One year after uprising, militias sway in Libya

One year after uprising, militias sway in Libya

TRIPOLI
One year after uprising, militias sway in Libya

AFP photo

As Libya on Feb. 17 marked the one-year anniversary of the start of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, hundreds of armed militias were the real power on the ground in the country, and the government that took the longtime strongman’s place was largely impotent, unable to rein in fighters, rebuild decimated institutions or stop widespread corruption.

Flag-waving crowds converging on Martyrs Square in the capital Tripoli and Freedom Square in Benghazi, the cradle of the revolt, had to negotiate extra checkpoints set up by authorities to stop Gadhafi loyalists from disrupting festivities. Spontaneous celebrations began the night of Feb. 16 when men, women and children emerged on the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi and other towns waving flags and chanting. Libya’s new rulers have not organized official celebrations at a national level, as a mark of respect for the thousands of people killed in the conflict that ended with Gadhafi’s capture and killing on Oct. 20, 2011.

Life for many people has improved since the eight-month NATO-backed struggle against Gadhafi and its chaotic aftermath, but security and political woes abound ahead of the June poll. As it tries to build a democratic state, the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) is struggling to impose its authority on a country awash with weapons and to form a functioning national police force and army.

Lack of control

The revolutionary militias contend they are Libya’s heroes, the ones who drove Gadhafi from power and who now keep security in the streets at a time when the police and military are all but nonexistent. They insist they will not give up their weapons to a government that is too weak, too corrupt. The NTC, which officially rules the country, is struggling to incorporate the militias into the military and police, while trying to get the economy back on its feet and reshape government ministries, courts and other institutions hollowed out under Gadhafi. In one sign of lack of control, Finance Minister Hassan Zaklam admitted millions of dollars from the Gadhafi family assets returned to Libya by European countries that were a potential key source of revenue have flowed right back out of Libya, stolen by corrupt officials and smuggled out in suitcases through ports.

Last week, top militia commanders from the western half of the country gathered in Tripoli to form a united front to coordinate their activities and avoid fights. The front mirrors a separate bloc created in the east. The fronts also present a political force to pressure the NTC and the Cabinet it created, headed by Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Keib, signaling they will not lay down their arms. NTC efforts to integrate the revolutionaries have already brought opposition. A newly formed Defense Ministry “Warriors Committee” has so far registered 200,000 revolutionaries, who are given the option to join the army, police and intelligence. “I am fed up,” said the commander of a militia of fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan who control Tripoli’s airport. Al-Mukhtar al-Akhdar says Libya’s politicians unfairly blame the militias for the country’s chaos while doing nothing to bring real change. “We can withdraw our troops in one second [...], but who is going to protect Libya? If they have a national army or police, let them show us. We haven’t seen any so far.”

Libya, Middle East, unrest