TRIPOLI, Libya – The protesters converged on the conference center housing Libya’s newly elected congress, trying to force their way in past startled guards. Mostly young and half of them women in headscarves, they demanded an end to the siege of the town of Bani Walid, where the government was in the midst of an attack to uproot holdouts from Moammar Gadhafi’s former regime.
Police rushed to the scene. But in Libya, the police are actually militias, in this case from the Tripoli neighborhood of Souq al-Jumaa that last year lost several men in a battle with Bani Walid residents.
Instead trying to control the crowd, the “police” dressed in T-shirts and pants of a military uniform exchanged threats with protesters and then mounted a rival demonstration of their own. Soon they were firing their assault rifles in the air to intimidate the protesters.
As tensions soared, a dozen pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and carrying soldiers in newly pressed camouflage uniforms pulled up to parliament, swiveled their guns forward and fired in the air as an apparent crowd-control method.
The deafening noise of a dozen heavy-caliber machine guns sent demonstrators running and filled the upscale neighborhood with the sounds of battle.
Blocks away, shocked bystanders wondered if one year after the civil war ended, Libya had gone back to war.
After a year of turmoil since Gadhafi’s ouster and last month’s killing of the American ambassador, Libyans are disappointed, disillusioned and increasingly angry at their government. They complain that their leaders have not acted forcefully to address the most pressing problems – particularly the free rein of the country’s many militias.
“It’s not going very well partly because we have a minister of defense and minister of interior who were very incompetent and weak – they gave into the militias,” said Guma Gamaty, a politician and outspoken critic of the militias. “The whole process of rebuilding the army and the police has not progressed much at all in the last 10 months. We lost a lot of vital time.”
Last year’s fight that ended in Gadhafi’s ouster and death after 42 years in power was largely carried out by regional militias that amassed weapons. But long after the civil war ended, the militias continue to serve under their own leaders and wield significant power even though they have nominally come under the control of the state’s military and police forces.
The lack of control of the government over the militias it relies on was brought home in the starkest terms on Sept. 11, the day of attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the eastern city where last year’s uprising against Gadhafi began. The Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, one of the biggest militias in Benghazi, is suspected in the assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Before the attack, Ansar al-Shariah had been working with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi, and it had been charged among other things with guarding the hospital.
The killings in Benghazi fueled popular anger against the militias. Just a week after the assault, tens of thousands of Benghazis attacked the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah and another militia in Benghazi and drove them out.
The government took advantage of the public anger. In the days after the attack, authorities carried out high-profile weapon hand-ins in Tripoli and Benghazi and issued ultimatums for all militias to submit entirely to government control.
“We know people are angry with the militias,” said Taher Khalifa, a former computer engineer who is now the head of investigations for the 8th Special Protection Force, a police unit based in the Tripoli district of Souq al-Jumaa that was once a militia. “They don’t want to see weapons everywhere and they want the police to be symbols of the state and wear uniforms,” acknowledged Khalifa, though few of his men wore anything resembling a police uniform.
Gamaty, the politician, was himself kidnapped the night of Oct. 6 by a militia from the western mountain city of Zintan and held for several hours before he was dumped in a field and warned to mute his criticism. He said the government must build up a well-equipped security force that could then be used to subdue the militias if they refused to be disbanded or integrated, much like the army’s quick-reaction force that dispersed the demonstration outside parliament last week.
There are government committees that are supposed to integrate the militias with the regular uniformed police and army. But in actuality, Gamaty said, there has been little progress on that front.
“It’s not easy to inherit a country with no state institutions, with no constitution, no army, no functioning security apparatus,” said Gamaty. “It’s almost like a vacuum.”
Still he and other critics say Libya’s new government hasn’t yet shown the resolve or decisiveness to really tackle the problem. The congress elected in July has yet to even produce a government, much to people’s disappointment and dashing high expectations after Gadhafi was toppled.
“No one in Libya is happy,” complained Jihadeddin al-Salam, a young man sipping espresso with friends outside a cafe in downtown Tripoli. “Everyone has to be in a militia — if you aren’t in a militia you can’t protect your home.”
One year on, the oil-rich country with a population of only about six million is still struggling to overcome the legacy of one of the most erratic leaders of modern times as well as the brutal, eight-month civil war that left the country awash in weapons, militias and very few viable institutions of the state.
Despite widely hailed elections in summer, the new General National Congress has been widely condemned as dysfunctional, engaging in shifting alliances and unable to form a new government.
Many Libyans complain that little has changed in the past year and amid the instability, everyone is holding on to their guns.
“We can’t really discuss differences of opinions when we have weapons because in the end everyone here has a gun, and when they get mad, they might go for their weapons,” said Saleh Sanoussi, a political analyst at Benghazi University. “Freedom with weapons results in chaos,” he added.
“It is a Catch-22,” he said of the militias dilemma. “Without them, there is a danger to security. With them, it is impossible to build an army.”
For the most part, though, the weapons have disappeared from the streets of the capital Tripoli at least and it is now rare to see militias on street corners flaunting their arsenals, like they did before. Instead they are confined to their bases, from where they patrol and keep the peace.
Khalifa, a heavy set man with close-cropped hair dressed in a neat green camouflage uniform, fiddled with his white iPhone in his office as he explained his police investigation unit’s new duties.
He said his unit is essentially the same battalion of close friends and relatives that began the fight in Tripoli against Gadhafi, with a few new additions, and he maintained that they are safeguarding the revolution.
“There is a power stronger than the government and that is the power of the revolutionaries and it is keeping matters on the right track,” he said. “The forces of Zintan, Misrata and Souq al-Jumaa are stronger than the government,” he said referring to the cities and districts with the most powerful militias.
He acknowledged that while nominally his group is under the control of the central government, when the Misrata militias said they needed help in their fight against Bani Walid, Khalifa dispatched units long before the government ordered an attack on the city.
“In cases of national security, we don’t need permission.”
For some Libyans, despite all the obvious problems, there is still a glimmer of optimism.
“We inherited many bad things, but the worst that affects our lives is the corruption, “said Mustafa al-Refai, a 56-year-old running a consultancy company in Tripoli.
Yet lacking some of the impatience of younger Libyans, al-Refai said he believes things are slowly moving in the right direction.
“I am glad I lived to see the change,” he said with a broad smile.