken former professor of law, took charge of Libya’s most formidable domestic policy challenge - establishing a legitimate, effective national police - late last year after his appointment by new Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.
After Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, transitional authorities set up a Supreme Security Committee (SSC) composed of militiamen who would try to curb others defying law enforcement in the belief it remained under the thumb of Gaddafi loyalists.
But the SSC, funded by the Interior Ministry, wound up better armed and powerful than the official police and a number of members have been accused of kidnappings and intimidation, complicating the lawlessness plaguing the oil-producing state.
In an interview with Reuters, Shuail said that close to 6,000 militiamen - roughly 10 percent of those in the SSC - had signed up to join the regular police since an admissions programme was launched at the end of last year.
He said 37 police training committees under the interior ministry’s authority had been set up to handle the new recruits.
Shuail said he was prepared to tweak the admission rules, accepting recruits as old as 40 or 45, or those lacking a high school diploma, to expedite the SSC merger with national police and make room for everyone keen to serve.
“Those looking for safety, security, legitimacy, employment, and to participate in building his nation in a civilized way will turn to the admissions committees. Loyalty is to God and country,” he said.
A slew of previous attempts to integrate militiamen into police forces failed, but Shuail insisted the new plan was more viable because Libyans were fed up with gun rule in the streets.
“This time will be different because the street is ready. Libyans are ready for the return of a nation and for stability. We all have sons and daughters and personal and international interests, but this only (can be realised) in stability and with institutions of the nation,” he said.
Shuail said he was confident that more and more SSC members would opt to join police because the incentives included steady salaries and paid health care, which would help them buy homes and start families.
The minister’s spokesman said new applications were arriving from militiamen every day, without giving numbers.
Shuail was coy on the magnitude of the matter of gunmen who still reject law enforcement, saying only that the solution lay in brainstorming ideas to overcome such recalcitrance “while avoiding confrontation”.
He conceded that many militiamen still view the police as a discredited pillar of Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship.
Some of these militiamen prefer the power, liberties and brotherhood of an armed brigade, while others are radical Muslims who see the Tripoli government as straying off God’s path, or essentially members of organized crime gangs.
“There are some who follow a personal agenda - be it from inside Libya or outside - and they have some of their own personal problems,” Shuail said. “Some know that if a nation is eventually built, they may find themselves facing jail time.”
He said various ideas were being discussed in a special government committee to deal with holdouts.
“We will communicate with them and see what their needs are and then try to provide it for them. Some of them see us in the government as their enemies, but on what basis? We are all the same people, we follow the same religion.”
Born in the eastern city of Benghazi in 1954, Shuail trained as a police officer in Egypt in the 1970s and worked in the Benghazi police department. In 2000 he earned a PhD from Ain Shams University in Cairo and returned to teach law at Benghazi University, until he was tapped on the shoulder by Zeidan.
But his journey to government was a bumpy one.
Shuail was accused being a vestige of the Gaddafi regime, along with a number of other ministers, and demonstrations broke out in front of the General National Council in protest.
And so, along with 27 other ministers, Shuail was referred to the Integrity Commission, a body comprised of legal experts appointed by the previous ruling assembly to study the backgrounds of public officials. Last month Shuail won an appeal clearing him of close ties to Gaddafi’s regime.
Writing By Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Mark Heinrich